On Tuesday, Emily Weiss, the chief executive of Glossier Inc., announced that she would be stepping down from the top role at the skin care and beauty brand she founded in 2014. Glossier broke with many industry conventions to become an e-commerce darling promising millennial consumers nonchalant, woke-up-like-this dewy skin in pastel shades. Ms. Weiss’s own stylish, fresh-faced image — on Instagram, in interviews — was an inextricable part of the brand.
But now, Kyle Leahy, a former executive at Nike and Cole Haan who became the chief operating officer at Glossier in November, will be the chief executive, effective immediately, while Ms. Weiss — who is also preparing to go on maternity leave soon — will become executive chairwoman of the board.
“I will always be Glossier’s founder. But a C.E.O. is the champion that a company looks to, to lead it into tomorrow,” Ms. Weiss said in a blog post on the brand’s website. “With this C.E.O. evolution, I’ll be able to focus more of my time as I did in the earlier days — supporting our brilliant leaders of creative, brand, product and retail, as they take our customer experience innovation to new heights.” Both Ms. Weiss and Ms. Leahy declined to be interviewed for this article.
Ms. Weiss’s departure comes at a challenging time for Glossier. In January, merely six months after the company raised $80 million in fresh funding and reached unicorn status (industry speak for a valuation of over $1 billion), it laid off dozens of corporate staff members. In 2021, sales were down 26 percent, according to Bloomberg’s data analysis company Second Measure. And during the pandemic, Glossier has grappled with store closures and public criticism from its retail employees over their treatment, prompting Ms. Weiss to apologize and pledge to “get it right” once retail opened up again.
Not all of her young female C.E.O. peers survived that moment in their jobs. Ms. Weiss, 37, is the latest of the so-called girlbosses to step away from their creations, effectively marking the end of the archetype that burst onto the scene in 2014 when Sophia Amoruso, the founder of the clothing brand Nasty Gal, published her memoir, “#Girlboss.”
The book was a bootstrapping story with a feminist sheen: It suggested that individual women succeeding in a male-dominated world would help bring about change. The goal of the girlboss movement was not to change the system, but to hack it.
Soon, there was a raft of mediagenic women with their own venture-capital-backed, millennial-focused products: Audrey Gelman, founder of the Wing, a women’s members club; Steph Korey, founder of the suitcase brand Away; Tyler Haney, founder of the athleisure brand Outdoor Voices; and Yael Aflalo, founder of the clothing brand Reformation, to name a few. Their success would be the tide that would lift all female boats, the thinking went.
In the span of a few years, use of the term “girlboss” moved from earnest to ironic and barbed: the notion that ambitious, young, privileged white women would single-handedly remedy structural inequalities soon seemed like a fantasy. Over the last several years, many of those women have stepped down from their roles for various reasons — including allegations of racism and toxic leadership — but Ms. Weiss had stayed on.
When Glossier first hit the market, its direct-to-consumer model represented a significant departure from the way the beauty industry functioned. Ms. Weiss leveraged social media and the online community that she had cultivated for years through Into the Gloss, her popular beauty products review blog, to collect a lot of data on what consumers liked or didn’t like — information that ultimately shaped her first few products. Ms. Weiss talked publicly about “democratizing” beauty.
After Glossier’s start, the brand’s research and development team and Ms. Weiss herself regularly sought more data from the brand’s loyal customers, inviting them to the Glossier offices for pizza and rosé in exchange for their opinions on serums and facial cleansers.
“When you think about how someone purchased a beauty product, it was typically through a retailer and the brands really didn’t have any relationship directly with that end customer,” said Anu Duggal, founder partner of the Female Founders Fund, a capital fund that has invested in several female-founded skin care and beauty brands, including Billie and Violette_Fr. “The way Glossier thought about product development was pretty revolutionary at one point.”
This direct feedback loop created a cultlike following, and the company would frequently sell out of its products, which were relatively affordable, ranging anywhere between $12 for the signature Balm Dotcom lip balm to $35 for its moisturizer. And by mid-2016, 60,000 people had signed up to be notified when sold-out products were back in stock, according to a 2019 Harvard Business School case study on the brand. That, according to the case study, was all without spending much on paid marketing or store placement, which shocked a system that has long been dominated by eight large global conglomerates with huge marketing budgets competing for precious shelf space in brick-and-mortar stores.
“More than 60 percent of customers were between the ages of 18 and 35,” according to the Harvard case study. “Most came to the brand following a friend’s recommendation.”
