Entrepreneurs are first problem solvers. Fundamentally dissatisfied with the status quo, they throw all their energy, talent and resources into creating solutions for the challenge at hand, and in the process they generate economic value for themselves and others.
For Jamie Kern Lima, a former news anchor, the problem was cosmetics products that didn’t seem to work for people like herself with rosacea, a hereditary condition that causes blotchy, red skin. In 2008, she co-founded IT Cosmetics with her husband, Paulo, and began marketing a line of makeup products designed to address this need.
For two years, Jamie struggled to get the attention of the beauty industry until she landed a spot on QVC to pitch her product line. Using herself as model, Jamie demonstrated its effectiveness, and her products sold out by the end of the 10-minute segment. In the years after her first appearance on QVC, IT Cosmetics became the largest beauty brand on the network and by 2015 had reached $182 million in net sales. In 2016, L’Oréal acquired IT for $1.2 billion, making Jamie the first female CEO of a L’Oréal brand.
Jamie left her role at L’Oréal in 2019 after fulfilling her three-year contract. Today she is an investor in other women’s businesses and dedicates her time and energy to inspiring women and girls to pursue entrepreneurship and business leadership. She often joins John Maxwell at events, sharing her story and challenging audiences to grow in their leadership skills.
We sat down with Jamie to find out more about the values that have driven her to make an impact in the business world.
AVAIL: You ran your business out of your living room and didn’t pay yourself for three years. How do you think this beginning influences your perspective on what it means to succeed?
Jamie Kern Lima: So many people see the outcome and success of the business I built and don’t know that for many of the early years it was a journey of struggle, setbacks, lots of rejection, and many times I truly wasn’t sure how we were going to make it. It felt like I was surviving solely on the big-picture vision for the company and pure faith. Now, having turned an idea into a billion-dollar business and growing a team of over 1,000 employees, when I look back at those early years of struggle, what I know for sure is that our steps are ordered. In those early years I had to learn how to do every job possible because I couldn’t afford to hire anyone. Then as we grew, I knew even if an employee left, I could cover. I grew deep appreciation for every role and eventually every department in the company because I once got to do that role.
AVAIL: You began as a morning news anchor before you started IT Cosmetics. How does your experience in public speaking and presenting influence your approach to business leadership?
Jamie: I believe the different jobs I’ve had—from morning news anchor and even back in the days when I was a waitress at Denny’s—have built the skill set and approach I bring to the table as a leader. When I was waitressing at Denny’s, there were operational issues in the kitchen, and pancakes could take up to an hour to come out. I would often have customers so upset that they would walk out, and of course not tip me. I learned to entertain and carry conversations so they wouldn’t leave. I also learned that you can have a great product and great team, but if your back office, systems and operations aren’t right, you’ll fail. I took that lesson with me 15 years later when I started IT Cosmetics in my living room, and I spent money on important operational elements over the flashy fun stuff. Thank you, Denny’s! Similarly, as a news anchor I learned to write stories, edit, write scripts, shoot video and present on air. In the early days at IT, I wrote all product copy, press releases, etc. And then eventually, when we launched our products on television, there were some parts of it that were much more natural to me from my past experience. And while I think they helped, I still do believe it was discipline, focus and putting in 10,000 hours of studying others selling on TV to recognize patterns, that were the key factors to our success on the channel.
AVAIL: In one of your interviews you mention an encounter with a male executive who questioned whether you would succeed—with some sexist remarks. You said it caused you to be determined to be grateful, not vengeful, when you did succeed. How have you kept your focus in what can be a chauvinistic context?
Jamie: I believe it’s so important as a leader to never take rejection, other people’s irrationality or volatility, or others’ hurtful words, personally. They’re almost always just projecting their own pain or limited vision onto you. It’s almost never actually about you. And it’s never an indication of your potential for success or your worth. In the case of the potential investor who told me he was going to pass on investing because he didn’t think women would buy makeup from someone who has a body like mine, while it of course hurt my feelings, I also knew he was simply sharing his belief system with me, and I knew his belief system was the exact reason I needed to create a beauty company that was inclusive. So, we could change the beauty norms many of us, including him, were raised to believe. His words were ultimately just a reminder to me of how powerful and needed my vision to change the beauty industry was. After he shared those words with me, I didn’t hear from him again until six years later, the day it was on the homepage of the Wall Street Journal that my company was acquired for $1.2 billion dollars cash. He called me to say congratulations and that he was wrong. I thanked him for his kind words. And to myself I remembered the famous words, “God gives us double for our trouble.” That day felt like a whole lot more than double. And a reminder never to let anyone else’s doubt about you turn into doubt in your own head.
