“Egyptians believe that they invented beauty,” says Susan Akkad. She’s a woman who would know, given her degree from Harvard in ninth- to 14th-century Arabic literature and diplomacy. For nine years, Akkad has held the position of senior vice president of local and cultural innovation at Estée Lauder, overseeing multiethnic innovation for some 25 brands under the Lauder umbrella, including La Mer, Clinique and Estée Lauder. But Akkad’s journey to the top of the beauty business had an unlikely beginning: It began at age 19, when she went off to do a semester abroad at the American University in Cairo in 1984.
It’s a gorgeous, sunny afternoon in New York City, and Akkad and I are having lunch at Freds in Barneys New York on Madison Avenue, where fashion folk gather to see and be seen. Over salads and crab cakes (we split the fries), Akkad recounts her student days in Egypt.
“Egypt wasn’t conservative at all at that time; women were in Western dress, and the café at the American University was the big expat hangout for students and diplomatic hopefuls like myself,” she says, adding a caveat that adds significant intrigue. “Every spy in the world was crawling the campus and lounging in the café looking for recruits.”
The American University Café was also where Susan spied the love of her life: fellow student and theater major Ahmed Akkad. The two have now been married for over 30 years.
Egypt is also where she began what would become a lifelong love affair with beauty and fragrance. In the age of the pharaohs, men and women alike wore statement eyeliner and fabulous wigs; to this day, fragrance in Egypt remains a daily multilayered ritual where everything from hair to furniture is perfumed like the wearer.
Brushing aside dreams of a diplomatic career, Susan relocated with her new husband to New York, where they placed their priorities on making a living—no obvious feat, with two very esoteric degrees (his is in comparative literature and theater). While Ahmed launched a fashion line, Susan found a job as assistant to the sportswear editor at American Vogue, which paid $15,000 a year in 1986. In need of more money, she quickly moved on to a (slightly) better-paying job as a public relations assistant at Estée Lauder. Starting salary? $16,000.
Landing a job in beauty after dreams of a diplomatic career may seem odd, but in the buttoned-up multinational corporate world of luxury beauty, it was once de rigueur to hire the wives of State Department officials in public relations and similar roles in international business. Their experience organizing official dinners, navigating the social and international worlds, and connections to wealthy society made them the organic influencers of that time.
As an entry-level assistant at Estée Lauder, Susan was allowed the chance to watch and learn from all departments. She laughs as she recalls getting dry-cleaning and throwing birthday parties for a boss’s cat as part of her duties. What she learned was what it takes to work every rung of the corporate ladder; but most important, she learned that she loved the beauty biz—especially fragrance.
As Ahmed’s fashion line took off as a global luxury brand, Susan left the corporate world to work in her husband’s company. In 1995, Ahmed sold the fashion brand to his manufacturers to start interiors, accessories and other businesses. Susan was now unemployed, and through some recommendations from friends, she found her way to Lancôme as director of fragrance.
Susan Akkad was soon recruited back to Estée Lauder, where she served in various global marketing positions for almost 10 years before being installed in her current post as senior VP of local and cultural innovation, responsible for multiethnic innovation. What exactly does multicultural innovation entail? In this role, Akkad partners with the many brands under Estée Lauder to advise on multicultural strategy and the best ways to tailor products and communication to be more meaningful to women of color.
Her post at Lauder affords her a global view of the beauty of black and brown women, who, she tells me, are more confident about their looks than their white counterparts. As a culture, we black women historically have primarily based our self-esteem surrounding our looks on the opinions within our community, rather than on mainstream media standards. Akkad recounts being asked why certain products advertised as corrective were not appealing to black women. To which she would answer, that’s because “when you market a product to black women as if there is something wrong with them that needs fixing, black women simply don’t relate.”
Looking me straight in the eye, Akkad lightly brushes back one of her naturally ink-black curls and straightens the peaked lapel of her black Junya Watanabe tuxedo suit. She tells me matter-of-factly, “Marketing is diplomacy.”