Episode 9: Elana Drell Szyfer, CEO of Laura Geller

Meet Elana Drell Szyfer. She’s a creative problem solver who entered the beauty industry by default, not by design. Listen as she takes us on the journey from assistant to CEO and as she shares creative ways to celebrate career wins.

Dan Hodgdon
AnnouncerWelcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty, hosted by Jodi Katz, founder and creative director of Base Beauty Creative Agency.
Jodi KatzHello, everyone. We are joined today by Elana Drell Szyfer, CEO of Laura Geller New York. Welcome to Where Brains Meet Beauty.
Elana Drell SzyferThank you.
Jodi KatzElana, our listeners are curious about the career path and journeys of executives in the beauty industry and not the glossed over picture perfect PR story that is so often told, but the honest and authentic one, and you certainly have an incredibly interesting story to tell.
Elana Drell SzyferThank you.
Jodi KatzThank you so much for being here.
Elana Drell SzyferMy pleasure.
Jodi Katz[crosstalk 00:00:45] so cool Elana because for me it feels so full circle. When I was just starting out as an entrepreneur, I had the great luck to land a meeting with Lynne Greene when she was running Prescriptives. And she was super lovely to me. We had a nice conversation, and then she put in the office with one of her team members, and it was you. And that was a really long time ago.
Elana Drell SzyferIt definitely was.
Jodi KatzI had no game back then. I don't even know what we talked about, but it feels pretty cool to be able to fast forward 10 years and be chatting with you now.
Elana Drell SzyferThanks.
Jodi KatzWell, and that leads me to my first question for you, which is did Lynne put a lot of random people in your office when you were at Prescriptives?
Elana Drell SzyferThat's a good question actually. I don't remember her putting a lot of random people in my office, but she did introduce me to somebody who turned out to be very influential for me from a career development perspective, somebody who started their own business in Australia and runs one of the really most successful independent beauty chains in Australia.

I met her at Prescriptives. We continued to stay in touch and work together for a couple of years, and when I reached a point in my career in the corporate world, she said to me, "You know, Elana, you really should go out and do something more entrepreneurial," and I said to her, "You know that's not who I am. I'm a good corporate girl, like I don't go anywhere without a deck, and I can't do that."
And she said, "No, Elana, really you can. It's like a muscle. You just need to exercise it." And I thought about it for a little while, and I did, and I've not really looked back. So she put some influential people in my office for sure.
Jodi KatzThat's so cool. So that will take us on a little aside, but what is it about you that felt so corporate? Why did that feel comfortable for you?
Elana Drell SzyferWell I spent almost 20 years working in big beauty companies, so I worked at L'Oréal twice for a total of eight years. I worked at Estée Lauder for seven years, and I worked at Avon for three years, so it was the only thing I knew. I knew how big companies worked. I knew what big companies' teams were like. I knew what the rules were. I knew how do big company presentations. So it was just the only thing that I knew, so that's kind of why I felt like that was my stomping ground.
Jodi KatzAnd so when she mentioned this more entrepreneurial route to you, did that feel like walking into the Wild West? What was your impression of what that was going to be like?
Elana Drell SzyferMy impression of what it was going to be like was that it was probably a place where ... I think I probably felt like there's a lot of definition to a corporate environment. There's a corporate calendar. You do certain things at certain times of the year. A lot of things are pre-planned and pre-organized, and you operate within a very organized atmosphere, hemisphere, solar system.

And I guess I felt that I wasn't sure if I had the ability to create and stick to my own set of rules or if I would be able to make sense out of something that was chaos or ... I also viewed people who worked in very entrepreneurial environments as super creative and innovative, and I don't think I saw myself that way, so I think probably for all of those reasons.
Jodi KatzAnd after several years of being in more entrepreneurial roles, do you see yourself as a creative and innovative person now?
Elana Drell SzyferI see myself as a creative problem-solver. Since I have assumed a managerial role, my background was in marketing, marketing, marketing strategy, product-to-market process, product development, things like that. And when I moved into a general management role, you become more of a generalist, so you know something about a lot of things, but you no longer really specialize just in one thing.

