• |

Ulta Beauty Exec and SNC Alum Explains How Cosmetics Become Personal and Cultural Expressions

UltaBeauty-vert700.jpgShe is on a self-described mission “to make beauty a force for good.” And as vice president of consumer insights at Ulta Beauty, a $10 billion business with 1,300 brick and mortar stores, Elizabeth (Knox) Oates ’04 is primed to make that mission a reality.

“Beauty hasn’t always been inclusive in its history, and we want to change that. We want to make beauty something that can be powerful, and the power can be recognized and realized for everyone. I think that’s how we come to life,” Oates says.

An unexpected “dream job” 
Oates joined Ulta in May 2019 as the senior director for consumer insights before taking the vice president’s chair. “It is a dream job. It really is. I get to help the entire organization make choices based on the needs and wants of our guests. I get to be the voice of customers who are very passionate about shopping and about beauty. I also work in an environment full of trust, and really smart people who lean into one another, trust each other and want to win as a holistic group.

“I didn’t choose the beauty business; the beauty business chose me. But I’m glad I’m here.”

She was approached to make the move from her last role at Kohl’s Department Stores, where she also worked in consumer insights. She had started on that path at General Mills, her breakthrough role after pursuing an international business major at SNC and then an MBA from the University of Wisconsin.

“All three of those roles were really about understanding customers, and what’s right for people, and really looking beyond a customer and seeing a human. And what does that human need? And how can we best meet those needs and serve that person well?”

The customer is always changing
Within a year of joining Ulta, the pandemic hit and the stores closed. Sales, expectedly, took a nosedive, but an opportunity opened for Ulta to reposition themselves and meet customers where they were.

“Beauty had taken on a new role in their lives,” Oates says. “Skincare had become self-care. [Customers] were saying, ‘When I can’t control all of these things around me, I can still control how I care for myself and I have these moments to figure out quietly who I am and who I want to be.’ Self-expression and beauty come together to say, ‘Here’s how I want to show up to the world and how the world has seen me.’ 

“And so beauty did take on a new powerful role, and understanding that has really helped push our business forward to be successful in this brave new world.”

The “brave new world” consists of beauty enthusiasts as young as 12 with no upper age limit, of all ethnicities across the gender spectrum. In response, Ulta has launched a second year of its Muse accelerator program for Black beauty founders and highlights Latinx, AAPI and LGBTQ-owned businesses on its website.

“Our biggest challenge is really about understanding that the context that our consumers live in, and what this category does for our guests and how we can best serve their needs,” Oates says. “That’s the central challenge of doing business anywhere.

“I use this analogy, that if we’re all driving a car, we have to know what’s around us. We have to use the rear-view mirror to see where we’ve been and how we got there and help us learn from it. We also have to use the windshield to look forward and see what’s ahead and how we’re going to get there. And one is relative to the other because the windshield is bigger. And so we also serve as a forward-looking advisor unit to the organization to say what our customers are going to need in the future. And how do we go from here to there?”

The steady and measured route to success
As a marathon runner, she knows that you need focus and stamina to get from here to there. In the last year, Oates ran the Chicago Marathon and qualified for the Boston Marathon. “I completed my first ultramarathon, a 31-mile trail race with hills and river crossings. It’s been an exciting year but it’s tough fitting in training. This morning, I got up and ran 6 miles before my kids were awake,” she says.

During her time at St. Norbert, she was president of the Discovery International fair-trade store, played on the women’s golf team and was active in the Kappa Beta Gamma Greek organization.

“I also had a research grant working for a French professor and taught K-12. But I always knew my focus would be business. It’s the beauty that I did not expect.”

Sept. 7, 2023