Nowadays, leading a beauty company requires a lot more than an MBA and a corporate stint at a behemoth cosmetics brand. While Elana Drell-Szyfer, CEO of ReVive Skincare, happens to be both an NYU B-School grad and Estee Lauder alum, she’s the first to admit there’s a much larger, instrumental key to succeeding in the glamorous yet cutthroat industry.
According to the beauty executive, brands must speak to the “head and heart” of its customers. In other words, you really have to know what beauty means to women of all ages.
When the New Jersey-based mother to three teenage daughters took the helm of ReVive in 2017, she felt driven to change the narrative around beauty for women of all ages, in hopes of empowering every generation along the way. While Millennials tend to flock to skincare lines with cult Instagram followings, ReVive serves a different demographic. The small, luxurious beauty brand serves women who are ready to invest in high-performance products.
Before joining ReVive, Drell-Szyfer served as chief executive of AHAVA in 2010, then Laura Geller Beauty in 2014. The three-time CEO sat with HeyMama to talk about how she continues to renew her approach to building and running a company—as well as her renewed approach to leading a family. Whether you work at a global brand or an indie label, Drell-Szyfer’s advice is a crash course in both startup and corporate leadership.
You put in years at beauty behemoths like L’Oreal, Avon and Estee Lauder. What’s the key to thriving in the beauty industry?
I focused on working hard, very hard, anticipating problems for my bosses and being prepared with solutions. I tried to learn everything I could about my business and the competition. I treated preparation for big meetings like studying for a test. I would write down potential questions and come up with answers beforehand.
You also need support. No one does it alone. You need sponsors and I was lucky enough to have multiple people put in the time, energy and political capital to support me.
What helped you successfully transition from working for a major beauty corporation to becoming the CEO of a smaller luxury brand?
I left Estée Lauder in 2010 to work at AHAVA, an Israel-based skincare company. At that time, my children were 4, 7 and 9. It was a big risk and a major change from being in a large company. I had a hard time acclimating and made many mistakes by trying to apply everything I knew from a large company and a well-established brand. I had fewer financial resources, human capital and time. It forced and continues to force me to really think about what I spend my time on, and what I ask others to spend time on as time is the most precious resource of all.
How did this career change affect your family?
Within 6 months, I started spending one week a month in Israel which meant a lot of time away from my kids. We even spent a summer in Israel while my husband worked remotely. It was an amazing trial by fire, it gave me experience as a general manager, and it prepared me for my next role as a CEO at Laura Geller.
Now at ReVive, where it’s my third time as a CEO, I am much better at integrating my responsibilities at home with my work responsibilities. As a CEO and a mother, I’m “on” most of the time, but I’ve gotten better at being able to focus on home as much as work without the guilt and sense of conflicted responsibility that I used to feel.
ReVive was a spinoff of Shiseido. How has it grown and evolved?
The investors bought the brand and field sales employees, but no corporate employees or office. So essentially it was my CFO/COO and me on day one. In two years we created a team and hired 25 people. Today, we have roughly 60 employees, mostly in our New York office.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you took over the brand and how did you overcome it?
We had to build a team from scratch–while simultaneously running an existing business and learning about the business. We did this with the help of our investors and a consultancy. We had to be super-organized, detail-oriented and hyper-communicative. We set strict timelines for accomplishing key milestones, created a steering committee that we held ourselves accountable to, and held twice-daily meetings to set priorities and to memorialize accomplishments. We were up and running in four months.
Share with us tips for flourishing as a luxury beauty brand in the digital age. Just when the entire industry discovered Influencer Marketing was the key, it has already become so crowded, so what’s the new key to standing out?
I wish I had a magic answer for you. What we’ve done at ReVive is more of a “slow build” approach than a “fast flash” approach. We only reach out and work with people who are already interested in the brand. We’ve taken an ambassador approach, more than an influencer approach. Ambassadors are highly engaged members of our brand community who want to spread the word on our behalf to their friends and colleagues, because of their deep connection to the brand, or their relationship with our founder, or a team member. This community also includes fashion stylists and makeup artists. We’ve also gone back to an authentic relationship-building approach, trying new events and exploring opportunities via our retail partners, and tapping new networks and membership communities like HeyMama and others.
Many working mothers tend to explore opportunities in the natural beauty and skincare industry. Any advice for them as they strive to build an early following or scale their companies?
Don’t think that because you are the leader or the founder, you are supposed to know everything. Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to ask for help. Reach out to people who you admire and ask them how they did it. Learn as much as you can to avoid mistakes.
In terms of building an early following, just get your product or service into people’s hands – the first hurdle is creating something that makes a connection to a consumer – not only functionally, but emotionally.
You’ve been in this executive role for close to a decade. I bet the learning never stops and the need to always reinvent yourself never ends. What are your plans for renewing your brand in 2020?
This year we are focusing on elevating the narrative of the brand as a whole as opposed to discussing only specific existing or new products. Our founder is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon with a long history in scientific research. Dr. Gregory Bays Brown started the company in the 1990s after leveraging Nobel Prize-winning science to formulate our first products. We want to highlight the true scientific and medical origins of the brand and speak to our superior knowledge of skin biology.
What are your plans for renewing yourself as a CEO in 2020?
I recently read about a CEO who used Audible downloads, listening to them at an accelerated speed to get through more than 20 books last year. This really struck a chord with me, as I am constantly trying to take in and process new information as a way to approach business and people differently, more effectively and more empathetically.
Any words of wisdom to moms who are executives trying to achieve some sense of balance and work-life integration?
I hope that women thinking about having a career and a family don’t think in terms of “if”, but “how.” I want women to know that there should not be any guilt and shame around having the drive to have an identity as a contributing professional in any given field as well as an excellent family member, mother, nurturer. These identities are not adverse and can be simultaneous