Jan. 30 2020
Chances are, Wende Zomnir has literally made you blush. As co-founder and CEO of Urban Decay Cosmetics, the makeup mogul invented the famous Naked Palette, took the smoky eye trend back from ‘80s hair bands, and pioneered the idea that cosmetics aren’t about perfection–they’re about personal choice. We asked Wende about her 24 years on the job.
Are you glad you went to college? Why or why not?
I’m so glad, because the classes I thought would be boring requirements? They ended up changing my life. I took an industrial arts class where we had to learn how to use a screenprinter, how to make boxes with a machine. Fast forward to Urban Decay, and I had to figure out how to make packaging, how to put logos on products… And I took an advertising class once where the homework was to sell ads for our little school newspaper. The professor said, “Nobody ever gets an A in this class, because nobody ever sells any ads.” Well, I would be damned if I wasn’t getting an A, you know?! So I learned how to pitch clients; I learned how to sell them things.
What exactly did you learn?
When you want to sell something, you can’t talk about how great it is or how great you are. You have to tell people why they need it. “We’re a college paper and every student off campus needs a couch. You sell couches–we can get you new customers.” It’s about listening to what people need, and showing them how you can help them get it.
When you first started Urban Decay, how did you spread the word? I read you went to music festivals to track down rock stars…
Oh, I did–I went to Lilith Fair in the ‘90s and gave makeup to the people playing shows. But even before that, I was in Minnesota, and I heard Shirley Manson from Garbage was in town recording an album. I got out the phone book–we had phone books in the ‘90s–and I looked up every single recording studio, called them until I found out where Garbage was recording, and somehow convinced the receptionist to let me in. I gave Shirley Manson a giant bag of our makeup… Then I tracked down Gwen Stefani. I said, “I love [No Doubt] so much and Urban Decay is like the No Doubt of makeup… You have to try it.” Fast forward and I’m backstage with her makeup before she goes live on SNL. But I wouldn’t have put myself out there if I didn’t know our makeup was the best. Your product has to be the best before you can tell people to buy it.
Urban Decay has been through several acquisitions and you’re still the CEO. What’s your advice to women when a new boss or new leadership comes into the company?
It’s always tricky, because change is never easy, and power and control are difficult things to balance. I would tell you to always listen. There will always be hints about how someone works, how they view their job, how they view your job… Listening for those hints, and learning how to adjust to them, is very important. Also, be the best at your job! Don’t be afraid to be truly excellent. Don’t be afraid to show everyone why you’re there, succeeding in your role. Work hard to be great–then let yourself be great.
How do you let yourself be great and also give yourself room to grow and sometimes fail, especially creatively?
You know, I would walk into magazine offices and show the beauty editors our stuff, and they were… Well, they were a bit weirded-out, to be honest. They’d never seen premium makeup with glitter in it, premium lipstick in a shade other than pink. The crazy colors in makeup then were just at the drugstore, and those formulas were just so bad. So cheap. Then I came in, and at the time, in the ‘90s, beauty editors wore all black, very minimal, no makeup, and here I am with everything on my face… Can I say I was treated with nothing but kindness and compassion by every single person at Vogue? No. But can I say because our formulas were so good, and our colors were so innovative, they were genuinely fascinated and wanted to know more? Yes. You don’t need everyone to be in love with you all the time. You do need them to be curious, and you need to show them things worth their time.
What do you look for when you hire people?
You have to be passionate, and understand that for so many people, makeup means something to them. It’s not just makeup; it’s a piece of who they are. I look for a deep respect and understanding of that. Also, I admire tenacity. If people find a way to reach me at work, I’ll pass them along for an interview. I won’t hire you just for tracking me down, but I’ll certainly pay attention.
What’s the worst advice you’ve ever gotten?
Somebody–I can’t tell you who–once told me to “say yes” to opportunities, even if I wasn’t 100% sold on them. And that is not a good idea, at least in my experience.
What’s the future for you and your job?
Less waste, more recycling and reusing. I’m working to make sure we merchandise products in a really beautiful way, and have really great displays that aren’t all plastic, or if they are, that they have a multi-use function and can be reused over and over. It’s easy to make packaging that’s shiny. It’s harder to make things out of cardboard that look luxurious. We want to do that, and if I hadn’t taken that random industrial arts class in college, I wouldn’t even know where to start!