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October 3, 2012

Who's the Boss?

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leslie blodgett

Photo Credit: Emily Shur

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Leslie Blodgett Executive chairman, Bare Escentuals

Though Leslie Blodgett has delivered countless speeches over the past 15 years, she was too nervous to eat before addressing Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology graduating class last year. As she approached the lectern, she took a deep breath, mustered all her mojo, and spoke slowly and emphatically. "I don't know anyone who has stopped being afraid," she told them. "If you're taking the easy way out, the boring way out, boy, you might as well be asleep. If you're really putting yourself on the line, you're going to be scared, and that's OK, because that's when you push through things — and that's when you feel most triumphant."

Blodgett, 50, is proof that swallowing those fears and plowing ahead can pay off in spades. In 1994, she was a fledgling cosmetics exec desperately trying to save Bare Escentuals, a money-losing, mineral-based makeup company. If she could just reach her customers, she thought, she knew she could sell them on the benefits of her powder-based product line, an antidote to pancake makeup and made from all-natural ingredients. At the time, QVC was a retail backwater catering to the out-of-work and sleep-deprived, but Blodgett had a hunch. So she donned a crisp white Bebe suit and a fake 5-carat diamond ring, and — cameras rolling — pitched her heart out.

QVC viewers lapped up her frank approach. In just six minutes, she sold 1,300 brush and foundation kits. Soon, she was moving $1.4 million worth of merchandise an hour. Within five years, the company she once could barely keep afloat was generating $65 million in revenue, thanks in large measure to Blodgett's girlfriend relatability and winning spiel. "Everyone told me I was crazy for doing home shopping," she recalls. "There are so many people out there who want to tell you not to do something. If you think they're right, it's going to steer you wrong."

Raised by a single mother on Long Island, New York — "She wanted me to not have to be dependent on a man to get what I wanted" — Blodgett got her start in cosmetics at the Ultima II counter at Macy's. She saw firsthand the transformative effect of makeup. "It's not just about the perfect shade of red lipstick," Blodgett says. "It's about that woman feeling good enough to ask for a raise, or to go on a job interview, or ask that guy out on a date." From there, she landed an internship at Revlon, then eventually an entry-level product development gig at Max Factor, followed by a stint at Neutrogena. Along the way, she married Keith Blodgett, a commercial producer, and had a son, Trent, now 19.

When she was approached by a Bare Escentuals investor asking if she'd help revive the company, which was teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, Blodgett jumped at the chance, relocating her family from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. Those early days were rife with difficult compromises: Blodgett's husband quit his job to raise Trent while she put in long hours building up the business. She missed so many of Trent's high school lacrosse games that she hired a videographer to document them. ("I've never reviewed them," she confesses sheepishly.) "Balance is incredibly hard," Blodgett admits wistfully. "I'm still feeling guilty about it."

Then, the moment every entrepreneur dreams of: the buyout offer. Two years ago, Shiseido snapped up Bare Escentuals for $1.7 billion. (Blodgett won't comment on how much she made off the sale.) She recently scaled back her day-to-day involvement and is now exploring a life beyond the brand. "I will have another big act," she says, her eyes widening. "I know that there are seeds inside of me that want to grow. I could become a painter. You don't know until you try. Not that I'm going to be famous, but I'm going to do something that is revolutionary — for me." — Diana Kapp

CAREER ADVICE FROM LESLIE BLODGETT

1 SCARED? YOU'RE ON THE RIGHT TRACK. You'll work hardest when you've got a lot on the line. "If you're taking the easy way out, you might as well be asleep," she told grads at the Fashion Institute of Technology recently. "If you're really putting yourself on the line, you're going to be scared — and that's when you push through things."

2 IGNORE THE NAYSAYERS — THERE WILL BE MANY. Struggling to revive Bare Escentuals, Blodgett decided to pitch the line on QVC. She got loads of flack for the idea. "There are so many people out there who want to tell you not to do something. If you think they're right, it's going to steer you wrong," she advises. In fact, her QVC debut proved a triumph and helped lead the company to profitability.

3 BRACE YOURSELF FOR TOUGH SACRIFICES. Overseeing a multimillion-dollar cosmetics powerhouse gave Blodgett and her family financial freedom. The trade-off: missing out on family time. "Balance is incredibly hard," she says.


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