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WHY PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT NEEDS DIVERSE VOICES AT THE TABLE

May 26, 2021 Carla Seipp
May 26, 2021
Betty Beyene

Betty Beyene’s resume lists some of the heaviest hitters in the industry: L’Oréal, MAC Cosmetics, NARS Cosmetics. For the past 18 years, she has pushed for inclusive shade ranges and BIPOC skin-adapted formulations. A chameleon bridging the worlds between makeup artistry and corporate strategy, she has developed products that garnered industry and consumer praise alike, breaking through stagnant PD approaches to create innovative initiatives that were decades ahead of the curve. The newest chapter of her professional journey, launching product development consultancy Alem Beauty, has seen her build an entire business from the ground up.

Before becoming a successful product developer and consultant, Beyene completed an Associate of Arts in Fashion Merchandising at Bauder College in Atlanta. After finishing her degree and having gained more insight into the daily inner workings of the industry, she realized that beauty was her true calling. Beyene moved to New York City, where she crafted a makeshift portfolio and landed an artistry position at the MAC Cosmetics counter in July 2002. “I was very lucky, it was a natural segue into the industry, and obviously I didn’t let networking opportunities fall by the wayside, but I think that working at the MAC counter helped give me the stepping stool that I needed to get into beauty,” she explains.

During one of her shifts, she struck up a conversation with a shopper who turned out to be Alina Gonzalez, then VP of Product Development in skincare at L’Oréal. A proponent of the power of networking, Beyene didn’t let the opportunity slip by and managed to turn a casual conversation into a bountiful opportunity. After exchanging contact details, Beyene interviewed with Gonzalez for an internship in the New Product Development sector, and was subsequently able to make her first foray into the world of PD in 2003.

After completing her internship at L’Oréal, she went on to obtain a Bachelor of Science in Cosmetics and Fragrance Marketing from Fashion Institute of Technology—a two-year course covering cosmetic and fragrance formulation, packaging design, and marketing—to deepen her knowledge of the industry. “That program really spoke to me, the science and marketing part of it was more intriguing to me than fashion had been. It also led me to growing my network organically,” she comments. While it gave her a newfound appreciation for the fragrance industry, Beyene says she learned her biggest lessons in product development on the job. “Having started at the counter is always a great segue into PD because you have first-hand feedback from a consumer. It’s so much more valuable than any market research or sales data,” she says. “It’s all about understanding and capturing that true artistry, and translating it to really resonate on a consumer level, in a way that is marketable on a more mass level.”

“It’s super important to have diversity on the product side, because at the end of the day, we are selling formulas that should resonate on all skin tones."
By Betty Beyene, Founder, Alem Beauty

Returning to L’Oréal, Beyene progressed in the PD department at an impressive pace, becoming a consultant, assistant manager, manager, and ultimately, senior manager over the next 7 years. Beyene said the transition from cosmetic counter to beauty corporation was not without challenges, but she navigated it with the help of her initial industry connection, Gonzalez, who grew into her mentor over the course of her career and remains a close friend to this day. Roseanne Fama, head of the L’Oréal Paris mass division product development department, was another mentor. “They played an integral role in helping me grow into the environment, making sure I had the presentation skills, pushing me to the front to make sure I had visibility and the voice to present my projects, and get that respect I deserve,” she explains. “They always understood that as a young Black woman, a minority in a group, I probably had less of an opportunity for that exposure.”

From the early 2000s when Beyene was getting her start in the industry to the present day, lack of staff diversity has been a constant gap needing to be closed. In the wake of BLM, the beauty industry has had a reckoning for its lack of ethnic inclusion, but Beyene stresses that substantial change means more than a mere quota fulfillment. “I’m glad the last year has opened up a lot of people’s eyes to these issues, but it should have happened organically and naturally. It’s frustrating because now it’s like we’re an afterthought.” Beyene sees a restructuring of the beauty industry beginning with every company’s roots, HR, to allow true equal opportunity as a key to progress

In fall 2020, the 10 biggest beauty brands were asked to reveal numbers on staff diversity as part of the Pull Up or Shut Up initiative. Of L’Oréal’s 12,000+ employees, 38% identified as people of color and 9% as Black. Among its corporate population, the percentage of Black employees was 7%. At Unilever, there was 8% Black representation (17% in leadership roles), at Shiseido Americas 10% (5% in management roles), Estée Lauder 12% overall (4% at executive director level), and Coty 17.2% representation US-wide but only 2.9% at a director level. None matched the proportion of Black employees in the US (13%). Today, L’Oreal boasts over 167 nationalities across 68 countries and has trained over 65,000 employees on diversity and inclusion topics, and held its first Global Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Board meeting in January 2021

