The IT Factor

How Business School classmates–turned–power couple Jamie Kern Lima ’04 and Paulo Lima ’04 built a cosmetics empire and sold it to one of the world’s most iconic makeup brands.

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Matt Furman

Jamie Kern Lima ’04 and Paulo Lima ’04 can pinpoint the minute in September 2010 that their lives changed forever. Well, the 10 minutes, to be precise, in the studios of the TV shopping channel QVC, which had granted the couple a single chance to showcase their three-year-old company, IT Cosmetics.

“At that point, everything was on the line. They’d had us bring in over 6,000 tubes of concealer, and we could barely afford the inventory,” recalls Jamie. On air, her hand shook so hard that the host shoved it out of the way during a close-up shot. Backstage, Paulo watched anxiously.

Jamie began her demonstration. She remembers, “I was so stressed out. My rosacea was bright red.” Yet, she rubbed away her makeup, then smoothed on her company’s signature product, a concealer called Bye Bye Undereye, to show how it covers dark under-eye circles or can be used as a foundation. Within seconds her skin appeared even-toned but natural, almost as though she wasn’t wearing makeup at all.

An alert flashed on the studio TV. Every last tube of Bye Bye Undereye had just sold out. With cameras still rolling, Jamie recalls, “I started crying.”

Paulo was in the greenroom. “I remember looking at the screen. I saw the ‘sold out’ banner, and I just said to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re not going bankrupt.’”

It’s hard now to imagine that the future of IT Cosmetics, which specializes in products for extremely sensitive skin, was ever that precarious. Last summer, global cosmetics powerhouse L’Oréal bought IT Cosmetics for $1.2 billion, one of the largest acquisitions in L’Oréal history. In announcing the deal, L’Oréal cited IT Cosmetics’ continued growth, marked by $182 million in sales in the 12 months ending in June 2016, a 56 percent leap from the year before.

The pair can laugh about their early days now in Jamie’s glamorous waterfront office in Jersey City, New Jersey, seated side by side on a pale pink couch. But seven years ago, the two were working more than 100 hours a week out of their California apartment to build their company, which they funded with a combination of savings and investments from family and friends. For three years neither of them drew a salary, instead sinking every penny they had into perfecting what they call their “skin-loving” formulations. (IT stands for Innovative Technologies and is pronounced like the word “it.”)

“We were cheap with everything,” Paulo says.

“I would worry about how much the frozen yogurt was in LA,” Jamie remembers.

But after that QVC appearance, everything changed. IT Cosmetics became a QVC fixture. Two years later, they inked an exclusive deal with Ulta, the country’s largest big-box beauty store. Women are drawn to their products, the Limas say, by Jamie’s on-air demonstrations, which she now does with models who have redness, hyperpigmentation, and other features often considered skin flaws. “We do things really differently than traditional beauty brands, because we don’t use the same type of traditionally aspirational-looking models,” she explains. “We have Helen, our most popular model, who is 73 years young. We have Alicia, who has acne-prone skin. We have Desiree, who has under-eye darkness. We believe every woman is beautiful, and we prove it by using all ages and skin tones, and showing how IT is truly for everyone.” The aim is to show up close how regular people can achieve, as the slogan on their sleek packaging reads, “your skin but better.”

Underlying this is the desire to help others feel confident about their looks, which Jamie knows firsthand can be difficult when you’re experiencing skin issues— either ongoing ones like acne scars, or ones brought on by special circumstances such as illness. Paulo says the stories that stay with him are the ones in which women say the products transformed how they feel about their appearance. The company has donated more than $20 million in products to Look Good Feel Better, a program that provides beauty workshops, products, and services to people going through cancer treatment. Adds Paulo, “We often hear from women who discovered us through a Look Good Feel Better workshop and now feel even more confident as they face the fight of their life. It reminds me that what we’re doing is so much bigger than ourselves.”

Even after the L’Oréal acquisition, the couple continues to run the company as co-CEOs (and log 100-plus-hour weeks). The acquisition also made Jamie the first woman CEO of a L’Oréal brand in the company’s 107-year history. They insist that the brand’s focus on inspiring confidence and connecting with ordinary people will remain constant.

“My favorite thing in the world is when women call in [to QVC] and share their stories of how they feel beautiful for the first time, or for the first time in a long time.” —Jamie Kern Lima ’04

“We have no plans to change anything at all about our company,” promised Jamie in a YouTube message to customers, whom she calls “IT girls,” when the sale was announced. “You’ll continue to see me and our team live on QVC all hours of the day and night.”

In fact, being on QVC is one of Jamie’s favorite parts of the job, allowing her to talk directly to customers. “Even before there was YouTube or Facebook Live, this was the authentic live environment where you could connect with your customers and build that trust,” she says.

