Episode 183: Leslie Harris, Global General Manager at SkinCeuticals

Two big ideas weave in and out of this episode, as Leslie Harris shares her journey and her approach to work. One is the concept of risk: how much one is willing to take to move ahead and the delicate risk-reward balance, different for each of us. The other is how to find meaning in your work, whether your own tiny startup or a mega corporation, a goal that was crucial in Leslie’s career choices. Listen to this lively discussion of these universal themes.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty® hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHey everybody. It's Jodi Katz, your host of Where Brains Meet Beauty® Podcast. Thanks so much for tuning in. This week's episode features Leslie Harris. She's the global general manager of SkinCeuticals. And if you missed last week's episode, it featured Indie Lee. She's the founder and CEO of Indie Lee. Thanks for tuning in.

Hey everybody. Welcome back to the show. I'm so pleased to be here with Leslie Harris. She is the global general manager of SkinCeuticals. Welcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty®.
Leslie HarrisThank you for having me.
Jodi KatzI'm so excited, Leslie, that we get to do this on the air because we had such a fun intake conversation, and I'm excited to start us off with one of my favorite questions, which is when you were a little kid, maybe like your 11 year old self, and someone asked you what do you want to be when you grow up, what was your answer?
Leslie HarrisOh. It's funny, it changed. It changed a number of times, and I think it also speaks to I love change and learning new things. So when I was younger, I wanted to be a brain surgeon, and that involved buying hamburger meat and trying to dissect it because it looked like brains. Then I wanted to be a pilot until I read in a book that women couldn't be pilots. They could only be flight attendants because maybe the pilots might get pregnant. It was an old book in the library. I hope it's not in the elementary school library anymore. But interestingly enough, everything I wanted to be, there was always a costume associated with it. Even with sports, the sports I played when I was younger, it was always because there was a costume.

So I guess regardless of what I wanted to be when I was younger, I think I always liked this idea of adornment and beauty and playing different parts. And then I wanted to be actress, like a million kids want to be actresses. Thankfully it served my career because I feel comfortable presenting, and I always say to my dad, "Aren't you glad you spent all this money on sleep-away theater camp? Now I can present in front of an audience." I didn't end up being an actress or anything, but I can tell a story.
Jodi KatzSo I wish that our listeners could see the strange faces I am making as you took me through the journey of what did you want to be when you grew up. The dissecting hamburger meat painted a really gross but amazing picture of what it would be like to look in a brain I would imagine. That women can't be pilots. I created some other sort of strange looking face when I heard that one.
Leslie HarrisI did have a pilot costume. I'm pretty sure I had a pilot costume.
Jodi KatzSo you mentioned sports. What were your childhood sports?
Leslie HarrisOkay. So let's be clear when we talk about sports, I was not sporty. I fenced for a while. Again, the costume, right? I think I thought it was a very romantic thing to do. Romantic, not in the love sense, but in the sort of like literature sense. And there was a cute boy that was on the fencing team. So I think that was a draw as well. But I enjoyed it. But after that, I think I pretty much stuck to walking, cycling, those kinds of activities. I was an indoor kid I would say more than an outdoor kid.
Jodi KatzWell, that leads me beautifully to our next topic, speaking of indoor kid. You worked at Ann Taylor at the Short Hills Mall.
Leslie HarrisI did. I did. So you want me to tell you about what it was like to be a runner at Ann Taylor Short Hills Mall?
Jodi KatzYes.
Leslie HarrisI started college, and probably a month into my first semester, I had this realization that I wasn't ready to start college yet. And that I needed the mental break between high school and college. So thankfully because of AP credits and all this kind of stuff, I took the rest of my first semester off. I moved into an apartment. I got a car, and I got a job. I just wanted to really go back and learn and take advantage of all the value and really hunger for it rather than just see it as like, "This is what I'm suppose to do next, and now I tick this off the box."

