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Lipstick and Longevity: A Chat with NEXT Person of the Year Carol Hamilton

Published September 25, 2023
Published September 25, 2023
Carol Hamilton

Carol Hamilton has been a leader in the beauty industry for almost five decades, but her journey began in the most humble of places: the lipstick aisle at an independent drugstore in Southern California. “I tried on every single Revlon lipstick and knew all the shade names. I decided that my favorite was Fire & Ice. I was so fascinated by the transformative qualities of just putting on lipstick at a young age,” she recalls of her elementary school years.

Describing this passion as a mere hobby, it wasn’t until she was a double art history and history major at Vassar College, writing her thesis on British public opinion of the American centennial, that this adoration took on more professional aspirations. With television advertisements offering background noise to her long writing sessions, Hamilton’s ears perked up when she heard that iconic phrase: because I’m worth it.

“I'd probably been typing for hours on this thesis. I turned around and was like, ‘who said that?’ I was just so shocked that it was such a declaration. It was very, very startling when it first came out. That's when I started to connect the dots,” she says. Those dots were first to find out more about this company called L’Oréal—back then still “on the road to the Grand L’Oréal” as the enterprise states, or more simply put, when the company was considered an indie brand—and second, to realize the empowerment potential of beauty. That journey began with managing to secure her own financial future amidst the challenging backdrop of the 1970s recession.

“There were no jobs. I stood in an unemployment line and got a job working at Gray Advertising as a secretary to 12 creatives, making $7,000 a year. I grabbed it because I had an apartment in New York and needed to support myself,” she explains. During this tenure she got assigned to the Revlon business, a “serendipitous” and “exciting” opportunity for the recent graduate. “It made me understand the creativity with the communication associated with the beauty business. It made me fall in love with the power to communicate with women with really inspirational messages and visuals,” Hamilton states. She earned her MBA alongside her day job to further support her career trajectory.

Several years later, she found herself sitting in front of Beatrice Dautresme, back then a head of the marketing department for the consumer products division at L’Oréal, who went on to become the Executive Vice President of Corporate Communications and External Affairs. It was Dautresme who hired Hamilton for her first position at the company and proved to be an invaluable mentor to her early stepping stones in the industry. “I was fascinated with her international scope and brilliance. She was the first person who really ingrained in me that beauty was not superficial. I think that one of the real deep reasons for L’Oréal’s success over more than a century of existence is that we've always thought of beauty as a cultural expression of social trends, social feelings, humanity, expression, and building of confidence,” she states. Dautresme’s outlook is also echoed in Hamilton’s own perspective on beauty. “To me, beauty is all about self-expression and giving women the power to live their best lives. That's the way I like to show up, if I can, and to say that beauty is not an add-on, beauty is who you are. Beauty allows you to transform yourself on a daily basis,” she comments.

Another essential guide for Hamilton was Joseph Campinell, the former President of L'Oréal's Consumer Products Division, who worked alongside her for more than 24 years. “He was the greatest leader that I've ever worked for. His advice was always ‘just chill’ and ‘it’s going to be okay.’ But he was also the first big, accomplished team builder who understood working horizontally with your peers to create a group of trust. He never allowed any of his direct reports to go around somebody. He understood teamwork. He's been by far my longest mentor,” she says.

Hearing Hamilton speak about her colleagues, there is undeniable respect, admiration, and humility. It is this heartfelt connection to her peers, paired with her impressive professional endurance in a challenging industry, that speaks to her success. When asked about the qualities that she believes make a great leader, she notes: “Listening, listening, listening. A very clear vision, and they can express it simply and consistently. Empathy. Generosity. There are a lot of leaders who have some empathy, but they don't bring it all the way to generosity. Spending time with your colleagues and not just transactional time, being giving of yourself is very important.”

Rising in the ranks at L’Oréal’s marketing department, Hamilton helped the brand reach the internationally renowned status it has today, overseeing brands including Giorgio Armani, Lancôme, Yves Saint Laurent, and Kiehl’s. Under her former title of Group President, she drove global strategy and expansion for brands such as Urban Decay and It Cosmetics. In 2018, she was announced as Group President of Acquisitions, overseeing deals with brands like SkinBetter Science and Youth to the People.

“To me, beauty is all about self-expression and giving women the power to live their best lives. That's the way I like to show up, if I can, and to say that beauty is not an add-on, beauty is who you are."
By Carol Hamilton, Group President, Acquisitions and West Coast Headquarters, L’Oreal

In between her intense schedule as part of L’Oréal’s C-Suite, she managed to oversee the creation and execution of the enterprise’s new West Coast headquarters, turning a run-down warehouse in El Segundo, California, into a 120,000-square-foot working space, with a little 25-acre campus add-on. The doors opened at the end of June 2022, around the same time as Hamilton’s 70th birthday.

