How Bobbi Brown Created an International Beauty Line by Trusting Her Gut

UPDATED: July 3, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 6, 2012
Bobbi Brown

By some standards, Bobbi Brown has climbed the ladder all wrong—skipping rungs, jumping on and off and getting to the top way too soon. She has hired people on the spot, going with her gut, and made snap business decisions while padding down the hallway in her tennis shoes. She has befriended members of her staff, arrived at work with her wet hair pulled back in a ponytail and worn jeans to the White House. (They were paired with a Chanel jacket, so all was well.)

Clearly, this former chief creative officer and founder of Bobbi Brown Cosmetics—who started out as a freelance makeup artist and parlayed her talent, vision and drive into an international beauty line now owned by Estée Lauder—isn’t a woman who gets bogged down with rules or other people’s expectations. After all, she launched her business empire on one lipstick, “Brown” lip color. Yes, brown.

“Honestly, I think that a corporate coach telling me how to work wouldn’t be giving me advice to be who I am,” Brown says. But being her own authentic self has been the key to everything she holds dear, she says in an interview from her SoHo office loft, where dogs roam freely and an enterprising woman named Rosa sells the staff members manicures during their business meetings.

Bobbi Brown’s power of intuition 

The in-office manicurist, by the way, is an example of Brown’s business philosophy, which has always centered on respecting women, lifting them up, helping them enhance their own unique beauty—and on doing things her way, relying on common sense and intuition. The big picture for Brown is about giving women the tools to boost their confidence, and that’s evident in the causes she supports, books she’s written and advice she has given in appearances on NBC’s TODAY.

When it comes to relying on her intuition, Brown, quite frankly, is not one to dawdle with decision-making, which means she doesn’t do a lot of second-guessing herself. “I don’t have a lot of time, so I need to make things happen quickly and creatively,” she says.

Brown gives this example about intuition: “When my very first nanny came to the door, she didn’t speak any English and had very little experience,” she remembers. “It was crazy, really, but it felt right and I hired her. It turned out she was with us for a very long time.”

Another spontaneous, go-with-your-gut experience led to Brown’s big break into the business world. Working on assignment as a makeup artist, she met a chemist, and ended up telling him how she had dreamed of finding a lipstick that wasn’t intended to cover lips, but rather to enhance their natural color—a then-novel approach. And this lipstick would feel creamier than those on the market, too. The chemist said he could make it for her. And that’s how “Brown” was born. When that first line of lipstick went on sale 32 years ago at Bergdorf Goodman, Brown figured they’d sell 100 tubes that month. Instead, they sold 100 tubes the first day. Brown had found her niche.

How Bobbi Brown found her purpose

A Chicago native, Brown was not what you would call a dedicated student. After graduating from high school, she did attend the University of Wisconsin for six months and the University of Arizona for a year. But she was uninspired on almost every level, she says. In 1976, she came home and told her mother she wanted to drop out. She was serious, but so was her mother when she looked her daughter square in the eye and posed this challenge, which Brown has shared often: “Pretend today is your birthday and you could do anything you want,” her mother said. “What would you want to do?”

In response to her mom’s suggestion, Brown said she’d like to go to Marshall Fields department store and play with makeup. Not long after that, the family found Emerson College, a liberal arts university in Boston that offered a course of study in theatrical makeup. “I always say, ‘When I found Emerson, I found myself,” says Brown.

After her graduation from Emerson, Brown went to New York City. Armed with a fairly unsophisticated portfolio—she did much of the modeling herself—and a very strong case of naiveté, she promptly looked up “makeup” in the phone book and began landing work on some small modeling shoots.

The makeup of the 1980s was garish, if not a bit ghoulish, and Brown, who stands 5 feet tall with pretty features, often found herself displeased with the color palettes, smell and consistency of the products. Brown wanted makeup that mirrored her tastes—neutral colors and consistencies that were creamy and would blend easily with her fingertips. But there wasn’t anything out there. For years, these ideas bounced around in her head.

Bobbi Brown’s path to success

While Brown was never that good in the classroom, she was an excellent student of real life. And that’s pretty much how Brown kept climbing, eventually getting to achieve her goal of working on a cover shoot for Vogue. Then in 1988, on a Mademoiselle photo shoot in New York City, Brown says she met a man on set “whose hobby was making lipstick.” Enter karma and the chemist. Brown later smashed blush and an eye pencil together into one glob to show him what color she wanted. And they were off. “It seems totally amazing and totally bizarre,” she says now. “I was not someone who was voted in high school as someone who would be at the top of anything.”

But in this industry, she was headed for major success. By 1995, her line of understated cosmetics was selling so rapidly that Estée Lauder approached with an offer to buy her out. Brown eventually sold, enamored of not just the money and ability to retain creative control, but of the story of Estée Lauder herself, the entrepreneur and fierce family woman. The selling price wasn’t disclosed, but Estée Lauder later reported that the $74.5 million it invested that year was principally on the Bobbi Brown Cosmetics acquisition.