And so, I think I'm a creative problem-solver, what I think I realized about myself is that I like being a fixer, so I think to be a quote/unquote "a fixer," you have to identify a situation. You have to think about how it can be better. You have to go about setting a plan to do it. So, I think that's where my creativity comes in is that there are always random situations that you have to solve for, and I think I'm creative in thinking through how to get to solutions.
Jodi KatzMm-hmm (affirmative). Let's take a big step back and talk about why you chose beauty years ago, why a job in beauty?
Elana Drell SzyferIt was completely by default, not by design. I was a history major as an undergraduate. I really wanted to be an art history major, but my father put his foot down, and-
Jodi KatzWhy? What was the art major not going to do for you?
Elana Drell SzyferGet me a paying job, essentially, but that continues to be a personal passion, and I actually think it's been a big part of my career in beauty. But I really didn't know what I was going to do when I was an undergraduate. But I went to school in New York City, and I just knew I wanted to be in New York City, so I got a bunch of different internships, and they were mostly in PR, journalism.

And I ended up kind of discovering the world of corporate philanthropy. And I thought when I graduated that I wanted to go work for a big company and be the person to give away their millions to charitable arts organizations. And when I started to investigate that as a career choice, I basically learned that those jobs are very few and far between, and there're certainly fewer companies who support things like the arts.
Though, people encouraged me that if I wanted to be on that side, that I should go on the fundraising side first, make the contacts, and then see if I could move to the other side. So that's what I did. My first job after college was I worked in the development office, the fundraising office at the Juilliard School, and-
Jodi KatzWell, that's cool. That must have been a good thing.
Elana Drell SzyferYeah, so it was very interesting, and the reality is... So my father, who stays present in the background, continued to say like, "Okay, well this not-for-profit thing is great, but when are you really going to be able to afford your own apartment?" and go back to graduate school was really more what he was focused on.

My parents were very focused on making sure that we had an education, and my father used to say, "You can always lose your job, but no one can take your education away from you." So I started to take some classes to try and figure out what I might want to study in graduate school, and by chance, I took a marketing class at NYU.
And I said, "Wow, I really like this. Okay, I'll go to business school." And so, I guess for the first two and a half years, after I graduated from college, I was taking the requirements to apply to business school because I had taken no pre-calculus, calculus, micro, macro, anything in undergrad. So I, essentially, from there, I started to go to business school at night, but simultaneously, since I identified that I might like to try marketing, I was trying to find a job in marketing.
And there are actually a lot of similarities between fundraising and marketing. You have a target audience. You're essentially targeting them for the purpose of parting with their money or, essentially quote/unquote "buying into your product" even if that product is a donation. And so there are a lot of similarities, but I wasn't very good at convincing people of that at the time.
And so I ended up getting two jobs because I spoke French. The first one at Chanel and then the second one at L'Oréal as an assistant. And the first one was at Chanel but not within the beauty area, but the company is privately held, and it was within the company's New York-based family office. It just gave me exposure to the world of beauty.
It was in the same office as their beauty and fragrances team, not the fashion team. So it was the first place that I learned about Women's Wear Daily or Beauty Fashion. I started to see what people read and what people did during the day, and I guess I was somehow between my leanings towards French language and culture, Francophile life and just seeing what was going on.
I became interested, and I knew that I wasn't going to move up there, so I continued to write, at that point, to companies that I thought I might be able to get a job at, and I was offered a second job as an assistant for somebody. But the person interviewed me and said, "Listen, I think you're too well-educated for this." He was French, and he said, "But do this for me for a year, and I will promote you into marketing."
Jodi KatzWow.
Elana Drell SzyferSo I said, "Okay," and I worked for him for year, and he kept his promise, and so, by the time I was 25, I was starting business school, and I had my first job in marketing at L'Oréal, and it just sort of goes from there. That's how it all started.
Jodi KatzWe have so many listeners who are early in their career, and they probably are kind of in that spot where you were when you were 25, finding a job that felt kind of right or at least like a realm that felt right. I'm curious to know what you were looking to get out of those jobs. Did you have your sites on something? What was your focus? I don't mean the day-to-day work, but emotionally, what were you looking to get out of those opportunities.
Elana Drell SzyferSo my second job as an assistant, I supported somebody who was running finance for one division and the acting general manager of another division, and we sat on the same floor as the marketing team for the division that we supported from a finance perspective.