Being a runner was, you get to be around clothes, and you get to sell clothes and all that kind of stuff. But I was able to get to the point where I was like, "Okay. I'm ready to start learning again." But it was a really interesting... I think in England, people do gap years. I think in Europe too. I think more Americans, we should adopt the idea of a gap year because there's lots of ways to grow up, and going right from high school to college is one way. But it's not the only way, and you learn a lot of stuff not only in school, right?
Jodi KatzSo Leslie, I love this idea, and it's actually something I talk about with my kids. My kids are 10 and 13 that you don't have to do things the same way everyone else is doing them. And I think that's easier said now than when you and I were graduating from high school. So what you did is actually really courageous because you were saying to all the people around you who I'm sure were on that one train. Everyone was on the train towards college graduation and the great consulting job they're going to get or banking job they're going to get. How did you have the courage to do that at that time?
Leslie HarrisSo I think first of all I was very fortunate in that I could take the time, and I did work through college to earn money and things like that. But I had the privilege of being able to be in that situation. I think it was just having some self awareness of just the mental space I was in. Education is really expensive, and it takes a lot out of you because you want to put a lot into it. I didn't feel like I was really putting my whole self into it. I felt like I was tired. I can't even imagine being in high school now. I don't know how teenagers cope. But even being in high school, it's stressful. You should be getting into college. You do a million extra curriculars. You're trying to get the grades.

People need breaks. It's very normal. I just decided to go with it. I mean, I paid for it in terms of I took summer classes. I had to, what's the word? Make up for it through the rest of my years of college. But I think it was worth it. And I just kind of did it, and I think that's a little bit what I like to do. I think I gravitate towards the edge of my comfort zone, even if I probably consider myself a little risk averse. Innovation doesn't happen in your comfort zone, right?

I worked in investment banking after college and quit my job, sold all my things, and moved to England to get a master's degree in fashion history, which is not the most useful degree you can get. But similarly it was one of those if not now, when? When do you do these things? You take a chance. I'm so glad that I took those chances because at least as I've aged, I've gotten a little bit more... You get more settled. You can't just leave at the drop of a hat the way you can when you're 21, and I'm really glad that I took advantage of those opportunities.
Jodi KatzDid you get a lot of slack from your cohort when you decided not to go back to school? Were they giving you a hard time about it?
Leslie HarrisNo. I was only gone for a semester. So it wasn't like I really took a big gap year. I just needed a break. No. It wasn't really an issue. I took a break, got my act together a little bit, went back to school, and was able to put in what I wanted to put in and not just what I thought I should put in.
Jodi KatzI love that, and I love that you were able to listen to your own voices in your head and not everybody else's, which is very hard to do. You described yourself as risk averse, but it doesn't sound that way. So it's interesting you say that because I've always thought of myself as I'm not risky, but I run a business and I like...
Leslie HarrisThat's definitely risky.
Jodi KatzRisk money all the time. But in my head, I'm like, "I'm super cautious," but I'm actually not. So I'm curious, do you think that you thought you were risk averse and you realized that you're actually not risk averse, or do you still plant your feet in, "I'm a risk averse person."
Leslie HarrisIt's funny, I'm risk averse but I'm also impulsive, which are kind of opposite. I think I'm probably risk averse in the sense that I like to gather a lot of data points before I make a decision, and there are some things... I'm probably a little risk averse when it comes to the course of my life now than I probably was when I was like 23 or 25, which I think is quite normal. I'm like I definitely take on too many projects, which I guess is not risk averse because then you're playing with time. But I think I probably fall somewhere in the middle, and maybe what I'm calling risk averse is probably more like pragmatic.

But for example, I don't think I would ever be able to wake up tomorrow, quit my job, and run my own business. That's where I fall down. That's too risky for me I think. But creating things on the side, having side hustles. Probably saying yes to more than I should because there's an opportunity for learning. That can be risky, but it's a different kind of risk.
Jodi KatzSo before we hear about what you've been doing recently, I want to know what it's like to study history of fashion. What was that like, and what were your intentions?
Leslie HarrisSo when I went back and I studied at the London College of Fashion because it was really one of the only places that had a program in fashion history that wasn't about museum curation or textile analysis. I was really interested in the culture of fashion, and I think the culture of fashion and the culture of beauty is sort of the culture of consumer goods. What do we say about ourselves when we buy certain things? What does it mean for us and to others in how we dress and how we make up or don't make up our faces or style our hair and things like that? And I was really interested in the intersection of culture and fashion and beauty, and I always put beauty and fashion together just because I think they're so connected because they're about the self and they're about what you communicate about yourself. We look at others and we make a judgment in a split second based on what somebody looks like and that comes down to all the choices we make about how we look.

