SNJ: T-1892: “What Sephora Knows About Women in Tech That Silicon Valley Doesn’t” #SmitaNairJain

What Sephora Knows About Women in Tech That Silicon Valley Doesn’t

More than 60% of the retailer’s technology workers are female

SNJ: T-1891: “What Sephora Knows About Women in Tech That Silicon Valley Doesn’t” #SmitaNairJain
Sephora’s formula for women in tech includes urging them to take risks without fear of failure. (Photo Courtesy: JASON HENRY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL)

In a San Francisco office an hour’s drive from some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley, Sephora has managed a corporate feat that would make the leaders of Google Inc., Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc. FB 0.67% envious: a majority of the cosmetics retailer’s technology workers—62%—are women.

At a time when technology companies are struggling mightily to attract and retain women with computing and engineering skills, the beauty retailer’s tech staffing is notable not only for the numbers but also for the relatively simple way it got there.

Women hold 23% of roles in the technical ranks at the top 75 Silicon Valley companies, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A report from the commission attributes the scarcity of women in those roles to inhospitable work cultures, isolation, a “firefighting” work style, long hours and a lack of advancement.

At Sephora, women make up the majority of its 350-person digital and engineering staff and hold all but one of the roles on its six-person digital executive leadership team. Women lead everything from digital marketing and customer experience in apps to back-end programming of the company’s e-commerce systems.

Though large tech companies employ several times as many engineers as Sephora, its share of female digital talent is worth noting. Managers say the retailer has managed to attract technical women by recruiting with an eye toward candidates’ potential rather than specific skills, encouraging hiring managers to take risks and ensuring that job performance is assessed fairly.

The key to Sephora’s success, says Mary Beth Laughton, the company’s senior vice president of digital, is a dedication to technology with a strong connection to the consumer. And, women at the company are encouraged to take risks without fear of failure, she adds.

While tech companies commonly urge workers to embrace failure, the message at Sephora is specifically tailored to help employees avoid common pitfalls that women encounter in tech careers, people at the company say.

Jenna Melendez worked in a number of digital roles at Sephora until she left the company last May. Before joining in 2012, she spent two years as a website merchandiser in Amazon’s Paris offices and observed few female colleagues. When she arrived at Sephora’s San Francisco headquarters, Ms. Melendez says, meetings were free-flowing and open. “Everyone spoke,” she says, “and felt comfortable offering opinions on anything from e-commerce to a shade of blush.”

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SNJ: T-1891: “What Sephora Knows About Women in Tech That Silicon Valley Doesn’t” #SmitaNairJain

Note: The report does not include an ‘other’ category for gender.

Ms. Melendez recalls one meeting about three years ago where she and other members of the digital-marketing team talked about spotting edgy fashion photos where models were using highlighter—a type of makeup that accentuates facial contours. In a matter of days, the team was working on a separate landing page for Sephora’s site to showcase the product.

“It’s easier to forecast what’s coming and what’s going to be needed because the line is so fine between you as an employee and you as a client,” says Ms. Melendez, now digital-marketing director at Aquis Inc., a San Francisco-based beauty company.

Terre Layton, an engineer by training, had worked in Silicon Valley for nearly two decades, for small startups and large companies such as HP Inc. and Sun Microsystems Inc., before she joined Sephora in 2011. Recruited as a product manager to lead the retailer’s website redesign, Ms. Layton says she found being in the presence of so many women leaders empowering after years spent in male-dominated workplaces.

When it came time to brainstorm ideas, or even articulate concerns about a project’s direction, bosses made a point of asking team members for their opinions, she says.

“You knew you were being heard. You had a voice,” says Ms. Layton, who last worked for Sephora in 2015 and now advises early stage startups on product management and user experience.

Digital passage

Sephora’s owner, the French luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA, LVMUY 1.14%maintains a global workforce of 134,500 that is 74% female. Some 38% of key executive positions are filled by women, up from 26% in 2007. And LVMH has committed to a goal of having women in at least half of its key executive positions by 2020.

SNJ: T-1891: “What Sephora Knows About Women in Tech That Silicon Valley Doesn’t” #SmitaNairJain

Recruiters say those numbers, along with Sephora’s success—the company opened 100 stores in 2016 and recorded double-digit profit growth, according to LVMH filings—make it easy to attract talented women in tech.

Women are drawn to a company of “bright, intense and accomplished women,” says Asheley Linnenbach, an executive-search consultant who has helped the retailer fill a number of roles in recent years.

Ms. Linnenbach, who served as Sephora’s interim vice president of talent for six months in 2014, says the company makes a point of moving high-performing women into digital and tech roles that round out their skills and experience.

“They have that longer-range view of what would be better for the organization in terms of talent development,” Ms. Linnenbach says. “They are willing to put a person in a position where [the company is] willing to lose ground so this person gets exposure on the international side or experience with a P&L,” she says.

Industry Pipeline

Women’s share of total employment at each level, by industry

SNJ: T-1891: “What Sephora Knows About Women in Tech That Silicon Valley Doesn’t” #SmitaNairJain
Source: LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co. Women in the Workplace 2017 study of 222 companies

A similar philosophy applies to staffing technology teams, where company recruiters encourage women to consider roles that might not fit precisely with their skills and experience.

“Even if a female candidate doesn’t have all the requirements for a technical job, we want that person to come in and show what they can do,” says Yvette Nichols, the company’s vice president of talent.

Sephora’s approach represents a departure from the way many large technology companies, especially those in Silicon Valley, handle recruitment, says Jane Hamner, a veteran recruiter with Harvey Nash Group PLC, whose clients include Inc.,Expedia Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc.

“Most companies that we work with are looking at skills over all else,” she says. “They can be very picky about skill sets and go only for the top of the talent pool.”

Only in the past nine to 12 months, as the job market has tightened, have some companies begun to ease up on their skills requirements, Ms. Hamner says. “But they’re not doing it to expand gender diversity. It’s just more difficult to find talent.”

At Sephora, Nida Mitchell, 29, got her chance to grow into a new role when she was promoted from web developer to IT project manager after two years at the company. The new job put her in charge of 14 male engineers, most of whom were at least 10 years her senior. She encountered roadblocks on one of the team’s first big projects, updating Sephora’s computing infrastructure ahead of the chain’s expansion to Brazil.

“My first week, I had a one-on-one with my boss and said, ‘No one listens to me,’ ” Ms. Mitchell says. He advised her to get to know the team and show the men how she could help make them better at their jobs, she recalls. Things eventually turned around. She credits that manager for helping her grow more confident and comfortable, she says, “being the girl who’s telling everybody what to do.”

In August, Ms. Mitchell took a new role as a web producer at Workday, a human-resources services company.

By John Simons (Author)

John Simons is deputy bureau chief for management and careers at The Wall Street Journal. Prior to the Journal, he was business editor at International Business Times and technology and media at The Associated Press.


Simons was a staff writer at Fortune magazine from 2001 to 2009, where he covered science and technology-related industries. He wrote about a range of subjects for Fortune, including immigration reform and the insurance industry’s early embrace of climate change.

In 2000, he was a Markle Fellow at the New America Foundation, where he focused on technology policy and economic opportunity in the digital age.

Previously, Simons was an economic policy reporter at The Wall Street Journal, and a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey with his wife and daughter.

Mr. Simons is a Wall Street Journal deputy bureau chief in New York. Email him at


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