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Career
January 9, 2024

Beauty Queen

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As one of the most powerful women in the world of beauty and personal care products, overseeing a multibillion-dollar business portfolio, Esi Eggleston Bracey’s career has not just focused on blushes, creams and foundations, because she isn’t one for glossing over things.

Bracey has come to reign over a global empire through a combination of drive, discipline, daring, and data-driven decision-making—an engineering graduate with a mind for precision and an eye for a pleasing palette. With a slew of honors—AdColor Legend, BE Powerful Women in Business, Ebony Power 100, to name just three—she has been dubbed by one publication “a globe-trotting corporate superstar.”

Growing up on Chicago’s South Side, she knew that she “wanted to do something that made a difference,” something that surpassed what people thought was possible for Black women, though the route she has followed wasn’t clear. “I knew nothing about corporate America and I knew nothing about business,” she says, “so I didn’t even know to envision that path.”

What she did see was an inspirational role model in her mother, who “always overcame barriers and challenged herself to take on the next level and do things people considered impossible.” That example included getting a law degree and passing the bar while raising two small children.< Bracey joined Procter & Gamble after school, first in its household division (first responsibility: Febreze) and later switching over to beauty products. In what became a 25-year stay at the company, she was appointed its first female African American manager and led CoverGirl in becoming the first U.S. cosmetics business to reach $1 billion in retail sales. During her days with P&G, she was part of the innovative move to challenge long-standing industry stereotypes by making Queen Latifah and other celebrities like Drew Barrymore and Ellen DeGeneres—described as “unconventional beauty talent”—the new, more inclusive faces of CoverGirl. Her visionary and risk-taking leadership in that shaking of convention has been widely admired. “I realized the work we do in our industry really matters,” Bracey says of the move, recounting the widespread positive response from consumers to a beauty brand embracing “real women…. I was proud and privileged to have the opportunity to do that.” It wasn’t just about recognizing that the blonde hair and blue eyes that were, unrepresentatively, the face of cosmetics at the time were “not aspirational to all of America.” It was also just good business. “Because, you know, people of color in America are nearly the majority—40%,” says Bracey. “One of two babies born are babies of color. So bringing to a corporation organization ability and understanding to serve our needs helps the business.” “WE TEACH OURSELVES WHAT’S POSSIBLE BASED ON WHAT WE SEE.” CHAMPIONING CHANGE Bracey’s success took her to Switzerland for eight years as P&G’s Senior Vice President & General Manager, Global Cosmetics. Her time there was “a game-changer… It is so amazing to have the opportunity to see your culture from the outside and not be a part of it. It’s like air; you take it for granted until it’s not there. Culture is like that. So I got to see how our country works from the outside, and there’s so many things that we take for granted that the country does that don’t have to be the way they are.” She also got a glimpse of what it’s like to have white privilege (“Can you imagine that?”). She explains: “Outside of the U.S., when you’re recognized as American, it’s almost assumed white privilege. And so my husband could catch taxis, no problem. That privilege was not extended to all people of color, just let me be clear.” When Coty bought P&G’s cosmetics interests in 2015, Bracey went there as beauty President. Among her expanded responsibilities were a roster of iconic brands: CoverGirl, Rimmel, Max Factor, Sally Hansen, Clairol, Wella, Adidas and others. That move brought her and her family back to the U.S. After two years with Coty she took a break before being named North America Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for Beauty and Personal Care at Unilever, in 2018. With the likes of Dove, TRESemmé, Suave, Vaseline, Degree, Axe, and Shea Moisture in its product basket, the division is a $5 billion responsibility. If being part of a mini-revolution in changing perceptions and standards of beauty at P&G was satisfying, she is even more pleased with what she has been involved in since joining Unilever. She welcomed the opportunity to “figure out how we can drive more beauty inclusivity for Black Americans… As a Black woman, I can personally relate to the disconnect between what society says is beautiful and how/ what we believe beauty is in our community.” Talking with other women, “we heard the same thing,” Bracey says. “One, there’s a thing with my hair that early on the world told me that I wasn’t beautiful because my hair was potentially too kinky. You know, my features are not embraced as a beauty standard.” Then there was having a different complexion or full-figured features, about which “you would hear deep pain; it started from early on.” Bracey and her team also heard “horrible stories” about women and girls being turned away from jobs and school because of how they wore their hair. Bracey speaks enthusiastically about Dove’s work in co-founding the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and OpenWorld for Natural Hair Coalition) initiative, which challenges that kind of discrimination. Since California became the first state to sign into law the Crown Act, in 2019, protecting women from work- and school-based bias because of their hairstyle, 10 others have followed suit with similar legislation. “It’s all about helping the next generation not have to deal with this nonsense of saying you can’t come to school because you got braids,” she says. “IT IS SO AMAZING TO HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO SEE YOUR CULTURE FROM THE OUTSIDE AND NOT BE A PART OF IT.” SPEAKING UP Some of Bracey’s work in creating new brands and images has been about addressing the challenge many young Black people identify as, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” But she goes one further, encouraging them to picture it for themselves, if there is no existing model. It’s a mindset