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The Estée Lauder Cos.’ Susan Akkad on Gaining Cultural Capital

The cultural savant parlays her passion for culture into all consumer touchpoints with product.

Susan Akkad may describe her career as a “happy beauty accident,” but she’s worked across most sectors in the industry.

“I started in the PR department of the Estée Lauder Cos. back when the company was privately held and only had four brands,” she said. “I always really loved style and beauty, and those were the days when you were young, you really put together your look and you got so much credit for your creativity.”

After starting her career with one of beauty’s biggest manufacturers, where she now serves as senior vice president of local and cultural innovation, she’s found a way to tie in her passion across every aspect of brand and product ideation.

“I was so shocked, amazed and delighted that the whole industry was connected to the things that I studied in school — women’s empowerment, culture and agency,” she said. “I came to the PR department because I thought maybe I would want to be a journalist.”

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Akkad is the senior vice president of local and cultural innovation, a role that “didn’t exist” back when her career began. Her cultural wherewithal is what led her to the position. “I was pulled aside and asked to help the organization, brand by brand, be more relevant to non-white consumers,” she said. “It just so happened that a lot of the business experiences and contacts and market expertise I had developed set me up very well for this role. I always put my passion for beauty and culture first, and that led me in the right business direction.”

Akkad’s previous jobs included a handful of brand roles, with a focus on marketing. “I report to our executive vice president of research and development, product innovation and packaging innovation. It looks a little odd on the outside because I’m a marketer, but it’s this fabulous fit because I drive growth with consumers of color, and I’ve taken on ageless consumers as well. I’m able to impact relevancy opportunities, customization of concepts and claims in partnership with our research and development scientists and formulators,” she said.

“It’s a dream job because I’m able to see something through from the first presentation of a scientist, and thinking how that might apply to skin or cultures of color, and when it comes to the brand, figuring out that special brand sauce,” Akkad continued. “I’m impacting every stage, which is a little bit unusual, but that’s one of the wonderful aspects of working in the innovation department.”

Advocating for underrepresented voices is her main imperative, both inside the organization and out. “There’s a lot happening within the overall company that really demonstrates the power of women’s voices. One of the things that’s very important and special to me is that all of our research and development innovation centers are run by women,” she said. “I spend a lot of time on how we can be more relevant for consumers of color and our priority emerging markets, which are predominantly women of color in Africa, India and Malaysia. That’s where you see the difference in the role of beauty for women.”

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