Remembering Estee Lauder, the face of 20th century women entrepreneurship


Fabulous, resilient, and fiercely feminine – these were the traits that defined the late Estee Lauder, the face of female entrepreneurship in a largely patriarchal 20th century. At a time when women were ‘informed’ of their ‘responsibility’ to rear children and take care of their families, Lauder was determined to create an everlasting legacy for the generations of professional women to come.

Lauder entered the foray of entrepreneurship fairly young. Born in Queens, New York, she was the eighth child in a family of Jewish immigrants and spent a good part of her teenage years working at the hardware store her family owned. After the end of the First World War, her uncle John Scotz, a renowned chemist, returned home, and it was under his mentorship that she began to take an active interest in cosmetics.

From experimenting with natural creams in the tiny kitchen of her house to forming a multibillion dollar company which today has stores in over 150 countries, Estee Lauder’s single drive towards success has been an inspiration to women entrepreneurs of all ages. Despite the infinite obstacles that she met as a woman looking to do some good business, Lauder refused to let a gender-biased society dictate her terms and life. Today, although the company may have been inherited by her son and grandsons, it will always be, in every single way and form, in her name only.

On her 111th birthday, we celebrate the indomitable success of her journey to conquering the cosmetics industry by offering a few tips from her life to help you chart your own success.

Persistence is key

“We learn too much everyday to be satisfied with yesterday’s achievement.”

Lauder was always highly acclaimed for her unwavering persistence. Be it from the factory or her custom-made company seat, she was always determined to become the best in the field, no matter how difficult the journey. Narrating an instance of this characteristic, Lauder had once approached the manager of Gallery Lafayette, Europe's largest department store, when she was on a mission to expand her European market. When the manager refused to help her, she ‘accidentally’ spilled her perfume samples on the floor, attracting the store’s customers to her side and on their insistence, the manager had no choice but to offer her a contract! As an entrepreneur, it is essential to keep trying in the face of rejections, because that’s the key to begetting that final yes.

Innovative marketing

“If you don't sell, it's not the product that's wrong, it's you.”

Estee Lauder spent the whole of her professional career investing time in smart marketing. When she had just taken to selling her products at local shops, she hadn’t yet made enough money to spend on advertising or promotions. So she took matters into her own hands and went around offering product demos. She started with salons and hotels, even offering free makeovers at the subway and on the streets. Later, when she joined forces with her husband and began to expand her company, instead of spending all her money on advertisements like the others in the industry, she invested all her money on samples that she offered as free gifts with purchases, or as a part of a direct mail campaign. Although at the time she was faced with much ridicule for the measure, it was what paid off eventually, bringing her a flurry of excited new customers. For those starting small businesses, the key to making sales is by using unique and highly innovative measures to make you stand out from your competition.

Know your product inside out

“I love my product. I love to touch the creams, smell them, look at them, carry them with me. A person has to love her harvest if she’s to expect others to love it.”

Even after Lauder had reached the million dollar mark and could take on the reins comfortably, she still exhibited the same keenness and effort in the daily workings of her company as she had when it was first launched. For instance, when a new product was launched by the company, she would stand by the shop doors for a week at a stretch to gauge customer reactions regarding the same. She would not only receive their feedback with open mindedness, but she would also make changes based on them. To make the right sales and hit the right numbers, you need to become one with your product or service, and then understand it enough to convince your customers to buy it.

Understand your audience

“When you stop talking, you've lost your customer. When you turn your back, you've lost her.”

Lauder understood the customers she was trying to sell to. She had observed their habits, their social backgrounds, and why they would buy her products, in order to create a sales campaign around it. She knew exactly the catchphrase to use or the occasion to cater to in order to perk the customer’s interest and ensure that they would return. Lauder was a brilliant saleswoman for all her experience on both street and shop, and always knew how to attract her customers. All entrepreneurs know that their business is nothing without their customers, and that to retain them in the long run, they need to study and understand them closely. This will help them cater to their general demands and work to supply the same.

It has been several years since this enigmatic woman left the world of ordinary, but her vision to create something fabulous runs strong till this very day.