Pushing Beauty Boundaries: Unilevers Esi Eggleston Bracey"
May 20, 2021
Renowned executive, Esi Eggleston Bracey has spent her the bulk of her career in the beauty industry, first at Procter & Gamble where she became the Senior Vice President & General Manager Global Cosmetics, then at Coty as the President of Consumer Beauty and now at Unilever, where she is currently the EVP + COO North America for Beauty and Personal Care, and it is no surprise her contributions to the industry have had profound impact.

At Coty she was able to create a paradigm of diverse beauty through the COVERGIRL brand by including Queen Latifah, P!NK, Janelle Monae and more in major campaigns. Now at Unilever, leading with Dove, she has been diligently working on the CROWN Act--anti-hair discrimination legislation, that has recently been passed in several states. Here she shares how she tackles getting brands back on track, her favorite productivity hack (which has to do with doing nothing) and why taking a sabbatical was a slightly scary, but regenerative career pause.

How do you think the beauty industry has evolved for the better over the last couple of years? In particular, what advances do you see in its outreach to WOC? Where does the industry need help? I have definitely seen some movement in the industry expanding its historically more narrow, one size fits all view of beauty, and this is refreshing. You see more black and brown faces in beauty advertising, and in in-store imagery. There has also been a significant expansion in the brands and entrepreneurs that are participating and succeeding in the beauty – in particular from black, brown, and female founders. This is good for the industry, black and brown communities, and women because more and more of our issues that have been under-addressed are starting to get served in a broader and more compelling way.

It’s good to see the progress, but there still is a long way to go for beauty industry to reflect the full spectrum of beauty and diversity that we see in America -- 40% people of color, the full gender continuum, and a broad array of shapes sizes personalities, nationalities.

The industry will not get there until our beauty organizations, advertising agencies, and founders represent this diversity. We need more black and brown beauty executives, brand managers, and creatives. Our black and brown entrepreneurs need more access to capital and resources to participate powerfully in the marketplace. The industry should measure our progress on the positive impact we’re having on the people and not just based on our business/financial metrics. A lot of progress compared to when I started in the industry over 20 years ago, but a lot more work to be done.

As the EVP and COO of a major company with multiple brands, how would you describe your management and leadership style?

I wish there was a simple way to describe my style. I would describe my style as a mix of things:

  1. I’m purpose and mission driven – I lead the business and teams through the lens of being rewarded with growth and profit by making a positive impact on people, communities, the planet, and employees.
  2. I envision possibilities and challenge myself and others to go beyond the status quo or even expected way of operating,
  3. I am both conceptual and analytical ( ‘right/left’ brand balanced so to speak). I lead and engage teams with creative ideas and possibilities (‘I have an idea. How about we…?'), but then I look for the data to validate if the ideas makes sense, and then get very analytical and structured in problem solving and action planning about how to bring the idea to life.
  4. I am a connected, engaged collaborative leader AND have my own strong opinions and beliefs. Others' ideas and input are like food for me – they help me get an idea or opinion going, or strongly reinforces my own if I disagree.
  5. I’m direct and no-non-sense while caring. I try to avoid sugar coating and like to cut through the BS, but in a way that is respectful.

When a brand needs help, what are the key first steps you take to put it on the right path?

When a brand is off track, it has usually lost its unique value proposition, and what it's offering is no longer meaningful or relevant compared to other choices people have. Its positioning has lost relevance. To get the positioning back on track I explore the four areas:

  • What originally made the brand unique or famous?
  • What do people want today or what are the growing and emerging needs in the market place?
  • What is happening in the industry/competitive landscape that is making the brand less relevant?
  • Who still loves and uses the brand today and why?

"The fruit” can usually be found “in the roots”, by bringing it to life in a way that resonates and has edge and distinctiveness today. If the positioning is compelling and differentiated then I look at other executional factors like in-store appeal (bricks and clicks), price, investment levels, etc.

