Tyra Banks: “Now I understand the importance of hiring really strong people”

Supermodel turned TV mogul Tyra Banks wanted more–ownership. So she studied at Harvard, and is now self-funding a new cosmetics line.

Tyra Banks: “Now I understand the importance of hiring really strong people”
New model: “I’ve never been interested in the traditional celebrity licensing, where it tends to be based on popularity and trying to capture that white-hot moment,” Banks says. [Photo: Matthew Tammaro, Styling: Tina Phan, Hair & Makeup: Cherity Sampson and Mallory Jo Schweiger]

Fast Company: You must have received a lot of offers to license beauty products throughout your career.


Banks: Constantly. If you just point to anything on my body, I can tell you. “Ooh, Tyra, put your name on this hair-weave track, put your name on this fragrance, put your name on this jewelry, put your name on these body contours.” I’ve been saying no. I know that I could have done those deals and probably could be sitting back and just chilling on some island and never have to work again. But that doesn’t drive me.

What drives me is brand, brand, brand, and legacy. I really want to leave something behind that means something when I’m no longer here. My hero is Walt Disney. I’m reading The Disney Way for the second time right now. It’s about their culture and what he did and how it is sustainable to this day, how there are little kids who go to Disneyland and think Disneyland is Mickey Mouse. They think Disneyland is just the name of it. They have no idea that’s a human being.

In 2012, you went through Harvard Business School’s Owner/President Management program. Were you preparing for a launch like this?

Yes. Studying strategy and leadership and marketing and finance and accounting and negotiation and macroeconomics got me ready. I was very intimidated by the whole [Harvard] process. To prepare, I actually studied with an accounting professor at Columbia.

What was your school experience like?


It was over the course of three years, and we’d go for about a month at a time and live in these damn dorms and study. And I was terrified of the dorms–terrified! I went to school three weeks early just to check and see what this was about. I asked if my security could be in the dorm next door to me. They were like, “Do you wanna come to Harvard Business School? Well, there will be no security next door to you.” I was like, “What? Oh, my god!” Thank god, I didn’t have to share a bathroom. We had to share a kitchen, a living room, and a study area, but not a bathroom.

What did you learn that helped most with this launch?

Marketing. Customer-centricity. Don’t think about what you want all the time. I’ve made mistakes before of doing different projects just based on my dreams, my hopes, my thing, and not really thinking about my customers. We’d look at pictures for packaging and marketing and we’d go, “Oh, my god, we love that picture.” And then we’d go, “But will she like it? No.”

And who is “she” for this brand?

My marketing professor at HBS did a case study on me. He goes, “Tyra, you have these young women who are 15 to 18 years old, and then it skews all the way up to women who are in their forties. And, actually, there are even some men in there as well, based on America’s Next Top Model and the high attraction to that from the male gay community.” Then he realized it’s a gift. If you can think psychographically and not demographically, you can really target a lot more audiences. So we just think about, Who wants to be fierce? Who wants to be their own boss? She can be 13 or 45, you know? And so that’s how we market, as opposed to by age.

Is that why you’re selling through a peer-to-peer model, like Avon? Why not sell at, say, Sephora?


Sephora is fantastic. I go in there. I get lost. There are so many great things in there. But I feel that it’s just not for us. We really want to be different. We really want to give power to women. With distribution through Sephora, I could give them power to paint their faces and look fierce when they walk out the door, but I couldn’t give them the financial power that way.

Many peer-to-peer companies could be accused of overpromising to their sellers. How are you cultivating yours?

It’s not just about teaching them how to sell our things; it’s teaching them how to be powerful in business in general. We call them “beautytainers” because our brand is all about “beautytainment”–beauty meets entertainment. I love making up words. Our beauty­tainers are going to be entertaining beauty-expert entrepreneurs who will be able to sell this product. And we have something that we’re developing now, called TyraU, where they can come online and get all of the lessons to start their own beautytainment business for our cosmetics company. It’ll also give them tips and tricks about starting their own business, and about what to do if they have a main job, to get that raise, or to climb that ladder to success.

We’re also really excited about using technology for our beautytainers. For instance, we’ll be one of the first companies in the direct-selling category to have live streaming. I’ll be able to live-stream into parties sometimes myself. And customers will be able to click to order on Facebook from their beautytainer.

But it’ll also be available on your website. How do you market your product yourself, without competing against your network of sellers?


We may do some things just to get the word out, like HSN. But it’s very important to take care of our beautytainers. We don’t want them to feel like we’re cannibalizing their sales. So, for all of the different promotional things that we’ll do ourselves–and sales from–there will be a pool of money that goes to the beautytainers, particularly the high-selling ones, so that they understand that that’s a marketing aspect of the company.

This is all so different from what you’ve been doing. Did you feel that anything from your TV experience helped prepare you?

I was a really bad delegator in the first seven years of America’s Next Top Model; I felt I needed to do everything myself. A lot of it was probably ego-driven too, like, “Oh, I’m the one that just has to do this.” Now I understand the importance of hiring really strong people and then getting out of their damn way so that they can do it.

Though of course, you chose to launch a company in a category you know a lot about. Why stay in cosmetics?

Natural beauty is unfair. I would have never been a supermodel were it not for makeup. Makeup truly transforms me and the more I put on, the more I look like a supermodel, to be honest. And so I look at makeup as the great equalizer. You don’t have to necessarily be born a certain way; you paint it on and you can compete in whatever way we deem to be necessary.