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Here’s Where Beauty Stands in Its Progress Toward Racial Equity

Allison Collins and Alexa Tietjen
·11 min read

It’s time to bring transparency all the way through the corporate structure.

Companies should be planning updates for employees, business partners and customers on the diversity and inclusion commitments that many beauty operations promised last summer.

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In January, WWD Beauty Inc reached out to more than a dozen major beauty companies to track whether internal progress had been made toward diversity. For some, it had: numbers of Black employees inched up at the Estée Lauder Cos. Inc. and E.l.f. Beauty; Ulta Beauty reported 4 percent more employees of color, and Coty Inc. now has a female-majority board. Milk Makeup’s Black workforce is up to 13 percent from 9 percent in June, and Biossance said it has increased its number of Black employees by 40 percent in three months.

Still, progress at many beauty companies remains unclear.

Diversity inside Unilever, Shiseido Americas, Revlon Inc., Huda Beauty and Tatcha remained the same, per company-provided data. The following businesses did not provide WWD Beauty Inc with updated figures: L’Oréal, Procter & Gamble, Sephora, Glossier, Anastasia Beverly Hills, Kylie Cosmetics and Morphe. Both Sephora and Coty said they plan to release updates midyear.

Transparency is crucial in making progress toward diversity and inclusivity, experts said. The process will take much longer than the seven months it has been since many beauty companies revamped efforts following the police killing of George Floyd and the swell of racial justice protests, and it’s important for companies to keep diversity at the top of the priority list.

“I don’t think that you can put a timeline on progress. It has to be a continuous, concerted effort,” said Munroe Bergdorf, the model and activist who joined L’Oréal U.K.’s diversity board in June, three years after the company fired her for speaking out about white supremacy demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va.

“The reality is that it’s not becoming racially progressive, it’s making sure that you represent all kinds of people — and there’s lots of different kinds of people in the world,” Bergdorf continued. “So when you’ve mastered one area, you’ve still got another area to focus on. Instead of looking at a timeline of inclusivity, it has to be a commitment to inclusivity. It needs to be seen as an open dialogue.”

Esi Eggleston Bracey, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Unilever Beauty and Personal Care, North America, said via statement that businesses play a “critical role” in achieving racial parity.

“Racial issues are human rights issues and business has a critical role to play in creating an equitable society which is intolerant of intolerance,” Bracey said. “As a company committed to addressing social inequality as one of the most important issues facing the world, Unilever believes it is our responsibility to take action to create systemic change and address institutionalized racism and social injustice. Businesses are not separate from society, but integral to it, and we can only prosper together if our society and planet are healthy.”

Neal Semel, managing partner at Diversity Matters LLC, said the overall culture needs to undergo a shift toward “‘we do this because it is good for us’” — not “‘because it is good for them.’”

Corporate motivation should not be “to get out of trouble,” but to understand that diversity is critical to a successful and sustainable business, Semel said.

“Don’t do this because it’s altruistic, do it because it’s good for business,” he said, holding up incoming Walgreens chief executive officer Roz Brewer as an example of a leader who acknowledges and improves inequity issues.

“She admits problems, she dialogues with the people who were offended and then she tries to create sustainable longer-term solutions,” Semel said, referencing Brewer’s work at Starbucks, where she led the company through policy changes and racial bias training after two Black men were arrested while waiting in a Philadelphia shop for a business associate.

Companies are often too quick to become defensive when a misstep occurs, Semel said. “The idea that apologizing somehow is an admission of guilt, we’ve got to get better at admitting when we do something wrong just as a step toward healing. You can’t fix a problem if you don’t call it a problem.

“Starbucks didn’t go out of business,” he added.

Conversations about racial parity are shifting, as companies and consumers see the value in speaking transparently about the topic. Those conversations are taking place publicly on social media platforms and privately, such as in retailer-to-brand founder discussions.

Ron Robinson, the founder of vitamin-C-focused skin care line BeautyStat, said he has received support from new retail partners Nordstrom Inc., Neiman Marcus Group and Saks Fifth Avenue, and that each has offered free email placements or Robinson’s participation in live, virtual events for Black History Month. The retailers have continued communicating with him about how they plan to support the Black community.

“Some retailers do have emails that go out to partners updating them on what’s going on,” Robinson said. “I’d love to have updates in terms of what they’ve done to show their commitment to the cause and the movement.”

Robinson suggested retailers communicate with vendor partners and with the press at regular intervals. “That’s the way I’d like to hear about what changes they’ve made,” he said.

Ulta publicly unveiled a plan in February that detailed intentions to double the amount of Black-owned brands in its assortment, pledging $4 million in marketing support. The company also established a Diverse Leaders Program to give future leaders in the organization CEO and executive mentorship, and appointed activist, actor and Pattern Beauty founder and CEO Tracee Ellis Ross as diversity and inclusion adviser.

“It’s our responsibility that we continue to drive this forward,” said Dave Kimbell, Ulta’s president and chief merchandising and marketing officer. Doubling its assortment of Black-owned brands would account for about 4 percent of Ulta’s overall brand mix. Kimbell said the company plans to continue efforts to diversify its offerings in the coming years and “will update periodically as we move forward and make progress or don’t.”

“We’re going to hold ourselves accountable,” Kimbell said.

Other retailers, including Sephora and Macy’s Inc., have committed to Aurora James’ 15 Percent Pledge, which works with organizations to add Black-owned brands to their shelves and to build up a business ecosystem that supports Black-owned companies.

