Vasiliki Petrou, Executive Vice President and Group Chief Executive Officer of Unilever Prestige, has built a portfolio of excellence with the belief that success is built by visionary founders who can harness the power of an authentic purpose-driven strategy.
The entrepreneurial mindset, she says, “is about passion and purpose, having a big vision for what the future of a space looks like.” While Unilever Prestige lives within the beauty industry, it is a sentiment that goes beyond the beauty industry – especially as new companies emerge with missions to help rebuild the retail industry at large after a global pandemic.
As the Unilever Prestige x WWD Project Connect initiative applications come to a close, Vasiliki Petrou talks to WWD about what drives the entrepreneurial mindset, principles that drive success and the importance of being a purpose-driven brand.
WWD: As you consider the founder-led brands in the Unilever Prestige portfolio, what are some of the common traits among the founders?
Vasiliki Petrou: Founders in the Prestige Portfolio have a clear passion to tackle a mission bigger than life. With this passion comes expertise and an uncompromising willingness to pursue excellence and purpose across the business, with everything from formula selection and manufacturing to packaging and consumer marketing. Through their own purpose and innovation every founder has brought a new business model to the table.
They have all approached the market in a different way and you know when they have something special because you can feel the integrity of what was built and the vision and story is something you want to be a part of.
WWD: What makes a purpose-driven brand stand out from other brands in the market?
V.P.: When a brand is purpose-driven, it’s not about just making and marketing a product. They exist to share their passion with the world and make a positive impact on people’s lives. A truly purpose-driven brand and founder knows how to use business to raise awareness of issues and mobilize people around impact.
Authentic impact that is tied to a brand’s mission is the most powerful. A good example of this is Jane Wurwand, co-founder of Dermalogica, who treated their consumer base as a ‘tribe,’ putting their skin therapists first in every business decision and launching the initiative FITE to empower women around the world. Jane shares, “as a founder, your bigger purpose and benefit to others must be baked into every part of the business. At Dermalogica we made it part of our business model to help professional skin therapists become educated, successful and financially independent, so the success of our own business was amplified by the success of our tribe.”
Other founders in the portfolio like Carisa Janes of Hourglass, an advocate for the non-human rights of animals, continues to innovate with purpose and leverages their vegan cosmetic line to raise awareness of cruelty-free production. Hourglass recently launched a vegan alternative to red colorants to formulate products in a more sustainable way.
WWD: How would you describe an entrepreneurial mindset, and why is it important that Unilever Prestige maintain that POV with the brand?
V.P.: An entrepreneurial mindset is about passion and purpose, having a big vision for what the future of a space looks like and finding strategic ways to make that happen. Then it’s how you ride that wave ahead of others in a way that stays authentic to your mission and adds value for your consumers.
I love seeing people and ideas that are brave – entrepreneurs who challenge the norms and make you look at something completely different. I understand and want to support the ethos of entrepreneurship, the flow of ideas, creativity and communities the brands have nurtured over the years. It is important to protect that authenticity and point of view because after all, that’s the most important asset we invest in.
WWD: How do you grow a founder-led brand, yet maintain the attributes and principles that made it successful from an entrepreneurial perspective?
V.P.: You have to create an environment of mutual respect where the brands still feel like themselves – we aren’t here to change the products, titles or formulations, we want to help modernize the systems with resources that can scale the company to reach its highest potential. Unilever Prestige acquisitions are now recognized as best in class examples of a company that knows how to acquire and grow vs. acquire and crash.
I believe when you acquire a company you have a moral responsibility to do what you promised to the founder – they have grown the company as a labor of life and now you have to deliver against that promise.
Leading the portfolio and teams I try to inspire and push them to think big while still nurturing founders, letting them operate as themselves to maintain their authenticity and personality and ethos. I’m at my happiest when a person on my team says they broke a milestone, found new ground whether on social commerce, new ways to drive conversion, traffic to the websites, engage with consumers or new experiences that are delighting people in multiple ways. I am not going to tell them how to reach that milestone, the entrepreneurial mindset is the driving force for innovation.
WWD: How would you describe your path to success, and what role did having an entrepreneurial mindset play?
V.P.: I have built my career on celebrating entrepreneurs that do things differently, raising the profile of big ideas by supporting brands that I think can have the power to create significant change. I love bringing new thinking to the table, not to rehash what has been done already or what others have been doing. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable but my philosophy is when you’re uncomfortable you grow and when you’re comfortable you are not pushing or moving the needle.
With an entrepreneurial ethos I have always been able to more easily see the convergent spaces – looking at the market, where things are going, what are the adjacent spaces that will have true impact on the consumers life. I saw a blank space where innovation through biotech, purpose and wellness intersected, felt the industry moving before it did and knew that I wanted to act on it. Then was able to recognize the brands that have the potential to grow in the space or the visionary founders that are already playing in that space. It is important to always think big and future-forward, when you think big the solutions will become apparent because the whole ecosystem moves to find solutions to a big thought, if you think small it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.