The Limas’ passion for speaking directly to customers and showing how their products work on real women meshes seamlessly with what today’s customers want, explains Allen Burke, who oversaw QVC’s cosmetics business for almost 14 years and serves as an advisor to IT Cosmetics. “Thirty years ago it was fine to go to the Lancôme counter, and you trusted that the person behind the counter … would make good suggestions. Today, the customer wants to hear directly from the person who created the product — why they created this product and who they created it for. The customer wants to hear what is important about it or how to use it.”

In fact, beauty products in particular lend themselves to this direct-sales technique. In 2015, the beauty sector accounted for 17 percent of QVC’s business, and last fall, QVC bet big on the beauty industry. It launched Beauty IQ, a network that will offer beauty-related programming 24-7 and focus on higher-end products — so-called prestige beauty brands, including IT Cosmetics.

On QVC, Jamie says, customers will call in and say, “‘Jamie, I have redness, too. Can you show me again how I cover it?’ and I can literally take my makeup off and show them, ‘Okay, here’s what you do.’ ” Also when she is on QVC, Jamie adds, “My favorite thing in the world is when women call in and share their stories of how they feel beautiful for the first time, or for the first time in a long time.”

Courtesy of IT Cosmetics

It is in fact this desire to hear people’s stories that ultimately led to IT Cosmetics. Jamie arrived at Columbia Business School in 2002, planning to go into consulting or finance. She instead fell in love with the stories of the School’s alumni, professors, and students. “There were so many alumni who would come talk to classes, and I found that — even more so than with the case studies or anything else — I was getting the most out of the people at Columbia.” She started writing a column for the School’s student newspaper, the Bottom Line, called “Uncovered” — fitting, she points out, since she now goes on TV and removes her makeup, uncovering her skin, flaws and all, for the world to see.

She loved telling people’s stories so much that after graduation she took a reporting and anchoring job at an NBC affiliate in the Seattle area. “I probably lowered the Business School’s salary curve,” she jokes. But, she says, “I loved it. ... I could spend three days at a homeless shelter and interview multiple residents or do feature pieces I found really inspiring.” But the irregular hours and hot lights wreaked havoc on her skin. She developed rosacea and began losing her eyebrows. “I would spend my whole paycheck trying to find products that would cover my issues and help me look like I had even skin tone on camera.” The idea for IT Cosmetics presented itself not long after she accidentally wiped away a drawn-on eyebrow during a newscast.

“I was like, ‘If I feel this way about makeup and I can’t find a brand of products that really works for me, there must be other women out there who have these same issues,’ ” she says.

By that point, Paulo and Jamie had been dating for five years, after meeting in a statistics class and joining the same study group. They got married in 2007, and it was while planning the wedding that Paulo realized they were well matched not only romantically, but also professionally.

“The things that I thought I was really good at, Jamie didn’t enjoy. But the stuff that I thought I was really bad at, she was unbelievably good at. She’s so in tune with people’s emotions. I’m more of a quantitative person,” he explains

Paulo also had experience in the cosmetics industry, having worked with beauty companies as an investment banker. “I knew the business model for the industry. I knew the revenue model,” he says. “Once I heard her specific ideas for makeup, I was like, ‘This is brilliant.’”

They met with dermatologists and plastic surgeons who developed formulas that were, the Limas say, unique at the time. “We were the first makeup company to create products that are skin care/makeup hybrid products. At the time we launched, just a little over eight years ago, there was makeup or there was skin care,” explains Jamie.

Everything else, they did themselves. “I had never ordered unit cartons from another country, I’d never imported or exported, I’d never set up lines of credit with a bank,” says Paulo.

As the company grew, the couple hired employees and in 2013 took on a private equity partner, TSG Consumer Partners, which acquired a minority stake in the company. IT Cosmetics was in discussions with L’Oréal for three years before last year’s sale. The acquisition will allow IT Cosmetics to leverage L’Oréal’s global infrastructure to expand. “I believe in all my heart our products make women’s lives better,” says Jamie. “So how do we do that on a much larger scale and more quickly than we can do it on our own?”

This belief that their products are transformative comes through on the air, says Burke. “We always say, ‘The lens doesn’t lie.’ You can tell if somebody is just there to pitch some product. But [with] Jamie, people connect with her because she’s brilliant, authoritative, passionate, sensitive, and genuine.”

It is this genuine belief in their products that has kept the Limas going, even amid early struggles. Before landing that first QVC spot, the Limas had already been turned down by QVC — by Burke, in fact. “I remember hanging up the phone and literally sobbing,” Jamie says. “In the early years, I would let hearing the word ‘no’… equate to doubt in my own head. I’d say, ‘Is this going to work? This idea to solve women’s problems in this way and communicate this message that every woman is beautiful … it feels right in my gut, in my spirit, and in my heart, but why is every retailer telling us ‘no?’” She adds, “If I could have told myself, ‘I know everyone is saying no, but one day you’re actu-ally going to be the number one brand on QVC. You’re actually going to be a top brand at Ulta and Sephora,’ oh my gosh, I would have saved so many tears.”

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