AVAIL: Success wasn’t handed to you. You had four jobs as a teenager and were the first in your family to go to college. How has this shaped your perspective when it comes to leadership?
Jamie: It has shaped it in so many ways. I remember being an eight-year-old little girl in my living room watching Oprah be interviewed by Barbara Walters, and Oprah said, “I’ve always believed I was destined for greatness.” And I remember even as a little girl thinking, I am too! And here’s the thing, I believe we all are. And what we are able to and decide to do about it determines our destiny. I decided I was going to do everything I could to go after my dreams, and that started as four jobs as a teenager because my dream then was to have my own car. It ended up being a neon blue Geo Metro that had three cylinders and wouldn’t go up the hills in the Seattle rain. So, it wasn’t exactly my dream car, but I worked so hard to earn every penny to get it. And the many different types of jobs I’ve had along the way have given me a true understanding of all types of people from all types of backgrounds. When I grew my business, I knew that our customer was just as diverse. Every type of person. And I felt like I could connect to and understand our customer and what they want. Then I made an intentional effort to hire a team that was just as diverse as our customer base.
AVAIL: As you lead your company, what are some of the core values that drive you?
Jamie: John Maxwell says, “If you’re lonely at the top you’re not a leader, you’re a hiker. Because leaders take people with them.” One of the core values that drives me is truly seeing greatness in others. And then investing in and believing in them. John also says, “Great leaders don’t climb ladders, they build them.” This core value has always stuck with me. And now that I’ve experienced all stages of growth, entrepreneurship and leadership—from the start-up phase, to hyper-growth and infrastructure build, to streamlined processes and operational efficiencies, to the acquisition phase of selling my company and then the integration phase of being owned by another company, I can say that despite the outcomes of success that the world celebrates, the part that feels the most fulfilling to me as a leader is the ladders I’ve built for other leaders to climb. The wings I’ve helped be the wind beneath for future leaders to fly. It’s the part that fills my soul the most.
AVAIL: The broader culture has increased its expectations that businesses be socially responsible. How do you address these expectations and still be profitable and generate value for your company and customers?
Jamie: This is the ultimate dilemma facing so many businesses and leaders. It’s just not an option to not do the right thing. As a leader you must value and set a standard of being socially responsible. And, with that said, many businesses go out of business because it is extremely difficult to be profitable in many industries and meet all elements of social responsibility at the same time. Depending on the status of the economy, society will continue to swing on a pendulum of valuing one over the other more: social responsibility or economic prosperity.
AVAIL: Who are some of the people you look to for inspiration, and what are some of the resources that continue to challenge you in your leadership journey?
Jamie: I believe in the power of being a lifetime student. And I believe all great leaders are. When I teach on stage with John Maxwell, or recently when I taught a class alongside Oprah, I always leave feeling so sharpened and like I learned more than I taught. I believe it’s so important to surround yourself with friends and leaders and mentors who sharpen you. And even if you don’t have a personal relationship with them, read their books, watch their interviews and courses, study their business case studies. And my favorite thing of all is to read the same book a year or two later, because when you do that, and you’ve grown as a leader, you end up having a totally different experience the next time you read it!
AVAIL: When you started out, you had 100-hour work weeks to keep momentum in your fledgling business. What are some things you’ve learned about work/life balance as you transitioned from an entrepreneur to an established business leader?
Jamie: This is something I still struggle with and haven’t resolved. I realized years into my business, when I was still working 100-hour weeks, that I actually was addicted to work. And what I know is that work can actually numb us just like any other type of addiction. So I’ve had to be very intentional about crafting the vision for what kind of life I want to have, what kind of parent and wife and friend I want to be, and then sticking to that even when at times I’d rather be working.
AVAIL: You didn’t have a wealthy investor or family ties to help you launch. How did starting out small influence how you mentor and add value to the people you lead?
