Estée Lauder’s group president Jane Hudis on working with Kendall Jenner and Victoria Beckham, and why millennials are ruling the industry.
When we met John Demsey, the executive group president at The Estée Lauder Companies, we left inspired, and dying to know more about what happens behind the scenes at the cosmetics and skin care mega-company. That meeting ultimately led to an interview with Jane Hudis, Demsey’s counterpoint as group president overseeing brands like Estée Lauder, Aerin, La Mer, Origins, Darphin, and Aveda. And surprise, surprise, we left even more moved by the Estée team than before.
Hudis is passionate about her work, to say the least. But that passion comes from a true love of what she’s doing, and of the people she surrounds herself with. She was recently named WWD’s Newsmaker of the Year, and has been working closely with the likes of Kendall Jenner on Estée Edit and Victoria Beckham on her cosmetics line. When she’s not tirelessly traveling the world (the best way to stay familiar with the 150 countries her six brands have a major presence in), she’s conferencing with the younger generation of creatives—“the only people who have a handle on what’s going on.”
Despite being a major, major player in the intersection of business, creativity, and beauty, she’s humble beyond belief, and seemingly in awe of the company as a whole. Having gotten her start at the brand Prescriptives as their marketing manager right out of grad school, she had Leonard Lauder (!) act as her personal mentor. Since then, she’s played a major role in the growth of the company, and has had a hand in helping the brand evolve from “a product-driven company to a media company.” Here, she outlines exactly what drives her and how she stays inspired.
“The only person who will really give you a good handle on what is going on is someone who is twenty-four years old.”
Why she starts work at 7 AM:
“The thing about it is, I’m a morning person! My brain is active, and I’m moving and grooving! I also get the peace and the separation to do the work and to concentrate. All day long I’m with people and in meetings, so this is my time to get my work done. I love my mornings!
“I don’t know what day it is half the time. I don’t know time it is! My days are full—morning ’til night they are chock-full. I haven’t spent a day here looking at my watch like, ‘Ugh, it’s only 2:00.’ It’s not like that! I love the people I work with. They inspire me! I especially love the young people, because they know what is going on.”
How she got her start at the company, and was brought into the family fold:
“My first job was marketing manager for Prescriptives. It’s kind of a crazy story—the cut-to-the-chase version of it is that I went to Vassar undergrad and I was an art history major. I was very inspired by all things visual, and it was a great vehicle to learn history and culture and language. Anyway, I worked in PR for three years after that. I went to graduate school at Columbia to get my MBA and when I was in grad school, I did a final project that ended up being in cosmetics. Through that I met someone who did all the advertising for Estée Lauder. At that time we had four brands: Estée Lauder, Clinique, Aramis, and Prescriptives. When I joined, I became the marketing manager for Prescriptives. What I did in the beginning was work a lot on organizing, and getting our products shipped. I rose in Prescriptives to do almost every job there. I was head of marketing. This is when we were a small private company.
“Very early on my mentor was Leonard Lauder. I knew Estée, and Leonard became my mentor. My office was next to William Lauder. I was Jane [Lauder’s] second boss. I’ve worked very closely with Evelyn [Lauder] for years in fragrance. Evelyn introduced me to my husband—when you work here, the Lauder family is very eager to make sure you are happily married.”
“The idea that I was committed to was building on our heritage to create a modern future.”
The importance of maintaining company culture:
“We are a company that gives back. We are a company that cares. As big as we’ve gotten today, almost 12 billion dollars in revenue and public, there remains a strong family connection. First of all, there are generations of Lauders involved, and it’s been the family mission to keep the culture, the caring, and the values. It’s extraordinary. It makes life far more meaningful than just having a job. I am lucky because I’ve found my passion and my passion was doing this and my passion was being here.”
How social media is turning Estée Lauder into a media company:
“[Social media] has changed everything. The consumer has changed it all. Estée really started with having a real connection with her consumer because she stood in the store and that’s how she got feedback and learned how to do a better job. When you think about it, she went from store to store to store. What would she be like if she had Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter? Next level. It’s totally transformed the way we think. We went from a place as brand marketers where we’re putting stuff out there and letting everyone respond, and maybe doing a focus group three months later to see what everyone thought, to real time interactions, to dialogues, to endless content. I think we are all evolving from being a product-driven company to being a media company—it’s all that content. Content is king—or should I say Queen. In this office it’s Queen.
