See This Lady: Estée Lauder


How does a young girl from Queens become the only woman on Time Magazine's list of the 20 most influential business geniuses of the 20th century?

A lot of work. A lot of resistance. And whole lot of selling.

Josephine Esther “Estée“ Mentzer was one of nine children born to immigrant parents. Her father owned a small hardware store in an outer borough of Manhattan.

As a child, Estée worked tirelessly in his shop and got a thorough education in sales and entrepreneurship.

But it was her uncle, a chemist, who had the greatest influence on her business life. He developed four secret formulas for all-natural skin creams, which a teenage Estée began selling to friends and small shops.

And she was already displaying the promotional acumen that would define her career and build an empire; she marketed the creams as “jars of hope”.

For nearly 20 years, she mixed ingredients in her tiny kitchen and sold them independently. It wasn’t until Estée was nearly 40 that she officially formed Estée Lauder Cosmetics.

Her company began taking orders from large department stores -- against the strong advice of her accountant and lawyer. She felt that location in upscale stores was essential because woman could charge their purchases and her line would appear prestigious by association.

But her true genius lay in her marketing skills. She was a business pioneer who practically invented four now-standard techniques:

--giving away free samples

--providing free gifts with purchases

--using beautiful models to sell her products

--word-of-mouth advertising, which Estée called “Tell-a-Woman” marketing

The idea for giving away samples at fashion shows, in mailings and in stores came to her when no agency would take her on as a client. So instead of ads, she spent her money on the samples.

But when you're ahead of her time, the price to pay is resistance. Successful cosmetic executives literally laughed at her ideas and told her she would ruin her business. And for much of her career, she faced the bias of being a female entrepreneur.

And whenever she thought of quitting, she forced herself to keep going. In Estée's words:

My success is based on persistence, not luck.

Woman eventually flocked to her products for the samples, knowledgeable advice (the saleswomen were trained by Estée herself) and free gifts.

In the decades that followed, she created the first skin care line for men (Aramis), a fragrance-free line (Clinique) and acquired many other well-known brands such as Aveda and MAC Cosmetics.

Through intense drive, ambition and clever marketing, Lauder became the richest self-made women in the world. By the time of her death in 2004, the company baring her name was generating nearly $10 billion annually.

It’s safe to say, Estée Lauder enjoyed the last laugh. And she also left behind some other very wise words:

I have never worked a day in my life without selling. If I believe in something, I sell it, and I sell it hard.

Not bad for a woman who was told repeatedly she would fail. By men, of course.


John Lavallo57 Posts

John is Columbia Business School MBA with expertise in marketing, business leadership, and law. John is a successful entrepreneur who took his first company public. He currently resides in New York City.