9 Successful Women on How They Got Their Start in Beauty

Updated 11/28/19

Artem Varnitsin / EyeEm / Getty Images

Anyone who works in the beauty industry will tell you that it’s an inviting, inspiring place, full of empowering women, evolving ideas, and the occasional (OK, constant) heated discussion about the merits of one holy-grail beauty product over another (seriously, though, don’t ever knock our Tatcha Camellia Cleansing Oil, $48).

Since we’re constantly interacting with and surrounded by such strong (and beauty-obsessed) women, we thought it’d be interesting to take a peek at their past—namely, the first jobs they ever had that paved the path to where they are now. Steve Jobs once said that the journey is the destination—and these stories are proof that the first step is often where you learn the most.

From beauty company founders and celebrity makeup artists to VPs at some major beauty brands, keep scrolling to see how nine successful women first got their start in beauty. There’s a lot of wisdom ahead, so we recommend settling in. We promise it’s worth it.

Annie Tevelin: Founder, SkinOwl

Foot in the door: “I moved to Los Angeles to work in the music video and commercial world and had a lot of exposure to makeup artists while on set. I was intrigued and decided to take a part-time job behind the counter with Lancôme. I worked for Lancôme for three years, and it was there that I realized the power of skincare. I was immediately fascinated by products and ingredients and learned so much from that experience—from how to manage a team to how to make the customer's experience memorable and positive. Now, as a business owner myself, I realize how much that job prepared me for where I am right now.”

Number one lesson learned: “I learned the importance of building a strong team and understanding people as a whole. Working behind the counter for a beauty company requires a lot of energy, understanding, and patience. If you don't like people, you won't get very far in that line of work. I learned so much about people just from asking about their skin or what lipstick shade they were looking for. At the end of the day, if you understand people and their myriad of personalities, you can earn their trust. Once you earn trust, the sky’s the limit.”

Best career advice: “Coming from the Washington, D.C., where everyone has ‘real’ jobs, the beauty industry always seemed as daunting as it was exciting. I knew it was the industry for me, but it also seemed impossible to find work that could sustain me over time. The best thing I ever did was work part-time in the industry. I worked weekends and nights to feel out whether I liked the industry at all. I didn't give up my full-time job until I realized I wanted to give it a real go. I also didn't shy away from working for free for people. Find a makeup artist or a hairstylist or a beauty exec and ask if you can assist them for free. Everyone needs help in some way, and they'll remember the work you did down the line when they are in a position to hire someone for pay.”

Kristin Breen: VP Beauty and Health Media Relations, Alison Brod PR

Foot in the door: “I got my foot in the door in the beauty industry in a more roundabout way. I was convinced that I wanted to be in fashion PR after college and spent weeks researching firms and fashion houses from my temporary admin assistant job. At the time, PR contacts were included in the fashion week schedule on the official website. I went down the list one by one and faxed and emailed my résumé to every name I could find. From there, I called and followed up repeatedly until I had a few interviews lined up. One firm didn’t have any openings, so I volunteered to intern for them during fashion week. I was able to help with the Nanette Lepore show, and I thought I had died and gone to heaven. From there, I kept reaching out and learned that there was a beauty opening at Alison Brod Public Relations. I figured I would go in for the interview and push my fashion case. The woman interviewing me (my boss still to this day!) was blunt and told me that while there weren’t any fashion openings open, I really didn’t want to work in fashion anyway. She said I was made for the beauty side. And she was right.”

Number one lesson learned: “Your contacts are everything. Build relationships with print editors, broadcast producers, and digital writers from the start of your career. Care about their lives and what they like to do outside of work—that kind of attention to detail is so appreciated and goes a long way when you need to ask them for help and get relevant feedback for clients. I am particularly close with a group of editors that I reached out to blindly early in my career—and now we are all on a daily chain together and we support one another in both our personal and professional lives. It helps to make work fun, too.”

Best career advice: “Be persistent and use your resources. If you are going in for an interview somewhere, research the company, look at their social media channels and be educated as to what the company does and how they do it so you can reference it in the meeting. Don’t be fake, though—it won’t get you anywhere when it’s obvious you don’t know what you’re talking about. For example, if a president of a firm loves New Orleans jazz and funk bands (ahem, Alison Brod), and you have a cool tidbit to share, share it! A lot of young women are looking to get into this industry, so think smart and find a way to stand out from the rest.”