I really enjoyed looking at the history of that. I specialized in, strangely enough, the use of fashion to sell cars to women in inter-war Britain. I like to find things that are seemingly totally unrelated and find a way to connect them, and I think that even in innovation, that's what's fun is you find things that seem like they have no relation and you find the relation because everything's kind of connected.

Interestingly enough, women were becoming a consumer market after World War I, and while women didn't buy cars themselves, they were quite influential in the purchase of the family car. By appealing to women and maybe women's whimsy at the time or emotion connection to fashion, they were able to make a car more appealing and differentiated but also introduce this idea of planned obsolescence because fashions go in and out of style, or at least historically they did. So if you apply that idea to cars, cars can go in and out of style because cars are meant to last for a while. So how do you get somebody to buy another car is you upgrade to make it look like it's a new fashion. And there are all sorts of things they put in cars to make them female friendly so to speak, like little vanity cases.

There was an artist named Sonia Delaunay who was a French designer, and she worked... I can't remember the car company, but she worked to create fashionable interiors for the car. And you could also have dresses that matched your car with the same fabric. So there was a lot going on in consumer culture where fashion and beauty came to play.
Jodi KatzWhen you were learning about this because it feels so out of your day to day, a different time period, a different consumer good, and this idea of consumption and creating things that will become obsolete. It's sort of one of my challenges being in this business is I don't want to sell a lot of stuff that people don't need. I want-
Leslie HarrisNobody needs more stuff.
Jodi KatzRight. So it is sort of a conflict within me, and maybe that's one of the reasons why we're... I guess for lack of a better way to say it, picky about who we work with because I don't want to just sell stuff because there is so much stuff. We don't need more stuff. So does that live in you, that learning that you had from your coursework? Does that carry through to your career today?
Leslie HarrisIt does. I think I'm very conscious of the stuff that we make and the role of beauty in people's lives, both as something that makes you feel a certain way as well as a way that you communicate things about yourself to other people. So I think I have a respect for this stuff, but at the same time, I don't want to make stuff just for the sake of making stuff. So at least at SkinCeuticals, every product we make, it has a purpose. There's a problem we are trying to solve, and if it's not trying to solve a problem, then it's doesn't have a purpose. At least for SkinCeuticals, it's a very problem solution brand. It appeals to me.

Similarly, when working on other brands, there was always the question of what is the problem I'm actually trying to solve? Am I just making product to make product? Or am I making product that has a reason to live in somebody's life? I carry that through. I think even the brands... I'm not that person who could work for any brand. I really have to drink the Kool-aid, which limits my career options, but I'm okay with that.

So I think how I approach my career, if we talk about stuff, is my career has to have meaning, and there has to be meaning above... Making money is all really important, all that kind of stuff. But at the end of the day, what are you creating beyond goods? What's the good you put back in the world? And that's really I would say purpose drives me more. So the idea of stuff, I think my point is it expands beyond just products.
Jodi KatzRight. I love that, that purpose is so meaningful. That's how customers shop today by their values.
Leslie HarrisYeah. All of the disruption that has happened in beauty over the years, and there seem to be in history these big shifts. You saw it in the '20s. You saw it in the '60s. We're seeing it now in different ways. Beauty is the business of relevance. Somebody once said to me, and I think it totally... You see in history the technology, the needs don't really change, it's the context and the technology that changes. And that's always been I think something at the forefront for me in that because of culture, the world has forced beauty brands to change. Because barriers to entry are different, brands can come forth now and be created more quickly and fill gaps that have been existing for a long time. They're able to fill those gaps.

So again, it's like they may make makeup, for example, but it's not stuff because of the role it plays in people's lives, depending on the segmentation and filling a need that historically or recently hadn't been met.
Jodi KatzYeah, it's amazing that we haven't filled all that white space, but I guess since what's relevant changes, then what's white space changes.
Leslie HarrisExactly. Yeah, yeah. Which keeps it fun.
Jodi KatzYeah. So let's talk about your career. You started in private equity in M&A.
Leslie HarrisYup.
Jodi KatzHow did you end up in that space?
Leslie HarrisWell, I was graduated college, and I was like, "I'm an economics major. What do I do?" At that point, it was like well, you either go into investment banking or you go into private equity. So I went into private equity, and I did well there not because I was good with numbers but because I knew how to write. I worked a lot on mergers and acquisitions where we were buying or selling companies. So I would be putting together these pitch decks or memoranda, and I didn't know that I was marketing at the time. I went to a liberal arts college. There was no marketing, at least not when I went. I was marketing without knowing it. I was doing market research. I was positioning companies. I was at a junior level, so it was not like me the only person positioning these companies. But these were the deals that I was working on.

