Cindy Eckert, 44
Thinking pink is a way of life for Cindy Whitehead. The spirited pharma-tech entrepreneur, known for her liberal use of the color pink and for the $1B sale of her female sexual health company, is laser-focused on helping female entrepreneurs flourish. In 2016, she founded The Pink Ceiling, an innovative incubator which looks to build female-lead brands into success stories. “For those who thought I couldn’t do it,” says Whitehead, “I’d say the same thing to them today that I said then….watch me.”
1. What made you choose this career path? What has been your greatest achievement?
Maybe entrepreneurship chose me? I most certainly didn’t fit in conventional corporate environments and was exasperated with the homogeneity and unwritten rules of how things get done. I recognized that ownership was my path to freedom; freedom to do things on my own terms, freedom to surround myself with other misfits who wanted to change how things get done and financial freedom.
"After building and selling two businesses, my greatest accomplishment is the ripple effect of ownership. I love watching the power that ownership has given to my employees to do their best work, to follow their passions and to pay it forward."
After building and selling two businesses, my greatest accomplishment is the ripple effect of ownership. I love watching the power that ownership has given to my employees to do their best work, to follow their passions and to pay it forward. That is the very basis of what I do today at The Pink Ceiling/Pinkubator--propel power through ownership. I’m going to help other female-focused businesses to have outcomes like mine and delight in watching each of their ripple effects.
2. What’s the biggest criticism/stereotype/judgement you’ve faced in your career?
I was told I was too Pink to be Boss. Now I have lipstick in that custom shade.
"I was told I was too Pink to be Boss. Now I have lipstick in that custom shade."
3. What was the hardest part of overcoming this negativity? Do you have an anecdote you can share?
If you were to introduce an audience to a pharmaceutical CEO who has built and sold two businesses, the last for $1B, do you think they’d ever expect me to walk onto stage? Never. Now picture that for every major career milestone of my life! Bottom line, I am unexpected; I am pink in a sea of gray and blue suits. The fact that I don’t fit ensures that I will be underestimated, and the fun is letting that reality fuel me. I learned a long time ago to not allow underestimation to fill me with self doubt, but rather to harness it for the element of surprise when I show up and kill with competence.
4. How did you #SWAAYthenarrative? What was the reaction by those who told you you “couldn’t” do it?
I went right toward it.
With stereotypes you have two choices; you can rail against them to prove they are incorrect or you can go directly toward them since it’s obviously the conversation we need to be having. I show up in blazing hot pink. Always. I like pink and no one is going to take that away from me. When people called my medication the “little pink pill” the only thing missing was the dismissive pat on the shoulder.
So, I went to FDA meetings in hot pink since it was the dismissiveness of women’s sexual health that needed discussing. Pink to me is about owning it as a woman - and all you uniquely have to offer. For those who thought I couldn’t do it, I’d say the same thing to them today that I said then….watch me.
5. What’s your number one piece of advice to women discouraged by preconceived notions and society’s limitations?
I feel strongly that society is full of “unwritten rules” that hold women back. If a ‘rule' exists for absolutely no good reason at all, break it. Let the injustice ignite you.
In many ways I am a shining example of the American Dream. I was born in Hungary during the Communist era, and my family fled to Israel before coming to the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and safety. When we arrived, I was just a young, shy girl who couldn't speak English. After my childhood in Hungary, New York City was a marvel; I couldn't believe that such a lively, rich place existed. Even a simple thing like going to the market and seeing all the bright, colorful produce and having so many choices was new to me. I'll never take that for granted. I think it's where my love affair with color truly began.
One thing I had was a strong work ethic. I worked hard in school, to learn English, and at jobs including my first job at Dairy Queen -- which I loved! Ice cream is easily my favorite food. From there, I moved into the garment district where my brother-in-law's family had a business. During this time, I was able to see how a business was run and began to hone in on my eye for aesthetics and willingness to work hard at any task I was given.
Eventually, my brother-in-law bought a dental supply company in Los Angeles and asked me to join him. LA, a place with 365-days of sunshine. How could I say no? The company started as Odontorium Products Inc. During the acrylic movement of the 1980s, we realized that nail technicians were buying our product, and that the same components used for dentures were used for artificial nails. We saw a potential opening in the market, and we seized it. OPI began dropping off the "rubber band special" at every salon on Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles. A jar of powder, liquid and primer – rubber-banded together – became the OPI Traditional Acrylic System and was a huge hit, giving OPI its start in the professional nail industry. It was 1981 when OPI first opened its doors. I couldn't have predicted our success, but I knew that hard work and faith in myself would be key in transforming a new business into a company with global reach.
When we started OPI, what we were doing was something new. Before OPI came on the scene, the generic, utilitarian nail polish names already on the market – like Red No. 4, Pink No. 2 – were completely forgettable. We rebranded the category with catchy names that we knew women could relate to and would remember. The industry was stale and boring, so we made it more fun and sexy. We started creating color collections. I carefully developed 30 groundbreaking colors for the debut collection -- many of which are still beloved bestsellers today, including Malaga Wine, Alpine Snow and Kyoto Pearl.
There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does.
With deep roots in Tinseltown, we eventually started collaborating with Hollywood. Our decision to collaborate with the entertainment industry also propelled OPI forward in another way, ultimately leading us to finding a way to connect with women beyond the world of beauty, relating our products to the beverages they drink, the cars they drive, the movies they watch, the clothes they wear – even the shade they use to paint their living room walls! There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does. It also propelled my growth as a businessperson forward. I found myself sitting in meetings with executives from some of the top companies in the world. I didn't have a fancy presentation. I didn't have a Harvard business degree. I realized that what I had was passion. I had a passion for what we were doing, and I had my own unique story that no one else could replicate.
Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today
Bit by bit, I grew up with the business. Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today -- an author, public speaker, and co-founder of OPI, the world's #1 professional nail brand.
I learned quickly that one can be an expert at many things, but not everything. Running a business is very hard work. Luckily, I had someone I could collaborate with who brought something new to the table and complemented my talents, my brother-in-law George Schaeffer. My business "superpower," or the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently, kept me ahead of trends and competition.
Another key to my success in building this brand and in growing in business was being authentic. Authenticity is so important to brands and maybe even more so now in the time of social media when you can speak directly to your consumers. I realized even then that I could only be me. I was a woman who knew what I wanted. I looked at my mother and daughter and wanted to create products that would excite and empower them.
There's often an expectation placed on women in charge that they need to be cutthroat to be competitive, but that's not true. Rather than focusing on my gender or any implied limitations I might bring to the job as a female and a mother, I always focused instead on my vision. I deliberately fostered an environment at OPI filled with warmth. After all, at the end of the day, your organization is only as good as its people. I've always found that being nice, being humble, and listening to others has served me well. Instead of pushing others down to get to the top, inspire them and bring them along on the journey.
You can read more about my personal and professional journey in my new memoir out now, I'm Not Really a Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time.