In 2016, Glossier opened the first of its physical stores — an experiential and highly Instagrammable retail space in the SoHo district of Manhattan. By 2018, the company said it crossed $100 million in sales, according to Bloomberg, and that same year, New York magazine crowned Ms. Weiss “the millennials’ Estée Lauder.” To date, the company has raised a total of $260 million in investments.
Glossier’s wild success accelerated the creation of an entire ecosystem of direct-to-consumer beauty and skin care brands, flush with growing venture capital investments.
Many of the new upstarts were offering consumers not only that same direct line of communication but also an aesthetic that was similar to Glossier’s “you, but better” feel. Or, as the TikTok influencer Alessandro put it in a recent post: “Glossier walked so Rare Beauty could run,” referring to the pop artist Selena Gomez’s minimalist makeup brand.
“That’s the double-edged sword — having something really cool and buzz worthy that everyone wants to copy it,” said Rachel Strugatz, the beauty editor-at-large of Business of Fashion (Ms. Strugatz also writes for The Times). “I can’t even tell you how many founders and brands I’ve met, since Glossier, who are like, ‘We’re going to be the Glossier of hair care, we’re going to be the Glossier of makeup, we’re going to be like Glossier but edgy.’ Everyone wanted to be a version of that.”
That was part of the reason Glossier’s shine has started to dull in recent years — the market is now saturated, crowding out the brand’s products, which were once perceived as novel and fresh.
Glossier also started facing pressure to diversify its products, most notably from followers of the Glossier Brown Instagram account that started in 2017 as a way to share tips on how to use Glossier products on darker skin tones. “I remember going to the pop-up in SoHo and there were only three shades of skin tint,” Ms. Strugatz said. “I was the medium shade and I’m pretty fair skinned.”
Since then, the brand has expanded to include 12 different shades, though that is still slim pickings compared with the dozens of shades that other brands, many of them newcomers, offer.
And, most important, Glossier’s longstanding resistance to working with third-party retailers made it harder and harder for the brand to acquire new customers organically using just its social and online channels — a pinch that other direct-to-consumer brands are also feeling, Ms. Duggal said.
“The shift in the customer acquisition algorithm for paid social now makes it very hard to scale and find profitability,” she said, adding that selling through physical stores remains the biggest driver of sales across the board. Before the pandemic, 85 percent of beauty product purchases were made in physical stores, according to a 2020 McKinsey report. Even younger consumers were making the bulk of their purchases in store.
Then, in August 2020, in the thick of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, came an anonymous letter from the Glossier retail employees (known internally as “editors”) alleging a racist, toxic work environment.
Management was “ill-equipped to guide a diverse team through the unique stressors of working in an experiential store,” the letter reads. When customers were hostile with the retail staff, including during incidents where a man massaged a staff member without her consent or when white teenagers played with the “darkest complexion products in gleeful blackface,” the retail staff “had come to expect no intervention and little recourse — not even reassurance of our safety.”
By that point, several other founders in the original class of girlbosses had come under scrutiny, with current and former employees accusing them of aggressive and, in certain cases, abusive leadership styles (scrutiny that male chief executives and founders have often avoided). Away, Ms. Korey’s company, banned employees from emailing each other and limited employees’ paid time off, The Verge reported; Away said that it wanted to keep employees communicating over Slack instead, for reasons of “transparency.”
Ms. Gelman was accused of exploiting people of color to set up a mirage of inclusivity at the Wing; she later issued a public apology. Ms. Amoruso’s company was sued for firing employees once they got pregnant, accusations the company called “false, defamatory and taken completely out of context.”
The accusations were particularly damaging precisely because most of these women climbed the ranks by proclaiming to be feminists, and implicitly, to be a new kind of boss.
But now, at these female-focused start-ups, there is a new new kind of boss. One who doesn’t brand herself as a feminist icon and who doesn’t seem as likely to become a household name for millennial women. After Ms. Korey was ousted in the fall of 2020, the company replaced her with her lower-key co-founder Jen Rubio. At the Wing, the company followed Ms. Gelman’s tenure by elevating her less public-facing co-founder, Lauren Kassan; she was replaced by Jen Cho, formerly the company’s chief marketing officer.
And Ms. Leahy at Glossier is a veteran who, for most of her career, has operated quietly behind the scenes. In an interview with Bloomberg, she said Glossier will start exploring selling through retail partners globally, signaling a willingness to pull levers that Ms. Weiss had shied away from.
“We’ve built brand demand through our own channel, as a direct-to-consumer business,” Ms. Leahy said to Bloomberg. “We see there’s now opportunity for us to take that brand, expand upon it and bring it to more people in more places.”