Today, Brown is the founder of Jones Road Beauty, and is no longer associated with Bobbi Brown Cosmetics. Prior to the switch, however, throughout all the corporate success of her former company—her initial $10,000 investment, the sales growth, the buyout from Estée Lauder—Brown was busy doing something besides establishing a corporate brand. She was establishing a personal brand as well.

Bobbi Brown’s philanthropic endeavors

Despite the glamor of her New York job, she’s essentially a small-town girl, she insists. Brown lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with her husband, Steven Plofker, a real estate developer and business owner. She’s written nine beauty-focused books, and has been involved in women’s charities and educational causes.

One of her pet charities was Dress for Success, a nonprofit that “[provides] a network of support, professional attire and the development tools to help women thrive in work and in life,” according to their website. In addition to financial contributions and donations of cosmetics kits, she has helped to raise money for the nonprofit, including one Dress for Success gala at which she helped raise nearly $1.8 million in a single event. “It’s really cool and amazing to be able to make a difference,” she says. Besides clothing, there are workshops and mentorship programs that Brown believes are crucial to the charity’s—and the women’s—success. Makeup and beauty might seem like superficial concerns, but Brown knows that self-image contributes to self-esteem.

Brown also supported the Jane Addams High School for Academic Careers in the Bronx, helping improve the school, providing scholarships for college-bound students and even spending time in the classrooms during the school’s “Principal for a Day” celebration.

At work, Brown’s management style was very much her own. With her iPad and iPhone (in its bright pink case so she can find it in her purse), “I’m like George Jetson,” she says, emailing, texting, tweeting and posting to Facebook, plucking away with one index finger because she can’t really type. But more often than not, she calls, even about the little things. “I like to deal with people in my voice,” she says. “I want them to hear me.”

Pressing forward

Although she’s never studied business in books, she’s studied business in pop culture.“We are living in a world of entrepreneurs, and I think there’s much opportunity in the world for a product that doesn’t exist or for making something that’s better than what’s out there,” she says. Some entrepreneurs who inspire her are Richard Branson, Blake Mycoskie of TOMS Shoes and Madefor and Ralph Lauren.

“Look at Richard Branson,” she says, referring to the billionaire adventurer and founder of Virgin Group, including Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Voyages. “I’ve never met him, but I’ve always loved that when you sit on a Virgin plane, he cares about people’s comfort and people’s attention span.” Lauren? “He’s stuck to what he believes in and what he thinks his brand should be,” she says.

For a girl who says that she never got better than a D in math, she’s pretty good at knowing how to keep the business in the black. But she insists she’s really as simple as her makeup. “My parents raised me well, with good judgment and morals,” she says. “And I married someone who is really just the same.”

For Brown, makeup was a way to express herself, then a way to help women feel and look as beautiful as they are and then, of course, a billion-dollar business. But makeup was never the only thing. “My family is the most important thing there is,” she says emphatically. “And everybody who knows me knows that.”

Bobbi Brown’s rules for business

1. Hire people you like. 

“I would never hire a friend and I would never hire a relative, but I hire people I like who are smarter than me, and they become my friends,” Brown says.

2. Be accessible. 

“My team knows, to get things done, sometimes they have to come to me,” Brown says. “Many meetings are in the hallway, by the way, some in the ladies’ room. They come to my house, they come to see me at The Today Show during taping. I was even on the phone making a decision once when I was on vacation on a camel in Morocco.”

3. Don’t put off decisions. 

“I often make decisions based on my gut,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of time, so I need to make things happen quickly and creatively.”

4. Learn from legends. 

When approached by the Estée Lauder company, Brown was impressed, in part because of the company’s history and legendary founder. She found that she and the late Estée Lauder had many similarities: “She was a great mother to her two boys; I have three. She really believed in word-of-mouth; she would say ‘tell a friend.’ I also believe that works. She really believed in touching the customer,” she says.

5. Believe you can do it better. Then do it. 

“What I do best, what makes me successful but is also a curse I think, is I think I can do it better,” Brown says. “I think there’s much opportunity in the world for a product that doesn’t exist or making something that’s better than what’s out there.”

6. Pick up the phone. 

A fan of technology, Brown nevertheless prefers a conversation to an email or text. “I like to deal with people in my voice,” she says. “I want them to hear me.”

7. Know what you’re working for. 

As passionate as she is about her work, Brown has always been clear about her priorities. “There’s nothing that means more to me than my immediate family—my husband and three boys. I adore them and most decisions I made are based around them,” she says.

8. Reap the benefits of positive associations and experiences. 

Brown recognizes that she’s energized by positivity—living a healthy lifestyle and being around “solid, substantial, honest” people, for instance. She tells a story about quitting smoking and losing 15 pounds in college. She recognized how good she felt as a result, which motivated her to keep up the healthy habits.

9. Be nice to everyone. 

“I’m not kidding. The more you give to others, the more you get,” she says.

This article was updated July 2023. Photo courtesy of Bobbi Brown.