Actually, that's a little bit what lead me to study fashion because I was working on a... I think I was working on a door-to-door beauty brand, like sale. And you start to get deep in the research, and you go down the rabbit hole. I started reading a little bit more about beauty culture and it led me to take a fashion course. And one thing lead to another, and I said, "You know what, I'm going to take a jump here. And I'm just going to go back to school. I'm going to be an academic." And I kind of pivoted and did a 180 from finance, going into academia and the humanities that that...

But that fun I had in writing and positioning companies and telling stories I think continues to be something that I really enjoy and that I look for in my job and in the jobs that I take.
Jodi KatzSo you were able to go from finance to marketing because of you filled the gap with additional education. Is that how you're able to make that switch?
Leslie HarrisThe real switch I finally made to marketing was after I went to school and I got my master's degree. I met a boy in England and wanted to find a way to stay in the country as one does. We've now been married 18 years, by the way. But it was a visa marriage. It started as a visa marriage. But at the time, I had gotten a job in packaging development in cosmetics. I knew nothing about it. It was a job, but it was really fun because it was at this intersection of creative and operations and manufacturing and chemistry and engineering and culture. And I was like, "This is really fun, but I don't want to be a supplier. I want to be the person telling me what to do."

So one of these somebody knew somebody knew somebody, and my mom knew the head of product development at Kiehl. My mom is a photographer, and she was in her class. My mom said, "You have to meet this woman. She runs Kiehl's." I'm like, "I'm pretty sure she doesn't run Kiehl's." You know how parents are. They don't get all the details. But I was like, "Okay." And I went to speak with her really just saying, "What do I do to..." It was absolutely informational. "What do I do to position myself? Do I need to go back to school? Do I need to get an unpaid internship? Do I need to..." And she was like, "No, you actually have this unusual background because you have this financial background, and then you have this consumer culture background."

At the time when I was living in England, I didn't have a lot of money, so I would make my own products. I worked at a massage therapy company, for lack of a better term. I worked with a lot of aromatherapists. So they would teach me things. I just started making things. So you know necessity is the mother of invention. I think having this blended background made me an interesting candidate. I was there at the right place at the right time. They needed an assistant manager job that was open.

I was still living in London at the time, and I remember coming home to my husband and saying, "So here's the thing, I know you said you'd live anywhere but never New York. But there's this opportunity, and I really want to go. If you don't want to go, I'm still going to go. So do you want to go?" And my husband being the mensch that he is was like, "All right. Yeah, we'll do it." So we packed up and moved back to America. That was back in 2005. I've been at Laurel ever since.

But my first job was marketing, and so I really learned a lot by doing. Before I then went back and got a master's in cosmetics and fragrance marketing and management. But that's kind of how I made the leap to marketing.

So I really think that it's about finding transferable skills that can appeal to an employer and where you bring value. It's kind of like you meet somebody and you really want to be their friend, so you try to find commonalities. It's like, "You like this? I like this. You go here? I go here. We should be best friends." So in interviewing with companies, and this is in hindsight. I can't say I thought about this when I was 29. But it was I had the skillsets that made my point of view interesting but also gave value to them. And in turn, I was learning from them and I was learning marketing.

Then here I am. Honestly, some people start out when they're five and they say, "I want to be a brain surgeon." And they're 35 and they're a brain surgeon. I was five and I want to be a brain surgeon, and I'm always like, "How did I get here?" I think it's I never had that five-year plan. Bless those who do because it's great to be that organized. I've always followed intellectual curiosity. Maybe that doesn't make me risk averse then. If you ask me where do I see myself in five years, I couldn't tell you because who knows what the world's going to look like in five years. That's kind of the fun of it.
Jodi KatzLeslie, I think what's so interesting here is that you seem really at ease with, in a sense, going with the flow and taking on opportunities.
Leslie HarrisBut I'm not a go with the flow type.
Jodi KatzWell, you're going with the flow, and it seems like you're able to take these opportunities without being driven by your ego, which is I guess so exciting to me, especially for our listeners that you can be a runner at Ann Taylor. You can get a random job at a cosmetic packaging manufacturer. You can go to a meeting with someone that your mom introduced you to, and now you can run SkinCeuticals.