And it was a designer. It was essentially a group of licensed fragrance brands, and it was the first time that I saw or came in contact with a woman who was running the marketing team. And everything about her persona seemed intriguing and glamorous to me, and everything about her job seemed interesting and powerful to me. And I was just sort of like, "I want to be her. I want that corner office."
She was probably at least 25 years older than I was at the time, but I think that was the first time that I so vividly and tangibly knew that that's what I wanted to do, and there were many, many years before that where I had no idea. I didn't know what I wanted to do when I was in college really. I didn't graduate and have a job. I was trying to figure it out.
But once I saw that, then I knew what I wanted to do, and I also knew at that point that I didn't want to specialize only in one particular area of beauty, that I wanted to learn them all from a category point of view. So I think those were the two things that I figured out then.
Jodi KatzMm-hmm (affirmative). We can shift gears. Now you're a CEO of a fabulous brand. You're on multiple boards. There are too many boards for me to list out and mention. You're a wife, a mom and so much more. What is your day-to-day strategy for finding or holding on to serenity?
Elana Drell SzyferOoh, good question, and I read your article on LinkedIn this morning.
Jodi KatzYeah.
Elana Drell SzyferWell, a couple of things because I do find that there is a lot of noise in my head, and when I became the CEO of Laura Geller a couple of years ago, it was a very, very big challenge for me personally, and personally and professionally, we had some pretty lofty goals that I really wanted to achieve.

And I feel very fortunate because we achieved some of them in December, so I feel good about that. But it made almost my brain be on almost all of the time, and I needed to find some serenity in a way that I hadn't before.
So I had never meditated before, so I started meditating, and for a period of time, I was doing it very regularly, and it actually was what helped me to just realize how noisy it is in my head because it was very difficult to vegetate.
Jodi KatzWhat were you doing? Were you listening to an app on the train? How did you approach the meditating?
Elana Drell SzyferEither every morning or every night, I was using Headspace, which is an app and going someplace other than my bed to do it because I would fall asleep. So I was trying to create a pattern of waking up, going somewhere, making a deliberate and conscious effort to take the time to do something, so that's one thing.

I actually started to routinize. It's very hard. I like to make sure that I work out, but given my schedule, sometimes it's hard, and I think the only thing that actually makes it hard is the barriers I put in my own way. So I routinized. My husband and I agreed together, "Okay, at least two times a week, we're going to do this together," and we do pretty religiously, so that was something else.
Jodi KatzOut of curiosity, Elana, what were the barriers? I think a lot of people would want to learn from you. What were you telling yourself that made it harder to actually do something that seemed pretty easy when you figured it out?
Elana Drell SzyferYou mean like what were the barriers that I put to my-
Jodi Katz[cross-talk 00:18:03]. What were you forcing to get in the way of a workout?
Elana Drell SzyferOh, would say like, "I should be with my kids. I should give myself five minutes' extra sleep. I should wake up and look at that document instead. Oh, I really don't have time because I should get in early and make sure that I touch base with this person before we go." It was always about all the reasons why I shouldn't as opposed to the reasons why I should. You know, the excuses we all tell ourselves, or maybe I should just say the excuses I tell myself.

By the way, you should know I have a home gym, so it's literally five steps away from me, and it's a very nice one. Sometimes when I actually go in there or work out, I'm like, "Yeah, why don't I work out every day? Hmm. Maybe it's a long flight of stairs up from my bed."
So anyway, meditation was one, and learning to give myself a break every once in a while, honestly. The older you get, the more you realize your own personal idiosyncrasies and the voices in your head that sometimes are used for very positive end and sometimes are used to negative ends. So a lot of those things. I wish I could say I pledge to read more or walk more or...
One thing that my husband and I started to do actually was we also take a weekend walk. Saturday and Sunday, we also take a weekend walk as kind of a way to reconnect, just to have some alone time, et cetera, but I promise myself things all the time, like one way on the train, there or back, I won't do email. I'll read. I don't always do that. I'll listen to music. I don't always do that. I've tried a lot of things, but I find it's an ongoing process.
Jodi KatzThanks for being open about that. It's certainly, I think, in my focus, like the 10 years of growing my business, like the first few were just total chaos. I didn't have any perspective on what was happening. I was [inaudible 00:20:25] an arm or a child around my leg and Clinique on the phone, literally, like all the time. And it's just sort of recently where I felt like I want more, right? I want more deep breathing. I want more quiet in my head, and I started to think of it as buckets.

