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Follow Your Passion: Interview with Alicia Sontag

“It can be easy to negotiate on behalf of others but it’s harder to negotiate on behalf of yourself.” – Alicia Sontag

Alicia Sontag, the co-founder of Prelude Growth Partners, is an innovative and strategic leader in the beauty industry. Prior to establishing her own company, she was the Global President of Beauty at Johnson & Johnson. Prior to that, she was an Executive at Estée Lauder including leadership roles at Bobbi Brown and Clinique. After graduating Summa Cum Laude from the undergraduate program at The Wharton School of Business, Alicia began her career at McKinsey & Company, where she spent 5 years serving consumer clients. As an expert in the Beauty Industry and a global business leader, The Penn Innovators in Business Network asked Alicia to share with us her valuable advice that she has gained through her career journey…

How has your definition of success changed as you moved from your undergrad years to now?

“When I was an undergraduate, for many years, I defined success like how outwardly success would be defined. I wanted to get all A’s at Wharton and work at McKinsey because I thought it was the best. After getting my MBA from Harvard Business School, I went to Estée Lauder for my first operational role because I thought that Estée Lauder was the best beauty company. When I was at Lauder, I started as a director and then worked to become an executive director. And then vice president. Then senior vice president. I always wanted to work in the best places with the best people, and wanted to rise in my career and succeed. I think that there’s value in that. But now, for me, success is defined less about those external markers that other people can tick such as ‘oh she’s at a great company’ or ‘she got promoted’. It’s more about your own metrics of success. I’m starting a firm with Prelude,I’m impacting the industry, I’m investing behind brands that I think are going to be big players in their respective spaces — it’s more of your own definition of success.”

When did you notice your passion for the Beauty Industry? What compelled you to work for those companies?

“When I was at McKinsey, I worked across different companies and industries, mainly in consumer goods, a little bit of personal care, a little bit of healthcare, a little bit of media. Beauty was always appealing to me as an industry because there’s enormous consumer tailwind. People are always looking for the latest in skincare and cosmetics. There’s great gross profit margins. It’s capital light, it’s up to date, recession resistant and it has this blend of art and science, which I think is really interesting. There’s rigour, there’s analytics, there’s management, but there’s also some element of emotion. But overall, another reason why the beauty industry is so compelling to me is because it’s such a dynamic industry — it’s always changing. Whatever you knew six months ago is no longer the case today, and again six months from now will be different than it is today. It’s very forward in terms of marketing techniques and how you engage and storytelling, distribution channels, and product life cycles. There’s always new things to learn and do to challenge yourself.”

As you co-founded Prelude Growth Partners with your colleague, what were some pros and cons of delegating responsibility and sharing responsibility with another person?

“My father once told me the most important thing in life is who you partner with. And I think that is true. It’s true whether it’s your husband or wife or whether it’s your business partner. My partner, Neda Daneshzadeh and I have known each other for 20 years, so we know each other extremely well. Certainly there’s no way I would’ve done this all on my own. It was very fortuitous that we both felt like it was the right time in the market, it was the right time in our respective careers, and we have very complementary skill sets. We were at business school together, we were at McKinsey together, she then went to L Catterton, the largest private equity firm in consumer. . We both kind of saw the same thing from our respective seat — namely that the consumer industry was being transformed given the secular shifts at play, creating enormous opportunity in the space.”

What would you say is the key to success when advising women and entrepreneurs in professional development?

“For women in particular, the number one thing I would say is to negotiate. I would say over my career, I’ve hired at least a hundred people in different moments in different roles, in different capacities–junior, senior. I would say 8 out of 10 times that I hire a woman, they will say, “Oh my gosh, thank you so much for the offer.” And 8 out of 10 times that I hire a man, they come back to me with a list of things that they would like: they want more salary, they want more time off, they want different hours. It is just such a stark difference. As women, it’s maybe stereotypical to say, but I think it can be easy to negotiate on behalf of others and it’s harder to negotiate on behalf of yourself.”

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