THE CULTIVATOR: CAROL HAMILTON
Carol Hamilton, Group President of Acquisitions, L’Oréal
On October 30th, the Fragrance Foundation named beauty business icon Carol Hamilton the 20th annual Circle of Champions honoree. Hamilton’s accomplishments and contributions to the fragrance industry cannot be underestimated: She has transformed L’Oréal Paris as a company, not only by making it more successful and more charitable since she joined in 1984, but also by touching the lives of people she has worked with as a mentor and guide. She’s a crusader for women’s rights, a formidable philanthropist, a creative force to be reckoned with—and an extraordinary gardener. Here, she reflects on 35 years at the top of her game.
What does it mean to you to be welcomed into the Circle of Champions?
I’ve been trying to think about exactly how I would define a champion, but I think it’s someone who has made a difference in the world and who has championed ideas and people and causes. I think it means I’ve really pushed for things, and achieved something. I love it.
What have been some of the greatest moments in your career?
The greatest moments always involve people. To hire someone and mentor them, and then see them get promoted up the ranks and achieve their dreams—that’s one of the things that has made me most proud. I would say the other is being able to blend my love of business with finding related purposes that give back to the world. For example, the first philanthropic cause for L’Oréal was to join with the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund in 1995. That was before we bought Kiehl’s. I joined the Ovarian Cancer Research Board and started doing events, not only to raise money for the fund but also to create advocates of our employees and to have events that made survivors feel more beautiful and loved during their fight. I also got very involved with doctors to understand where the money that L’Oréal raised was being spent, which was tremendously rewarding for me personally and for the company. Over a fourteen-year alliance with them, we became the number one fundraiser on behalf of ovarian cancer research.
Then you went on to expand L’Oreal’s philanthropic work even more.
When I moved to the Luxury Division in 2008 in the depths of the recession, I thought if we just keep looking at the sales numbers, we’re going get really depressed. We needed to use the time more constructively. I asked each of the brands to select a philanthropic cause that was very closely connected to what they stood for. The Giorgio Armani brand, whose number one fragrance was Acqua Di Gio, decided to work with UNICEF and created a program called Acqua for Life, which is now ten years old. We’ve raised 10 million dollars to bring clean water to the most needed countries in the world. With Lancome, we partnered with St. Jude, because the fact that the brand was one that was transmitted from mother to daughter resonated with the importance of family relationships to the way St. Jude treats childhood cancer. I believe if you can couple the power of a brand and the passion of its employees with a cause, you not only give back but you make a much more purposeful brand, and that’s what consumers are looking for.
How did you get started with gender equality work?
I’ve always been a big champion for women, but in about 2013 it dawned on me that maybe I should understand gender equality more from a fact-based point of view and really study it, rather than just be the victim of a subtle, sometimes-unconscious bias. I found a course at Harvard called Women in Power. It’s a week-long adult course, and it really made me understand that there are true physiological and biological reasons why men and women are different in terms of the way they approach negotiation, networking, everything. It made it much easier for me to tackle conversations that before I had avoided. And last year I became the chair of the Women’s Leadership Board at Harvard, so I’m responsible for leading the agenda for the next 20 years.
What advice do you give to young women who are just getting started in the industry?
It’s kind of trite because so many people say it, but follow your passion. Also be very serious about learning, and never allow yourself to be typecast because you look or act a certain way or you’re a certain gender. You will be good at what you want to be good at and what you choose to focus on. It’s really about being very strong and committed and not letting one-off situations derail you.
How did you find the transition into the Luxury Division after having worked with mass brands for so long?
I loved it. Now, it was most at the most difficult time. There wasn’t one number on any sales sheet that was positive, not one. And everything was different: especially the relationship with the retailer. I always say the most important word when work in mass is yes. The most important word in luxury is no. It took me a while to get comfortable with that.
You’re now Group President of Acquisitions. What does that entail?
My scope is to find American brands that can be globalized. It’s a job that has made my schedule much more external than my previous schedule used to be. I’m constantly out talking to founders, going to summits, going to forums and really just trying to spend as much time as I can either understanding the market and brands. And then of course, internally, I’m working with each of the divisions to understand what brands really fill the gaps in their strategy. It’s a very broad, all-encompassing role that is very exciting for me at this stage in my life and career.
What is your personal connection to fragrance?
It’s funny, I didn’t wear fragrance growing up, and my mother didn’t wear fragrance either. And because I grew up in my career in mass, where fragrances are not an important category, I did not have to study them or become an expert in them. I was much more of an expert in what I call the color categories, makeup and hair color. And then my second categories were skin care and hair care. So, when I joined Luxury, all of the sudden I had this portfolio of fragrances and I must admit that I was a bit nervous. It seemed very foreign to me. But Leslie Marino who was running our fragrances at the time came to my office and said, “What’s your favorite fragrance? I want to group our fragrances around and give you the ones that you will want to wear.” I had to admit in a very low voice, “I don’t wear fragrance. You’re going to have to help me.” I decided to choose one fragrance as my signature scent to really help me focus and understand the category. I chose Flowerbomb because I loved the fact that it was all about female empowerment. It wasn’t about the man or the girl trying to get the guy and vice versa. It was just this iconic visual of a powerful woman that was so beautiful. And I loved the designers, Victor and Rolf, who I found very interesting in kind of an exotic way. I also realized that I had a connection to fragrance in my garden.
I’ve heard you have a very special garden. How did you make that connection?
I do. We have a house in Litchfield, Connecticut that was designed and built by Marcel Breuer, the Bauhaus architect, in the early 70s. Breuer really celebrated nature and built his homes so that you could experience that. I spend all of my free time, from April to October, tending to my garden. It’s what I love the most. It’s the colors and the shapes, but also the scents. And I realized that I do love fragrance, I just wasn’t wearing fragrance. I started to use my garden as inspiration for my fragrance journey, and I realized that in retrospect that’s why I chose Flowerbomb.
Do you find gardening to be calming?
It totally stimulates me, especially my creative side. But it totally relaxes me at the same time. The only problem with it is that my wine consumption goes up extraordinarily high in the summer because I can’t garden without a glass of wine.
Is Flowerbomb still your favorite fragrance?
I still love it. I also love Giorgio Armani Si, and I really love Atelier Cologne. Especially Orange Sanguine, which is their number one.. I like Beach Walk of Margiela, because I grew up in California on the ocean.
What have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in the fragrance business?
I think the recognition that there is a place for clean, lighter fragrances. Especially with the American market growing, there is a difference between the very beautiful, historical French approach to fragrance and the way Americans are looking at really just having it as a lifestyle statement.
What do you foresee happening in the future?
I think that it’s going to continue to become very much a part of our lifestyle. Fragrances are going to become a bigger part of the wellbeing movement, in terms of being something that can alter our moods in a positive way. I think fragrance will be thought of more in terms of emotions than sexuality.