I have my work bucket and my kid bucket and my husband bucket and my own bucket, my household one to go to Trader Joe's bucket, and I started to learn to recognize when one of those buckets feels like it's getting too low and I need to fill up the bucket up.
So whether that's like a gym bucket or spending more quality time with the kids and not just like being around the kids, not just yelling at them. "Get in the shower. Go brush your teeth" but actually like hanging with them. I start to feel this sensation that that bucket needs to be filled, and it helps along with meditation. Well, it definitely helps. And therapy and coaching and all of it. [cross-talk 00:21:24]-
Elana Drell SzyferYeah, and I do have to say I saw that you started to see a coach, so I have worked with coaches professionally on an off for many years during different parts of my career, and after being here for about six months, there were a number of situations that I inherited that my approach was not working, mostly as it came to people.

And so I met through the private equity that I was working with, Tengram. I went to a CEO off-site that was sponsored by them, and I met the scariest person I'd ever met from a challenge-yourself-and-your-viewpoints kind of view. He was mentally and physically imposing, and I called him the next day, and I said, "I want to work with you" because I was so afraid of him.
And I knew that I couldn't go back and work with a coach I had worked with in the past because I find, ultimately, what happens is you get to know people and then they get soft on you. I wanted someone to be hard on me. So I don't know if you watch the show Billions, but-
Jodi KatzSure.
Elana Drell Szyfer...he's my Wendy Rhoades.
Jodi KatzOh, fabulous. That's awesome. Well, the last topic that we have time for, I wanted to talk about celebrating the wins because in my career, I've been so focused on moving forward that I really almost never made time to celebrate and honor the wins.

I was always onto the next thing fast, but of course, you pay tons of attention to the shitty moments. Those, of course, would occupy my mind for days or weeks, depending upon it. But the wins, I never really honored. So I'm curious if you have really good at celebrating the good stuff in your career.
Elana Drell SzyferWell, I think that I am a very sentimental person, so I actually, I think that I've celebrated them in different ways. I always try and celebrate them with my team to honor a moment because I do think those things get remembered. And I do think when you've worked really hard to achieve something, it's important to commemorate it, and so I do.

One of the things that is a demand, I think, of not only a millennial workforce but a millennial workforce or any workforce, is communication. And sometimes as a CEO, you have the opportunity to have the bird's-eye to an organization, and so you think because you know everything, everyone knows everything, and it occurred to me people don't know everything.
So what I started to do was write. I tried to write a weekly message, a Monday message, kind of setting up the entire organization for the week and celebrating the wins from the week before. They actually are so meaty, not to say we have so many wins, but I try and be detailed. But they take several hours, so now, what we're doing as a team is I write them every other week, and one of my members of my senior team takes the alternating week for their functional area to talk more specifically about something in their functional area.
And we do celebrate a lot of wins there, anything from an event or a PR mention or an award or something like that, so I have started to do that. And on a personal level, I think I do take a moment just for myself sometimes to kind of say, "Wow, look how far we've come." I really do take enormous pride in what I do. I think that there's a relationship between your passion and your productivity.
So when things do happen, like when we do launch things, or when things that were ideas then show up and you can display them in your office, I do take a lot of time. Maybe not a lot of time, but I do celebrate those things even just personally.
Jodi KatzWhat did you do to celebrate when you got your first job as CEO? You personally? Is that a jump up and down? Is it a dance? How do you honor that moment?
Elana Drell SzyferNo. Being a sentimental person, I came from a family where we didn't give each other socks for your birthday. Every gift was a special gift because that's a running joke between me and my husband, but some people give gifts that you need, right?
Jodi KatzRight.
Elana Drell SzyferAnd we never gave gifts you need. We always tried to give things you didn't need or things that were extraordinary or things that would be remembered or et cetera.
Jodi KatzMm-hmm (affirmative).
Elana Drell SzyferAnd so certainly along the way for different jobs, like I remember my first promotion, I think, to VP or something. There were things I actually bought for myself that I still have all of these years later that I still remember them. CEO, I'm not sure, but I definitely...

There's a person who I think of when those things happen to me, and it's really my father because he used to push us a lot, as you can tell, and not in a tough way, in a very encouraging way. So I always think about him just because I think it would make him happy.
Jodi KatzWell, Elana, thank you so much for sharing this incredible wisdom and honesty with us today.
Elana Drell SzyferMy pleasure.
Jodi KatzThis has been great. Thanks, Elana.
Elana Drell SzyferThanks. Take care.
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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