Getting a foot in the door is key to starting any career, beauty and skincare company Bluemercury co-founder and CEO Marla Malcolm Beck told Georgetown professor Michael Ryan’s “Personal Finance” class April 16.
“Personal Finance” is a course designed for students to increase their financial literacy before graduating and one that is particularly popular among Georgetown seniors as they approach the workforce.
According to Ryan, the irony about financial literacy lies in the fact that it is an easy skill to learn. It carries immense value, yet we do not we learn to master it from a young age as we do most other hobbies. Moreover, how one handles money can affect future generations, but we do not get enough training to make financial decisions.
“The absence of financial literacy is a problem, and it is an easy fix. Money is an integral part of life. It is opportunity; we can neither overvalue nor undervalue it,” Ryan said.
Beck came to speak to Ryan’s “Personal Finance” class about starting her company and give students advice on how to succeed in business and life.
Beck grew up in Oakland, Calif. She attended the University of California, Berkeley, where she majored in political economy. After graduating, Beck worked in San Francisco at global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. She then attended Harvard Business School and earned a degree in public administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
After school, Beck worked on economic development in Indonesia and ended up in Washington, D.C., to work in private equity.
Beck described herself as always having been a “beauty junkie” but said she never imagined she would turn her hobby into a career. She explained that she would drive 30 minutes to buy a specific MAC lipstick that was only sold in one store in Boston. However, in the midst of the “dot-com bubble,” she was determined to bring beauty products to the internet. In two weeks, Beck was able to raise $1 million, and she launched Bluemercury in 1999.
But compared to its competitors, Bluemercury did not have enough money for advertising, and within six months of its launch, the company was headed toward bankruptcy. Beck knew she needed to take a different route: retail. She had repeatedly had bad experiences shopping for beauty products at department stores, so she wanted to create a free-standing beauty store of her own.
“Shopping at a department store was a terrible experience. The business was set up for the brands, not the customers. They wanted to maximize their individual sales. Bluemercury’s mission is to be the best at giving beauty advice,” Beck said.
Bluemercury’s first boutique opened in the Georgetown area in D.C., and the company’s headquarters are here as well. Bluemercury currently has 159 stores and 1500 employees; it is composed of 93 percent women. It also has two of its own product lines, developed by Beck: a skincare line called M-61 and a cosmetics line called Lune + Aster.
In 2014, Beck sold Bluemercury to Macy’s. Beck explained that she initially feared losing all autonomy but that instead Macy’s has been a very powerful resource in human resources and technology, as it is ranked sixth in e-commerce sites.
Beck explained how the name “Bluemercury” originated and why she did not want to have a company name that was so obviously associated with beauty.
“I love the color blue, and Barry, my partner and husband, went to Barnes & Noble and picked up a thesaurus to find a word to go with it,” Beck said. “Mercury is about communication, and our mission is to give the best beauty advice, so that’s how the name came together.”
Beck provided three pieces of advice to students, which she said can apply to both one’s personal and business life.
First, get in the game. If Beck had not been in the beauty “game” when she launched her website, she would have never been inspired to go into the retail business, which is how her company became so successful.
“You want to get as close as possible to what you want to do, so that you can learn and eventually get to where you want to be,” Beck said. “And finding out what you don’t like is just as important of finding out what you do like.”
Second, solve a problem. For Beck, this problem was her negative experience with department store shopping.
And third, DROOM: Don’t Run Out of Money.
Beck left students with a final piece of advice about starting their careers, encouraging students to take small steps toward their goals.
“In every major decision, it’s never black or white,” Beck said. “The hardest thing is knowing what you want, but start taking steps towards that. I believe that you can do anything you want; you just have to take baby steps to get there. Just start.”