I used to think that you had to have this very specific pedigree and know all these certain people to be able to advance in your career. Thankfully, I've been able to disprove that, and you're disproving that for me too. And I think it's really important that people hear that. You did not have a straight line to global general manager at SkinCeuticals.
Leslie HarrisNo, and actually when I hire and I look at candidates to bring onto the team, I really look for diversity in many ways and diversity of lived experience and your background is also really important in terms of what somebody brings. So I've hired people from labs. I've hired people from operations. I've hired people who worked in media. Having different backgrounds because I think I hope at this point we all understand the value of diversity and why it's so important that you have a diversity of voices that have a seat at the table I think is also really important.

It's all about too, going back to marketing, showing somebody why those values are important, and particularly if some of your listeners are junior. When you're junior, what I care about is that you're smart, you're hungry, and you really want to learn and do good work. I read your resume. I know what it says. I'm not expecting you to be an expert in X, Y, Z. I want you to really want to add value and get something out of it and be a part of a team. That's what you look for or at least what I look for.
Jodi KatzI just love these situations. I love people painting a picture of what their real history is like because the LinkedIn version of ourselves is not enough. It's a façade. There's no detail. It's like free therapy for me to hear these stories like yours where it's zig-zaggy. Sometimes there's loops. It's never a straight line. I agree with you, that's what makes people, their point of views more enriching. It makes for I think a truer expression of what the consumer's thinking-
Leslie HarrisThat's true.
Jodi Katz... when somebody's had a little bit more of a zig-zag.
Leslie HarrisYeah. Because I think people's lives today are a little bit more zig-zagged than they were, and even if we think about how we shop, we don't shop by one channel anymore. We don't only buy certain kinds of brands at certain price points anymore. It's kind of the consumer's in the driver's seat, which is also good because that's also how change in the beauty industry continues to happen.
Jodi KatzSo my last question for you, Leslie, is about your side hustle. So I don't know how you have the time for one, but you do. Tell us about Dog Hospice.
Leslie HarrisYes. So I volunteer for an organization called Foster Dogs, which is an organization that its mission is to create awareness and education and promote a fostering communicate. And for anybody who has never fostered a dog or a cat before, it's like once you're married, it's the closest you can get to dating. When you take in dogs from shelters... Working in the beauty industry where we love before and afters. Watching a dog transform from a shelter dog to this dog who's like ready to graduate to a permanent home is really fulfilling.

I think I have a resident dog. They call them resident dogs when you also foster. But my dog Allie, as she's gotten older, I think I started to just being a nerd, interested in what happens when dogs age. And then also learning the number of dogs that are euthanized or languish at a shelter because of their age and dogs that are in their third chapter and they die in a shelter, which is a really stressful way to go. So if there's a way for us to find ways to bring them out of the shelter for that third chapter of whether it's two weeks, two months or a year, they get to feel love at the end of their life and that's what they leave knowing with.

I think it's also a way to look at, sort of selfishly, how do you live in the present? How do you enjoy what dogs enjoy just by simply existing? So it's fun. It's not easy, but it's not as sad as it sounds because they don't die in a shelter. It's like you have a dog and you have a bucket list. You have a bucket list dog. So it forces you to also think about what are the fun things you want to give to this dog? It kind of creates this sense of happiness.

So Foster Dogs has a fospice program called Chloe's Fospice Friends, and we focus a lot... We do some pulling of dogs, again pulling is like when you take them out of the shelter. All the lingo you have to learn. But we also do a lot of education for rescues, for fospice. Fospice, so foster hospice. For new fospice caretakers or people who adopt hospice or super senior dogs. It's fun.

I think what is also really nice, you think about balance, is a lot of my job is, it takes a lot of brain power. I think fospice takes a lot of heart power. Having a connection with people and finding ways to connect people and dogs is really fulfilling for both of them.
Jodi KatzLeslie, thank you so much. It's so inspiring.
Leslie HarrisYeah.
Jodi KatzWell, thank you for sharing your career and fospice wisdom with our listeners. And for our listeners, I hope you enjoyed this interview with Leslie. Please subscribe to our series on iTunes and for updates about the show, follow us on Instagram @WhereBrainsMeetBeautyPodcast.
AnnouncerThanks for listening to Where Brains Meet Beauty® with Jodi Katz. Tune in again for more authentic conversations with beauty leaders.

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