The minute you meet Laura Geller it is easy to see why she has been able to sell hundreds of millions in beauty products, reaching countless women across the world over the QVC airwaves.
With her conversational New York accent, bubbly personality and a smile that seems to exist permanently on her face, Geller is a beauty rule breaker who introduced now cult categories, like primer and baked highlighters to the market. To be sure, another part of Geller's modern legacy is her enduring television presence, as she has been featured on the direct sales network for more than 20 years. Geller, also a single mother, is the longest standing beauty founder on QVC, known for her lighthearted, uncomplicated approach to makeup and dedication to teaching women how to do their own makeup.
“People will often say I'm a 40 year overnight success," Geller tells SWAAY. “I just knew that for me beauty was a business I wanted to be in. I didn't know if it meant I would stay a makeup artist for a zillion years, which I was, or if it would mean owning my own line of cosmetics. My path came about by seeing need and following that venture. Every time an opportunity opened up, every time I saw a niche that I could follow I walked through that door. I never got comfortable. I never got stable and thought; 'This is it. I made it. I'm done.'"
“Laura Geller Beauty is a brand that is founded on education. It's often said about me that people identify with me. People who don't know makeup, or are afraid of makeup don't feel threatened when they work with me."
The numbers speak for themselves; Laura Geller Beauty is currently available in more than 1,200 points of global distribution. One of Geller's groundbreaking primers called Spackle is sold every 90 seconds, while one of her Baked in Italy bronzing and highlighting powders is sold every 48 seconds. When Geller introduced her Baked Gelato Swirl Illuminator in Gilded Honey, the entire inventory sold out just one week after launching.
“Had I known them I was starting a whole category that would become a staple in every woman's handbag, I would have done something more important to protect that," says Geller of Spackle's success. "But I am so proud of it. It makes us unique and iconic. And as [far as] Baked, it's an artisanal way of baking products with all natural pigments. It has very few ingredients because it's good for your skin."
Clearly, the magic Laura Geller formula is one that takes the consumer deeply into consideration, and it has paid off.
“My inspiration has always been the customer. I always say it's not just good enough to create a product. The product has to not just touch her, but she has to have a way to connect with you. She has to feel like there's somebody behind this brand. If it's not the founder, it has to be somebody who cares."
It is apparent that Geller's relationship with QVC has been a win-win for both parties. For Geller, QVC provided a platform to reach millions of women with her story, and for the television network, it allows them to continue their mission of showcasing brand founders who speak directly to the consumer.
“QVC dreams to continue to have founders of their own businesses out there really sharing their mission, and that's generally what's been the perfect marriage and success for the QVC platform," says Geller. “We are the longest standing color brand today at QVC. I am very honored that QVC gave me a platform when I wasn't known. They helped me to build my brand recognition."
“It was really all about supply and demand. As the brand grew, customers demanded more and more product, and thus I grew the product line."
"When I get on QVC I'm a teacher. So, it's not just the teaching aspect, but then we went on to have a mission to give people products that's different and unique."
Geller, who opened her first store in 1993 says her company was originally completely self-funded. Geller said rather than seeking investors she borrowed capital from friends and family who believed in her mission, and she poured her own money into the business. Although Geller says she didn't have the business acumen, she was able to learn how to navigate her company's growth by bringing in others.
“When I started I was a working makeup artist so I didn't know the path," says Geller. “It was just me, myself and I. I didn't have the business acumen. If I could go back and talk to my younger self I would say there comes a point when you realize you can't do it all yourself. You have to find a way to trust and engage people who might know a little more than you. You can't get to where you want to get when you're doing everything."
To wit, in 2012, Geller decided to bring on a private equity investor, selling a majority stake of her company to Tengram Capital Partners, a firm that focuses on branded consumer and retail businesses. Although numbers were not disclosed, industry sources reported Tengram typically spends between $15 million and $40 million on each acquisition. Just last year, newly-formed Glanasol (co-founded by former Revlon President and CEO Alan Ennis and private equity firm Warburg Pincus) acquired Laura Geller in its first round of acquisitions, along with indie brands, Julep and Clark's Botanicals.“[Sometimes} you're better off being a lesser percentage and having somebody with an interest in the business and having some balance in your life," says Geller, who recently spoke on a panel at the White House on entrepreneurship, and has served as a participant in the FounderMade Challenge. “As I kept growing, I realized I needed more support to help me run the business. That's why a strong, supportive team is so key to growing a brand."
“When I launched Laura Geller New York, there weren't many brands educating women on makeup and how to use it. QVC gave me the platform to fill that white space and connect to customers in a different way."
For Geller, who is focused on future expansion in international markets, says part of her brand philosophy is to keep evolving as the customer does.
“We keep breaking ground; we listen," says Geller. Thank god for social media today. It's a platform that has helped me build my product range based on customer need and desire, so everything we are doing is to fulfill the need of the customer, and to make makeup fun."
“I am so not done yet," says Geller. “I think the next phase for this brand is to continue not just to grow in US but internationally too. You are going to see a lot more of retail expansion a lot of great things. Also, we have an amazing new mascara launching this spring that will show you how to be the boss of your lashes. We also have a new hydrating foundation that literally feels like a splash of water, but with coverage! Plus more for lips and eyes as well."
When asked what she learned throughout her journey to beauty founder stardom, Geller says there are countless lessons, but her biggest is to keep your brand identity regardless of what happens.
"Be true to yourself and true to your brand heritage," says Geller. "You don't always have to do what others are doing. Do what is best for your brand. And of course, it's so important to stay on top of global trends and growing social media presence."
Women have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."