Hamilton has a vision no doubt, but it’s a vision executed with kindness and compassion. Her excitement for the industry still stands as strong as ever, the flowing waters of a continuous stream of energy and passion. The foundation of her astounding work ethic has a deeply personal origin: her family’s constant relocating during Hamilton’s childhood due to her father’s work in sales. Born in Massachusetts, she moved to California at age one, then Mexico City seven years later before returning to her birthplace. Later stints in California and England followed; 14 different houses in total with little notice as to when they would relocate, with the average duration of residence being three years. “Growing up, I just wanted to be in control of where I lived. I wanted to dig the deepest roots that I could because of this constant uprooting as a child. It plays a lot of emotional good and havoc in my brain in just wanting to be able to stay put,” she admits. These days she works bicoastally between California and New York, with her home (shared with her husband Rodney Steinweg, and two Maine Coon cats (Rosie and Elvis) in Connecticut.

The petite powerhouse, distinguishable by her impeccably coiffed bob, circular frame glasses, red lipstick, and chromatically cheerful wardrobe, is hard to miss. But it’s her bright-eyed enthusiasm and jovial spirit that leave an even longer-lasting impact—whether she is talking about the quintessential shade of red lipstick (Giorgio Armani #400, “the perfect red with just a slight tint of blue, not too orange” she says) or her ongoing philanthropic work with UNICEF. She has been working with the charity since 2014, where she became Director of the National Board in 2015 and was awarded the Spirit of Compassion Snowflake Ball Award in 2017. Taking a hands-on approach, Hamilton has traveled to UNICEF missions in Ethiopia, South Africa, Guatemala, and near the San Diego border. “It's a balance between how hard we have to work, but it gives me perspective and joy. I don't have children and realized on my first mission that actually now all the children of the world can be my children. It gives me so much opportunity to engage with the most needy children of the world,” she remarks.

In partnership with UNICEF, L’Oréal launched Armani’s Acqua for Life global campaign in 2010, with the aim to provide clean, safe water to underprivileged communities. To date, the initiative has reached over 590,000 individuals across 23 countries. Hamilton was also responsible for creating the Women of Worth program, which each year honors ten nonprofit leaders with a $25,000 donation, a national press platform, and mentorship from the L'Oréal Paris network.

Her passion for philanthropy began after seeing the work of  Estée Lauder, Revlon, and Avon in supporting breast cancer research and treatment. “There was this very strong force to bring these companies together to fight breast cancer. I was so inspired by what they did,” she adds. During this time Hamilton befriended Liz Tilberis, the Editor of Harper’s Bazaar who was also fighting stage three ovarian cancer. Tilberis also was the first President for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund and started the Legends Gala to raise funds for the institute. L’Oréal became a sponsor of the event for the next 14 years, making it the very first philanthropic initiative the company had undertaken. “I’m very proud of it. Philanthropy was something that I wanted to bring to the company and do well. The brand became the number one fundraiser to support research for ovarian cancer. There's been quite a big amount of progress made,” she enthuses. Today, Hamilton is still on the board of Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance.

Her vast array of interests and pursuits has been another key to her lasting power in the industry. “To have longevity in a career you need oxygen and to recognize when you need to take a break and hear and see something—totally use your mind in a different way,” she proclaims. One such inspirational kickstart was taking the Women and Power course at Harvard University in 2013, which provides new conceptual frameworks for female leadership. Hamilton has now been a part of Harvard’s Women’s Leadership Board, which researches the deep causes of gender inequality to enact global policy change, for over a decade.

From her own personal perspective, not being typecast proved to be the biggest challenge of her career. “So often I felt that I walked into a room and it was maybe assumed that I am good at marketing because that was my original métier , but  they didn't believe I could do the traditional tasks where men tended to be more dominant like finance, like a P&O [profit & overhead]. I can do a P&O like crazy,” she smiles. “I’ve been in the business for 50 years, and certainly it has changed enormously, but there's never a day when you don't have to know who you are and to be able to recognize that and bring that honestly to your work without apology.”

Speaking on the evolution of the industry over the years, Hamilton has observed a shift like “night and day” from a business landscape with few competitors to a multiplicity of brands and categories, be it subcontracting, retail incubators, or the rise of sexual wellness. “Staying on top of what is going on is so important. The beauty industry from a financial perspective and overall stature within the business world has skyrocketed. Why? Because there are fantastic companies with longevity, highly profitable, highly sustainable with endless innovation. There is no end to growth in the beauty business,” she comments. From being a young girl playing with lipstick in her local drugstore to leading the biggest international beauty conglomerate and spearheading philanthropic missions, Hamilton’s own story is proof of that limitless potential.


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