‘Life in beauty: From Business to Art and Philanthropy,’ a conversation with Leonard Lauder

April 30, 2021

The leading skincare, makeup and cosmetics company Estée Lauder was founded in 1946. Estée Lauder’s son, Leonard Lauder, joined the company in 1958. He created one of the industry’s first research and design laboratories. Lauder acquired many brands including Mac, Bobbi Brown and Aveda, gaining a reputation as one of the world’s greatest marketers. In the panel “A Life in Beauty: From Business to Art and Philanthropy,” Leonard Lauder said the lasting lesson he gained from his mother Estée Lauder was the importance of the quality of a product.

When asked about what makes a good business leader, Lauder offered three key insights. First, he said “great business leaders focus on one thing: trust.” According to Lauder, for a leader to be successful in business they must be able to instill trust in their work, products and ability to deliver. Second, he advised, “If you can bring your team together you are a good leader.” As described in his book, “The Company I Keep: My Life in Beauty,” Lauder and his company frequently took van trips to their stores in order to bring brands together and collaborate. Third, he spoke about the importance of being a good listener. On his visits to different stores he would carefully listen to people and determine who would be best for each brand based on their analytical skills.

Lauder is highly regarded as a “chief teaching officer” by many of his employees. He teaches a brand equity course in his company, aiming to share the knowledge he has acquired over the years. His method of teaching focuses on the assessment of why something failed. Lauder expressed a strong belief that “you’ll learn more from failure than you’ll learn from success.”

Lauder also highlighted how social media has reduced barriers to entry in the beauty industry. He noted that in the past individuals needed a lot of money to get started in cosmetics, but now it is possible to be successful with just a good idea. Lauder remarked that social media has brought the introduction of new people who “threaten the powers” of the past.

Lauder has made significant contributions to the art world and is passionate about his art collections. He is part of the leadership of the Whitney Museum of American Art and has also donated his cubist collections to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lauder stressed that he collects art to preserve it, not to possess it.  He believes that art should belong to the people and plans for his collections to be conserved in museums.

“Museums are known by the power of their collections,” said Lauder. With this analogy, expressed his advice for students going into business. Lauder asked students to think “If you want to go into business what will you be famous for?”

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