“[You have to] understand content creation and the way people respond, and it’s all evolving. What you know today is different tomorrow. The only person who will really give you a good handle on what is going on is someone who is twenty-four years old.”
How she stays educated about their markets:
“The most important thing we all do is travel like crazy. It may seem very simple but there is no substitute. We are on the road all the time. I am in China multiple times a year. I go to Europe a lot. I travel the United States a lot. There is nothing like it. The way to get the heartbeat of the consumer is to spend time with her in the store to understand what she is doing. To look at social media in a particular country, it is very different. There are a million different things. There might be five main platforms here and there might be twenty-five main ones in China. You need to understand everything about your customer today: how she lives, what she likes, what she consumes, what she reads, what she spends time on, and what she doesn’t spend time on. It is a complete and total understanding.”
How they innovate while staying true to the brand’s identity:
“When I took over the Lauder brand—and I’ve been around long enough to know that people have had different approaches to it over time—but the idea that I was committed to was building on our heritage to create a modern future. This brand has been built over decades, and I understood early on what was rich and important about it. The modernization of the brand has been an evolution building on its greatness and its original founder. It’s caring for others and it’s passion for quality, which the brand is known for all around the world. There are what we call franchises, like Advanced Night Repair, which have become cultlike products that people love all over the world. A product like Double Wear that is loved by a twenty-five-year-old and a seventy-five-year-old. You have to have a great respect for those and say, ‘How do I nurture the great things about this brand and evolve it over time?’ I am incredibly proud of being very sensitive to where that line is and I’m not sure that is something you can teach.
“You have to have respect for your history! Life isn’t just about an Instagram post, it’s about understanding. Great brands have stood the test of time. You have to understand why, and you need to understand what matters and what the values are and really respect that.”
“You only have one chance—might as well take advantage of it.”
What inspires her:
“Great creatives rock my world and great entrepreneurs rock my world. I admire the great architects of the world. I think it’s really cool when people build things that are meant to stand the test of time.
“I am very inspired by entrepreneurs and I can’t not be, having studied Estée Lauder for so long and trying to make her proud every day. I am inspired by Aerin Lauder—she is a great entrepreneur, and following in her grandmother’s footsteps. Katia Beauchamp, who started Birchbox. These are great women who are starting things. Emily Weiss starting Into The Gloss. I do admire Michelle Obama—I think she has been an amazing First Lady. But you know what? I admire Victoria Beckham, and I work very closely with her. She was a rock star reinvented as a fashion designer with four children and this cool husband and I love her clothes! She is incredible! If you meet her and get to know her she is so smart and so caring about women.”
Why it’s crucial for women to support each other:
“[I think] women who really care about women are so interesting! Michelle [Obama] cares about women. Victoria [Beckham] cares about women. They really get into a woman’s mind-set and try to understand and try to make the world a better place. I think that is inspiring. I admire Kendall [Jenner]. I know her extremely well and she is making her own way from her family and paving a new road for herself. She’s an independent thinker and definitely has her finger on the pulse in so many ways. Those are the kinds of people who turn me on. I get so turned on by the younger people at our company who are so brilliant and so great. There is a great woman named Alexandra Hardyment who is running the Aerin beauty business who just has a great take on the world and business, and how it happens, and is inventing it in a way that is happening today. I think those people are really cool. I love sharing my life with them. It’s fantastic. It’s very important to me to be very good to other women and to bring them along and to mentor and to show them a great path to the future.”
“Great creatives rock my world and great entrepreneurs rock my world.”
The best advice she’s ever received:
“The best career advice I ever received was from Leonard Lauder, who said, ‘Always hire people who are smarter than you.’ That’s how it goes. That’s what it’s about. They make it work better and I love that. It’s always been true. He told me that when I was probably twenty-six years old and I didn’t understand what it meant. And now I’ve come to appreciate it and it’s the best advice that anyone could ever give me.
“The advice I give is: Find your passion! No matter what. If you love what you do and you do what you love, life is a beautiful thing. When you spend so much time working, if you don’t like it, change! That idea of experimenting early on and having the courage to change and take risks and try new things is important. I think in addition to that, it’s important that people get out of their comfort zone. You don’t really know your full potential unless you take on something and try on something that is big and different. It’s important to feel uncomfortable when you try new things to move yourself to the next level. When people come to me for advice and say, ‘Well, I don’t know if I’m good at that—’ There is only one way to find out: try. You only have one chance—might as well take advantage of it.”