What leadership qualities are more important now than ever? Human authentic leadership & agility.

What is an overrated quality? Being Always On, 24/7 responsiveness.

What is an undervalued one? Recovery – the ability for a leader to disconnect, unplug, sleep, exercise, retreat – especially before the “big event”.

Favorite part of your job: I love being able to help people at scale and positively impact lives with our products and programs. I love setting audacious goals for impact and growth and hitting them. An example of this is Dove’s work on the CROWN Act: Anti-Hair Discrimination Legislation. It's been passed in 10 states and makes it illegal to discriminate against textured hair styles. Yes to the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair)! Motivated for this to be the law across the country in each and every state. I love seeing the impact of Dove and the brand being rewarded the growth as a result.

When is it an advantage to be a woman in your business? Always, even if it doesn’t seem like it. We have a unique view of the world and the ability to balance a lot at once as mothers, daughters, care providers, wives, girlfriends, and community leaders. We have the ability to use our compassion, big capacity, and our full selves--head, heart, even soul/instincts, to lead teams and drive results.

My mantra is Passion Power. It means positively making a difference in your areas of passion. This motivates me.

Career highlight: It’s been a privilege leading Unilever’s Beauty and Personal Care business. I’ve never been a “corporate” person per se, but I’m proud of the work I lead every day to positively impact people. The CROWN ACT is a great example of this. Before joining Unilever, I was most proud of my work on COVERGIRL, transforming the brand and creating more beauty inclusivity through Queen Latifah, Drew Barrymore, Ellen DeGeneres, P!NK and Janelle Monae. My work at Unilever, takes the cake.

A business culture priority for you now is: Humancentricity vs. Consumercentricity--Brand Building and Growth in a PolyCultural World.

Your advice on how to give and receive feedback:

  1. Give and listen out of care and love. It can be tough to give straight talk feedback – especially if it’s negative. To move past this concern, give it out of care and wanting to help the person involved. They deserve it. It also increases the chances of them hearing it. This is also the same tip for receiving feedback. Listen to the feedback as if the person is caring for you and helping you do better.
  2. It's always good to ensure there is a dialogue and not just one way feedback. If you’re the giver, ask the person what they heard and took away from the discussion. When you are the receiver, play back what you heard for discussion and ask questions. This lets both parties know feedback has been heard.
  3. Look for concrete actions you can take to address the feedback. Ask, what can I do immediately to start making progress (especially as the receiver, but good for the giver to also think through)? I like to think about things in terms of what to do Now, Near, and Next. Sometimes the Now is the hardest. Taking the immediate action can help create a new habit if needed.

Was there ever a time your career was at risk? If yes, how did you overcome it? Not exactly, but my sabbatical felt risky…I didn’t know what I was going to do next. I’d relocated my family to New York after living in Switzerland, had retired from P&G, left Coty, and was exhausted. I wasn’t sure what was next for me and how it would work out. I just knew I needed a break, and wanted to be mommy for my incredible children to help ease their transition. I overcame it by getting centered in my purpose and values, staying true to them, networking, and treating it as an adventure. It worked out.

Women on your radar: So many young women in my organization, women founders, talented women artists (Willow Smith, Sza), the new black marvel superhero – Monica Rambo played by Teyonah Parris, Stacey Abrams, everyone's girl crush, and my daughter, Anura, who is developing into such an incredible young woman.

Productivity hack:

  1. Saying NO! I don’t do this enough or hardly ever. I am passionate about so many things and so curious and I could be on 24/7. When I do say no and have space – it is the best, most productive thing ever.
  2. Standing desk. Game-changing. Energizing.

What motivates you? Making a difference. My mantra is Passion Power. It means positively making a difference in your areas of passion. This motivates me. My children and the next generation motivate me. The chance to create a better world for them, and to equip them with the tools to make the world better for themselves and the next generation.

Find Esi Eggleston Bracey on LinkedIn.



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