In its “Racial Bias in Retail” study, published in January, Sephora said it would double its assortment of Black-owned brands — it stocks 10 of 327 total brands — by the end of 2021. Sephora revealed this week the participants for its Accelerate program, which, as of last year, is focused solely on founders of color. Nancy Twine of Briogeo and Vicky Tsai of Tatcha will advise the incoming eight program participants.

Along with other in-store and internal action items, Sephora said it would establish an inclusivity-based performance metric for employees and expand recruitment and career advancement efforts for people of color in its workforce.

Supporting businesses and potential employees early on is key, according to Semel, who said companies’ mentoring initiatives should be applauded and that they are important to talent retention.

K-beauty business Glow Recipe set up a mentoring program last year that has worked with 54 Thrones, Skin Gourmet and Hama Beauty on scaling their businesses. For the next few months, Glow Recipe’s team will work with Coup de Coiff, Stay Fresh and YGV Collective.

Each mentoring round is tailored to what the mentee needs, Christine Chang and Sarah Lee, Glow Recipe cofounders, said. “A lot of times it’s digital expertise, knowledge about digital ad scaling, very often operations, how to talk to retailers and negotiate and partner the right way,” Chang said.

The company also created a diversity advisory board that includes Mi-Anne Chan, Elyse Love, Lauren Elyse, Aysha Harun and Thatiana Diaz. “It was really about thinking through having different voices and experts from different fields weigh on topics that impact the company and the decisions we make as a business long term,” Chang said.

Companies have also ramped up internal mentoring.

Fabrizio Freda, president and CEO of the Estée Lauder Cos., said the company has created a new leadership development program meant to ensure Black employees have support and advocacy from senior executives, as well as mentorship and career development opportunities.

In June, Lauder established a five-year plan to reach U.S. population parity — around 13 percent — for Black employees across all levels of the business, and that it would double sourcing from Black-owned businesses over the next three years, and work more closely with Noble, its Black employee resource group.

“Last year, we formed a racial equality steering committee,” said Tracey Travis, executive vice president and chief financial officer at Lauder. She is on that committee, which she said leads progress against Lauder’s diversity initiatives. The company also had “greater transparency on our inclusion and diversity information” in its latest ESG report, Travis said. “The employee response is very encouraged,” she said.

Lauder employs 1.4 percent more Black employees now than it did in June, according to a company report from November. Black employees make up 5.9 percent of Lauder’s corporate base, 16.4 percent of its retail base and 15.3 percent of its manufacturing and distribution base. Black employees hold nearly 4 percent of vice president-level positions, 4 percent of director and executive director positions and 6.9 percent of manager-level positions and below in corporate. Nearly 20 percent of Lauder’s board are people of color.

External mentorship can be integral to the trajectory of aspiring brand founders, though it is not a singular solution, said Sharon Chuter, founder of Uoma Beauty and Pull Up For Change.

“Black founders are very often over-mentored and underinvested,” Chuter told reporters in a recent Zoom conference unveiling her Make It Black campaign.

“Everybody has a mentorship program for Black founders,” she said. “Has anybody ever thought about what happens to these people when they come out of the mentorship program? I can tell you: nothing.”

Chuter’s campaign pledges to deploy between $25,000 and $100,000 to Black brand founders via live pitch contests. The effort is meant to combat the industry-wide lack of investment in Black-owned businesses.

Cara Sabin, CEO of Sundial Brands, has spoken with WWD about the notion of community commerce and SheaMoisture’s financial investments in Black women.

“At SheaMoisture, we believe the path to true equality is through economic equity. That’s why we are so focused on centering entrepreneurs, and in particular, women of color and Black female entrepreneurs,” Sabin said at WWD’s Virtual Beauty Summit.

Similar to its “It Comes Naturally” campaign for Black women, SheaMoisture pledged this week $1 million worth of investments in Black men, along with a docuseries and collection of hair and body products.

The new U.S. presidential administration’s focus on unity and healing has ignited hope among brands and consumers that racial justice will be a priority. Already, President Biden has signed executive orders underscoring his commitment to equity, which could trickle down to the corporate world, Semel said.

Accountability is key, especially as corporations may have been sidetracked by the ongoing pandemic, the mob that stormed the capitol and the election. Semel said he’s hearing fewer conversations in the business community about diversity, but is seeing more job listings for diversity-related executives.

“I’m not seeing a whole lot of forward movement,” Semel said. “A lot of organizations reacted to [Black Lives Matter] and the protests, and they needed to and that’s good. But at the same time, that died down in light of the election and COVID-19, and I’m feeling like a lot of organizations are just moving on.”

Beauty companies should aim for granularity and think through all aspects of their business, including the “far-reaching tentacles” — all the way through the supply chain — he said, and suggested companies be willing to provide updates — even if not all updates are good updates.

“I’m a big believer in transparency — that’s the right approach. At the same time, I’m concerned with how that gets used in the public sphere,” Semel said, referencing cancel culture. “That environment is not inviting for me to share my less-than-glorious numbers if it’s going to be used against me. We’ve got to start rewarding the transparency.”

As transparency talks continue, all parties — brands, consumers and the media — should remain “solution-based, rather than outrage- and scandal-based,” said Bergdorf.

“The reality is that we’re all moving on different timelines and people do get things wrong,” she said. “Some people do things that are offensive, but the most important thing is that we’re talking about it with a view to change and progress. If we’re caught up on people not getting things right — rather than people getting things wrong and helping them get it right — we’re going to be stuck in a circle of clickbait and outrage. It’s important that we work together, and that brands listen to the people but also that people listen to the brands and allow them the chance to grow and change.”

For more from WWD.com, see:

Beauty’s Age of Accountability

Racism at Retail: Beauty Segment Needs to Revamp, and Fast

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