Julie Schott: Co-Founder, Starface

Foot in the door: “I studied creative writing at Pratt, which meant that internships were available year-round, not just during the summer. So my first real internship was at Elle Accessories, and OMG I worshipped the editors there. There was one who used to wear a fur inside and drink champagne at her desk. When the semester was over, I asked to spend the next one at Elle, and on my first day there was no room in the fashion closet, so I moved to the beauty closet to work for genius beauty director Emily Dougherty (who gave me my break in print once I graduated).”

Number one lesson learned: “Just say yes.”

Best career advice: “Don’t wait for an opportunity; make your own. I love finding a YouTube makeup page or Snapchat that I’ve never seen before. Great work won’t go unnoticed for long.”

Jessica Richards: Founder, Shen Beauty

Foot in the door: "My route of ending up in the beauty industry is probably much different than most. My background is in fashion, and after getting pregnant with my first son, I decided I was going to be a stay-home mom. That didn’t last long, as I had a broken out and realized there were no great beauty shops … so [I] decided I would open one. I am beauty obsessed, so that helped, but really just research, determination, and a lot of passion got me to where I am."

Number one lesson learned: "I think the most important thing I’ve learned in working in any business period is work hard and stay humble. For my beauty store, though, it is to sell what I truly love. People buy from people, so I know if it’s in my store, I stand behind it. Just because the product has a big name doesn’t mean it’s right for Shen or my customer."

Best career advice: "I think for any job, you need to find out what it is you are passionate about and then be the best you can be. Work hard and stay humble—and just remember the most successful people work 24 hours a day. Nothing comes easy, and nothing is handed to you. Sometimes being in the right place at the right time can help, but if you can’t deliver, then it doesn’t matter."

Joan Malloy: President/CEO, Alterna Haircare

Foot in the door: “When I was working as a junior marketer fresh out of college at ITT, a Fortune 500 company, I was selling on the floor at Bloomingdale’s when their GMM took notice of me. He was impressed by my selling skills and the ease with which I talked to customers and approached me about working directly for Bloomingdale’s! Although I wasn’t initially overly interested, I ultimately agreed to an exploratory interview with the head of human resources, which led back to a one-on-one interview with him. After spending an hour with him discussing a career path in retail—at one of the finest retailers in the world—he ended up convincing me to become one of the ‘Bloomies Babies’ (in his words). As a foodie, I was most interested in going into the gourmet food area of Bloomingdale’s, but the GMM said my combination of “passion, personality, and creativity” would shine in the beauty department. My three-plus years as a merchant at Bloomingdale’s were the most critical experience in setting the platform for my career as a successful marketer. The lesson is simple: You never know who is watching or taking note of you and your work, so always be your best. I could have never imagined at the time that I would be in the beauty business 25+ years later, but I’m still loving it.”

Number one lesson learned: “So many things come to mind, but the number one thing I still live by every day is to always go with your gut—especially when making important business decisions.”

Best career advice: “I’ve managed a lot of people in my career and I’ve seen a lot of people succeed and a lot of people fail. The key difference between the two is that those who succeed have real passion for what they do. Whether you’re looking to break into or grow in the beauty industry, if you have passion, you will succeed. Conversely, without passion, you will fail.”

Gina Marí: Founder, Gina Mari Skincare

Foot in the door: “I first became aware of my passion for skincare when I developed adult acne in my late 20s. I met an aesthetician who completely fixed my skin within six weeks’ time! I was so inspired by the impact and positive change in my life that I decided to pursue skincare. I went back to school and immediately started working for her.”

Number one lesson learned: “Understanding the histology of the skin is the most important aspect. Identifying issues and guiding clients toward the proper solutions is not only fulfilling but can have a huge impact on a client’s life. I recommend keeping a copy of Fitzpatrick’s color atlas and synopsis of clinical dermatology on hand at all times.”

Best career advice: “Keep learning! My staff and I are constantly reading and brainstorming about new and innovative ways to achieve great results. Also, don’t be afraid of hard work. When I first started, I often worked 12-hour days! It takes time to build a solid client base. If skincare is your true passion, the hard work will be worth it!”

