When Corrie Conrad got a call from Sephora last year asking if she’d be interested in a job with the makeup retailer, she was initially unenthused. She’d been working at Google for eight years and wasn’t really looking to leave. But her interest was piqued when Sephora mentioned its plans to focus on social impact. "I’ve been passionate about that for the last decade," Conrad says. Prior to Google, she worked with the Clinton Foundation, lived and worked in Rwanda, and received her masters in international development from Princeton. "I realized I shared a vision with the executive leadership here, and that vision was helping Sephora use our strengths for even greater good in our communities."
Now Conrad is rounding out her first year as Sephora’s head of social impact with the announcement of her first big initiative, Sephora Stands, a set of programs aimed at supporting and inspiring young women both within the company and outside of it. "There hadn’t been a strategic approach to thinking, Okay, well, what are we good at, and where could that be used for even greater good?" Conrad explains. She was brought in to do just that.
Sephora Stands comprises three programs: Sephora Stands Together, an effort to provide financial support to Sephora employees in times of need like natural disasters or life-changing events. Classes For Confidence offers special beauty workshops for women trying to reenter the workforce. Finally, there’s Sephora Accelerate, the company’s own version of a startup incubator. The one-year program offers a bootcamp and mentorship to female founders of beauty companies and gives them an opportunity to pitch their idea in front of industry leaders and Sephora executives.
A press release notes that 85% of venture capital funded startups are led exclusively by men, and female entrepreneurs are frequently overlooked for business opportunities. "Even in our industry, in beauty, where a majority of consumers are women, the female-founded beauty companies are still underrepresented," Conrad says. The goal of the Accelerate program is to "build a community of innovative female founders in all areas of the beauty industry."
So how do you get into Sephora’s Accelerate program? First of all, you have to be invited. The company is looking for early-stage startups offering a cosmetic product or technology that could help the beauty industry. Startups must have an idea and a sample product, but can’t have received additional funding or widespread adaptation. Also, social impact must be built into the company’s DNA through sustainable sourcing, for example, or sending a portion of proceeds to a worthy cause.
Where most accelerators offer their participants a hefty round of seed money, Sephora instead will give each founder (only one per company—if a startup has two founders, it has to choose between them) a $2,500 grant, which Conrad says is actually just a way of helping participants pay to attend the mandatory bootcamp in San Francisco in April and demo day in August. All expenses are paid for both trips, but since the program is open to applicants from Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, in addition to the U.S., it could be a long journey for some. "We didn’t want cost to be a barrier," Conrad says. "The $2,500 is a way of saying we’re really glad you’re here, and we know that there’s a cost associated with taking a week of your time to participate."
It’s not entirely clear what exactly will go on at the bootcamp, but Conrad says there will be workshops on things like business models and marketing. Each entrepreneur will have access to a mentor from Sephora and design firm IDEO throughout the yearlong program. On demo day, they will pitch their product to the Sephora merchandising team and other, to-be-determined industry experts.
Sephora and Conrad are hesitant to position Accelerate as a competition. There is no official grand prize, but the most obvious goal for these entrepreneurs, whether stated or not, is likely a coveted spot on the shelves of Sephora’s more than 360 North American stores. Such an endorsement could bring invaluable exposure and cement a product’s place in shoppers’ makeup bags. "Should our merchandising or innovation team decide to move forward with one of the founders in our cohort, then potentially, a small loan or some startup capital could be provided," says Conrad. But there is no guarantee that will happen for any of the startups in the accelerator.
"Funding is probably not our biggest play here, actually," Conrad says. She sees Accelerate as a network-building opportunity. "The network we provide, the feedback we provide, that’s a really valuable thing that I think is of interest to those that are applying."
The first Accelerate cohort has already been invited and will be announced in March. In a way, they’ll serve as guinea pigs for the cohorts to come, since Sephora plans to run one program a year through 2020 with the goal of working with at least 50 female entrepreneurs. "One of the key metrics for me will be, How did this help? Did it help at all? How could it be better going forward?" Conrad says. "We are committed to Sephora Accelerate for the long term, and what it looks like next year may be different from this year."