Jamie: In our digital, social media-focused world, it is so easy for leaders and managers and entrepreneurs to get distracted by what others, and especially competitors, are putting out there. And social media is just a highlight reel that often is no true indication of what’s really happening inside a business. One challenge I see in younger leaders is an impatience to have a bigger title and a flashier company and persona. Because that is what is being celebrated right now often in the younger generation. In so many industries technology has eliminated the barriers to entry and also the regulations and qualifications of a product or business. At some point it will have to correct, but in the meantime I mentor young leaders to prioritize cash flow over flash. To prioritize what actually adds value to the customer. And to not get distracted by what appears to be success for others online and risk becoming inauthentic or diluting your company’s own true secret sauce.
AVAIL: You prayed, “God can you dream a bigger dream for me than I can dream for myself?” Can you describe how you integrate your faith into your role as a business leader?
Jamie: Every day I pray God opens the right doors and closes the wrong ones. And that He brings the right people into my life and has the wrong ones leave. This faith has helped me trust that things will work out OK when I lose a key employee to a competitor, or when an opportunity doesn’t go my way. And when I look back, every single time without fail, an even stronger employee joins the team or a better opportunity eventually comes to pass. When I’m making key decisions or tempted to compromise or in a very difficult leadership challenge, I pray and ask for clarity and discernment and sometimes just a clear gut feeling of what the right answer is. And when I feel the answer, I try to live and lead in a way that’s aligned with it. And while my faith is very important to me personally, I’ve also intentionally chosen to surround myself with teams, employees and friends who are a mixture of backgrounds, faiths and political views. Because I know that’s reflective of who our customers are. As a leader, and in my daily life, I won’t compromise or surround myself with people who compromise on core values, but I intentionally surround myself with people who represent a vast array of thinking, as it truly sharpens me. We’re in an interesting point in society now, and with social media and digital algorithms, if you’re not intentional about it, you can easily live a life where you’re only surrounded by people and online content that reenforces only what you believe, and that risks limiting your growth and dulling your intellect and empathy.
AVAIL: You’ve mentioned before that it’s hard to not let “no” equate to doubt in your head. People may see your success and not realize that you heard a lot of noes before you began hearing yeses. How did you maintain confidence in the vision you had for your business in the face of that kind of discouragement?
Jamie: The first several years of growing the business I heard “no” hundreds of times, including from many experts I had put on a pedestal. It is so easy to let rejection turn into self-doubt, business-doubt, idea-doubt and sometimes even God-doubt. Two of the things that helped me stay resilient and keep going in the seasons of rejection were having a very deep and clear “why,” or vision for why I was doing what I was doing with the company. My mission for IT Cosmetics was so much bigger than myself and having a why that’s so deep and bigger than ourselves makes it powerful enough to lean on when times are tough, and it can give you the fuel to keep going. A lot of people give up on goals or dreams or businesses because they haven’t done the deep work of identifying a why that’s so powerful that it keeps them going. The second thing is my faith. We got down to no money and so close to going out of business many times in the early years, and every time I felt like I wanted to give up, when I prayed about it, I felt a clarity that I was supposed to keep going. Even when there was no proof around me that it would work, plus constant rejection. I’m so glad I listened to the knowing God gave me, instead of the noes I heard from so many others.
AVAIL: What advice or encouragement would you have for young people considering entering the business world but wondering whether they can make more of an impact in another field?
Jamie: Create a vision for your life and for the impact you want to make on the world, and then start taking steps to build the skill set, the exposure or experience and the relationships to bring that vision to fruition. And this is so important and so rare to see happen in a young leader: Approach every job committed to excellence and focusing on how you can add value. How you can add value to your boss, to your team, to the company you’re at. So many young people want to know what they’ll get out of the job, what they’ll learn, who will mentor them, how quickly they can move up. That’s a mindset that’s all about them, and what is a secret to success is when you make it about how you can add the most value to others, you start to become very valuable. And when you become very valuable to your boss and your team and your company, that’s when you move up, get exposed to more things, brought to more rooms where decisions are made, make more money and build a greater skill set. Become invaluable by focusing on how you can add value. Great leaders will notice you when you do and take you under their wings and eventually help you fly on your own! One of the best in the world at cultivating young leaders into powerful leaders is John Maxwell. He is an icon and world-changer, and yet he always finds time to invest in and multiply the impact of other leaders, and I’m so blessed and grateful to be one of them.
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