Beauty


In a recent speech, IT Cosmetics founder and CEO Jamie Kern Lima challenged her peers in the cosmetics business to rethink the types of images they use in their ad campaigns — a mission to which she’s been dedicated since an encounter seven years ago opened her eyes to her industry’s often-narrow definition of beauty. Here, she reveals how that experience inspired her to think outside the box as she built her company — and why the industry still has a long way to go.

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In 2008 I was running my company, IT Cosmetics, out of my living room and struggling to get it off the ground. Everywhere I turned, I heard the word “no” — no from every retailer, no from just about everybody. I didn’t know how my company would stay alive.

A defining moment happened two years later. I landed a meeting with a potential investor, who was a big deal in private equity. But after a lot of meetings he, too, passed on investing. I asked why and will never forget his response.

“I am just not sure women would buy makeup from someone who looks like you with your body and weight,” he said. I looked at him in shock — I was at a loss for words at first, but instantly felt something deep down inside me that said, “No. He is wrong.”

In that moment, I made it my mission to help expand society’s definition of “beautiful” beyond youthful-looking and slender with clear skin. Steve Jobs once said, “The people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.” I knew that I not only had to fight for change head on, I also had to succeed — so other beauty companies would also be inspired think differently. And although the industry has made progress since my meeting with that investor seven years ago, it still has a long way to go.


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My mission required taking big risks. The first one came during our live launch on QVC in September 2010, months after I met with the investor. QVC was at a CEW Beauty Awards demo event, tried our concealer, loved it, and decided to put us on air. Before the launch, I sought advice from outside experts, who said I needed to use models who looked “aspirational,” which meant youthful with flawless skin. But my gut told me women were tired of buying products from ads and commercials featuring women who didn’t look like them.

Everything was on the line. We had one chance to go on QVC and either hit our goal — to sell 6,400 concealers in 10 minutes — or never come back. So I removed my makeup and revealed my bright-red rosacea in the hopes of proving, on live TV, that our products actually worked. The models I cast — Helen, who is now 73; Alicia, who is African-American and had cystic acne; and Desiree, with dark circles — did the same.

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At the time, few companies were using real models in this way. But in those 10 minutes, we bared our faces, the “sold out” sign went up, and I cried. I cried not only because my company was going to stay alive, but also because real women let their voices be heard.

That experience inspired me to think outside the box as I grew my company. We used real women and before-and-after shots, even though many retailers said that approach wouldn’t look luxury enough. Today, I smile when I see stores use non-models and before-and-after images, because I believe that most beauty brands bought into the assumption that using unattainable or “aspirational” images sold product.

In September 2016, L’Oréal bought IT Cosmetics, its largest acquisition in eight years, and I became the first woman in L’Oréal’s history to hold a CEO title. When that happened, I received an e-mail from the investor who had passed on IT Cosmetics due to my weight. “Congratulations on your deal with L’Oréal,” it read. “I was wrong.” He added that he regretted his decision not to invest in my company.

Reading his e-mail felt good for a moment, but it was a reminder that he, too, had bought into the same definition of beauty that we’ve been seeing our whole lives. It also reminded me that the industry still has a lot of work to do. Right now, at IT Cosmetics, our top priority is to continue expanding our shade ranges and further our commitment to showing images of real women of all ages, skin tones, shapes, and sizes. If every beauty company follows suit, it will be life-changing for people around the world.

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In hopes of continuing to effect that change, I recently had the honor of receiving the CEW Achiever Award, one of the highest accolades in the beauty industry. But instead of giving a traditional speech, I took a risk — again. As I accepted the award, I stood in front of the audience, filled with more than 1,000 of the world’s top beauty executives, and spoke out on behalf of women everywhere, with a call to action.

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Channeling every ounce of fearlessness I have, I challenged each of them to answer these questions honestly: “Have the ad campaigns and images of models and of beauty that your brand uses ever made you feel insecure? How did the images you see of beauty impact you as a little girl? How did they impact your mothers, your sisters, and how will they impact your daughters? Each of you sitting in this room right now has the power to make the decisions to change this for billions of girls and women globally. What will you do, with the power that is you?”

As I looked into the audience, I saw very mixed reactions. Some women were in tears — nodding, clapping, and cheering — while other executives looked shocked, appearing to disapprove of me. But I knew in my gut I had done the right thing, and although I was shaking, I felt fearless because I was using my power for good.

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I was prompted to ask those questions because Oprah once asked at one of her “Live Your Best Life” events: “What will you do, with the energy that is you?” — a question that has greatly impacted my life. I want to answer that question with a challenge to keep changing the conversation of what is beautiful. My parting words? No matter what your dreams are, you have the power to listen to your intuition and to keep your faith bigger than your fear. You have the power to create the life you want, to inspire others, and to change the world.



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