Orrea Light: VP Product Development Global Marketing, Estée Lauder

Foot in the door: “One of my first opportunities at a beauty brand was at Revlon. They needed someone in their creative team to help archive all the photography they used in advertising and point-of-purchase displays. I found out about the opening because I was put in touch with a friend of a friend who was working there at the time. She became my first boss in beauty and is a very dear friend to this day. I was so eager to work in beauty at the time that any opening or position would have been a wonderful opportunity. I was going to school at night and later had an internship in their color cosmetics product development team. It was very interesting to have exposure to two different sides of the business. I learned quite a lot.”

Number one lesson learned: “I think when the métier (the beauty category) is interesting to you, it’s important to be a sponge and take it all in. Learn all you can about every and any aspect you are involved in. Believe me—you will use it at some point and time in your career. I think the second thing is to have a positive ‘can-do’ team spirit. We have a saying here at L’Oréal Paris [where Light previously worked as Vice President of Product Development], created by our general manager, Karen Fondu: ‘one team, one mission.’ It’s a great credo. We all work as one team and there are not a lot of egos. I would say now to anyone trying to enter the industry, leave your ego at the door and look at things more from the viewpoint of how it benefits your team, your group, or your brand, rather than just what you will get out of it.”

Best career advice: “Be passionate! No matter what the obstacles are, no matter what anyone says, the beauty industry is all about passion and making newness happen. Also, learn as much as you can about digital and social media. This is really a great advantage you can bring to any beauty company. Thirdly, even if it’s not your job (yet), be familiar with all the emerging brands, understanding how and why they are different.”

Romy Soleimani: Celebrity Makeup Artist

Foot in the door: “I knew a lot of people in the industry because I always took every internship that came my way while I was at college. At one point I was a production assistant at Calvin Klein. A friend of mine from college was working on the advertising department, and it was her job to communicate with the agents for hair and makeup. Linda Cantello was the makeup artist for the campaign; she was and is one of my heroes in beauty. It just so happened that she was looking for an assistant. I met her, we clicked, and the rest is history.”

Number one lesson learned: “It's all about hard work, staying strong, being ready for anything that comes your way, staying calm. And most of all, navigating the multitude of personalities that come your way.”

Best career advice: “Be open to any opportunity that comes your way. Something can always lead to something else. Being an assistant is all about opening yourself up to opportunities. And in today's age, it's important to also think outside of the box and understand what sets you apart and be creative about how you present your ideas.”

Fiona Stiles: Celebrity Makeup Artist and Reed Clarke Founder

Foot in the door: “Ah, back in the dark ages when I started doing makeup (also known as the early ’90s), there was no internet. Information was very, very hard to come by. I didn’t know anyone who worked in fashion, so I just had to wing it. I would read the credits of magazines and go through the white pages in the phone book and call them at home to ask if they needed an assistant. Ballsy, and totally naïve, but it worked! I’m not sure how I met him, but I met one of Craig McDean’s photo assistants and told him I would love to work with Pat McGrath. Somehow word got to her or her agent, and I had a meeting with Pat. At that time, she was still living in London and would come into New York for jobs. I was her only assistant on most jobs unless we had a lot of girls on set, so I got to work really closely with her. She is a lovely woman who oozes warmth, humor, and talent. Weirdly, it never even occurred to me to work at a makeup counter or for a brand. I just dove in headfirst and thankfully I learned to ‘swim’ quickly. It was all very serendipitous, and I count my lucky stars constantly!”

Number one lesson learned: “Be quiet and listen. Absorb everything that is happening around you; look at the lighting on set, observe what are the editors and stylists are doing. What products are the hairdressers using? When you are on set, your knowledge needs to expand beyond your immediate area of expertise. Also, most of the time when you are just starting a career, you are young. Try to take in as much as you can from the seasoned professionals around you; let your brain be a sponge and soak it all in.”

Best career advice: “Be nice to everyone. Be kind and grateful. There are a lot of talented people in the world, and if you’re working, you are lucky. No one ‘deserves’ to get any job, and clients come and go. It’s a very fickle and fluid industry with a new flavor of the month every time you blink, even more so now. Consistency, a good ‘can-do’ attitude, and a healthy dose of warmth will take you far. Oh, and clean your brushes every time you use them, and keep your kit tidy. You don’t want someone to look at your messy, dirty kit and get freaked out before you even start their makeup.”

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