Under Fama, who had the foresight of needing to include a diversity of voices at the product development table early on, Beyene and the L’Oréal Paris team produced a visionary product launch. Years before other brands were promoting inclusive color ranges, they launched the HIP (High Intensity Pigment) range in 2006. Backed by a campaign featuring the likes of Beyoncé and Kerry Washington, the complete color product offering was formulated to show up on darker skin tones by employing photonics technology for 20% increased pigmentation, which had previously only been utilized in prestige brand products. Beyene played a key part in developing the range, from swatching products to approving samples. “Roseanne [Fama] told me, ‘You’re the muse, nothing gets approved without it being swatched on your arm.’ Of course, I’m not the darkest on the spectrum of depth, but I was a representation in the office. She said, ‘Nothing goes out the door without you looking at it, touching it, or applying it,’” she recalls of the creation process.

“It’s super important to have diversity in the product side, because at the end of the day, we are selling formulas and they should resonate on all skin tones. I’m very lucky to have been working under the supervision of someone who believed in that at a very early time in an organic and not reactionary way,” she states.

“Having been one of the only women of color in the room, holding strong and standing true for what I believe in, constantly fighting for myself, was always a challenge."
By Betty Beyene, Founder, Alem Beauty

After her time at L’Oréal, she continued on to MAC Cosmetics in 2011, working as Director, and later Executive Director in their Global Product Development department. She cites working in the brand’s lip, holiday kit, and collaboration departments as monumental points in her career, with releases including the bestselling Selena collection, which sold out the day of its launch, and RiRi Hearts MAC, another sold-out celebrity pairing. Five and a half years later, she set her sights on NARS Cosmetics, where she executive-directed their Global Product Development and Marketing team, implementing structure and processes as the company evolved from an indie cult brand to a more corporate structure underneath the Shiseido helm.

Part product developer, part futures strategist, Beyene stresses the importance of following technological innovation, and also nurturing relationships with suppliers and vendors. “For me, a lot of ideas come from sitting down with a vendor, seeing what newness they have that serves as inspiration, as well as having a cross-industry look and seeing how those things could be adapted to color,” she explains, adding that “It’s a very old-school way because now everyone is just reacting to what everybody else does, but that is too risky [to build a business on].”

This reactive mode of operation means that products need to be developed on a vastly shorter timeline than ever before, and their risk of becoming irrelevant to the current industry landscape being higher than in decades past. Despite these challenges, Beyene remains as fervent about her job as on day 1. “As a product developer, every day with each formula, you learn something new. You need passion, [you need to] stay on top of the industry and launches, and have an affinity and innate connection to products, as well as short-term foresight for what could be the next evolution of a product,” she elaborates.

Despite the unwavering support of Gonzalez and Fama, Beyene admits it has not always been easy as a Black woman in the industry. “Having been one of the only women of color in the room, holding strong and standing true for what I believe in, constantly fighting for myself, was always a challenge. You want to speak up but then also feel a little deterred because you don’t have that support behind you,” she adds. “I got really fed up of sitting across from someone who probably had way less experience than me and still being challenged, not because I wasn’t capable but more so because of my race and appearance. That was really disheartening.”

Beyene founded product development consulting agency Alem Beauty in November 2018 as a response to her struggles within the industry. “I don’t want to manage the minutiae of corporate politics, so that was an inspiring moment for me to move on. I left not knowing what I was going to do and then the consulting fell organically into place,” she recalls. As a strong-willed trailblazer following her intuition, the risk paid off. Her present-day client roster includes color cosmetics, clean body care, and even baby care, on a small to mid-level business size scale. While the work pendulum and structure may be less defined, it has also given her an independence which far outweighs any work life unpredictability. “It’s so rewarding because I get to pick and choose my clients, [and] it allows me to create these partnerships that helps their business to grow,” she says. “In the future, I would love to continue transitioning into a B2C model, and to create an opportunity for other up-and-coming Black product developers.” Just as her journey began with an impromptu conversation at the cosmetics counter, Beyene is hoping to give back the opportunity she was given—and make the beauty industry a more inclusive place in the process.