that dates back to her days as a young gymnast. “If you want to do that double back-flip, the first thing you have to do is envision yourself doing it,” she remembers. “You put that in your head, you mark that visually, and then you take that trick and then you stick it.” There’s science to it, she notes, not just wishful thinking. “We teach ourselves what’s possible based on what we see. It’s just how we learned to read, it’s the way we learned to walk, it’s the way we learned to talk. We mimic those around us. So if we see a white male as president over and over and over and over, we believe what it takes to be President is to be a white male. The same for doctors, the same for caregivers.” Bracey recalls as a girl of about 10 daydreaming about a future successful life where she’d live in an apartment building where the elevator opened up into the apartment—just as she does today in New York City. “It’s not like I set it as a goal, but that’s how I pictured success in my life,” she says. “That’s how I thought it looked.” She attributes her success in part to two main factors: working hard and saying yes. “The first thing I did was try to be excellent: Get clear on the objectives of what I was asked to deliver and hit and exceed them all the time.” She also took advantage of opportunities. “I said yes more than I said no. When new things are presented to me, I take them on.” An important part of her career arc was “finding my voice, claiming my voice and then using my voice for good.” She kept quiet for the first few years, focused on performing well. “And then I had an 'aha' moment that because I had my head down and I was keeping who I was to myself because I wasn’t like everybody else, I was fooling everyone into thinking I was like them when I wasn’t.” That, she realized, only perpetuated the lack of diversity she encountered. “I made a choice to change that, change the hiding of it and share myself with the organization,” she says. That took some courage—and a pair of scissors. When all the guys went to get their shoes shined, she took herself off for a manicure. She ditched the beige suit and got rid of her perm, wearing her hair in an Afro instead. She bought herself a used red convertible Porsche, something she would never have done previously for fear it would be considered too flashy. There was some blowback as she changed, but she chose not to dwell on it. “I was focused on what I felt I had to do to make the impact in the organization,” she says. “I wasn’t trying to fit into anyone’s mold. I was using my natural instincts about human behavior and not just using the data… Because historically we suppress that, but that’s a superpower for us, right? We have good intuition generally, as a Black community, right?” ENVISIONING SUCCESS Early on, Bracey had plans of maybe pursuing biomedical engineering, following her parents to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Despite some skepticism, thinking the $50 application fees were “a racket,” she decided to apply to Ivy League schools—and then she had to decide what to do when she was accepted. She settled on Dartmouth College, where she would get an engineering degree and realize that she could “compete with the best of them.” She discovered there was no reason to be intimidated: “You learn when you get exposure… you have just as much capability, if not more, particularly common sense, than people who are being groomed to go to those colleges.” Her advice to young people: “You got this. The same way I envisioned that double back [flip], just envision for yourself that you got this. And every time your brain has some concern, every time you hear ‘Not enough,’ take that and put it aside and say, ‘I got this,’ and keep moving.” Does she now regret having chosen Dartmouth over other higher-ranked Ivy League schools that made offers because she felt more confident about succeeding there? “I wouldn’t have done anything different,” she answers. “And one reason is I’m someone that never has regrets. I really believe your path in life is meant to be all these experiences and connections you make. You only have the life you have because of those choices. So I rarely can think of places that I have regrets. “And when I look at what going to Dartmouth opened up… it gave me a sense of understanding what the world outside of my world was like and helped with my confidence because I could go into my systems engineering class and I could get an A.” There was a time early in her career when she tried to fit the mold, even though it really only produced white guys. That changed after that “aha” moment when she realized what she was doing. “And so I started claiming my voice and sharing that, and it opened up everything,” she says. “It was like Esi Unleashed, saying what needed to be done and sharing my thinking and bringing others along. And that actually helped because it helped me get results, it helped me become more known, and it gave me bigger and bigger opportunities that I kept saying yes to.” Even working in corporate cultures with good intentions, there was bias and opposition at times. “People always think I’m not the boss,” she remembers. “They think I’m the intern… And I just smile, and then I wait. Then they see that I’m presenting, and they turn red.” Her success leaves her with a sense of responsibility. “It’s outside of any kind of accolade or title,” she says. “I feel like it’s up to us that have the access and privilege to lead businesses, to make an impact for people… What more can I do? What more can I do to serve Black people in terms of Black consumers, to make sure our needs are met and served?” Rather than an obligation, a weight, however, she sees it as “a call to do that, is a better way to say that. And that is a part of my mission. I also feel I’m committed to helping others in the organization succeed and excel.” ESI EGGLESTON BRACEY: My WayMaker: One woman in particular made a huge difference for me: Susan Arnold was a marketing director when I worked for Procter & Gamble. She was always like my quiet guardian angel. She kept her eye on me when she had moved over to beauty and brought me there away from soap and gave me the job on CoverGirl. She was truly the epitome of a waymaker in corporate America… [she] just believed in me and made things happen for me. She was pivotal. From an interview with Louis Carr This article was originally published in the Fall 2021 issue of WayMaker Journal.