Editor’s Note: Welcome to the first installation of “Behind the Brush,” a new weekly column featuring top beauty experts of color talking all things pretty!
I had the chance to catch up with Susan Akkad a few days before she was being honored at the Black Retail Action Group’s 42nd Annual Scholarship & Awards Dinner. In case you aren’t familiar with her, Akkad is currently the Senior Vice President of Local and Cultural Residency at the Estée Lauder Companies. Read on to learn about how she made it, diversity in the cosmetics industry and the scoop on her fave beauty products.
EBONY.com: You’ve had an extremely impressive career. How did you get your start?
Susan Akkad: My first real job out of school was at Estée Lauder back in 1986. I had the choice between being an assistant in the PR department at Estée or an editorial assistant at Condé Nast. As one does at 21, I made the choice based purely on salary. The Estée Lauder position paid $500 more a year. [laughter] I didn’t know that much about what you did in a beauty company or at a magazine, but I was really interested in writing.
EBONY.com: What does it mean to you to be honored at this year’s BRAG Gala? How do you hope to inspire young women of color?
SA: It’s so humbling and an incredible honor, particularly from your peers. My biggest message to women of color is that you don’t necessarily have to study business to go into business. I had a very non-traditional preparation for this business. I was a Middle Eastern major specializing in the ninth to 14th century. But I actually use what I learned from my studies, because I spend a lot of time helping our brands become more relevant there.
EBONY.com: Although there is no such thing, I have to ask: what is a “typical” day like for you?
SA: What I love is that there isn’t a typical day, partly for a few reasons. For one, I’m corporate, so I partner with all  ELC brands, and they all have very distinct identities and products. While I work in marketing, I also work in research and development, too. I feel that since I have been in this role for four years, it has strengthened the diversity of my skills.
EBONY.com: Creating diversity is a key aspect of your role. Do you feel like the cosmetics industry as a whole is starting to address women of all shades?
SA: It’s a really different industry than it was 10 or even five years ago, but there’s always room for improvement. The breadth and variety of shades in makeup and skincare solutions that address needs of women of color are so much more prevalent now. To a younger generation, multiculturalism is their world! If we don’t reflect that, then we aren’t modern, and look dated. It would just be strange never to see images of women of various ethnicities. Or even not being able to go to the makeup counter with your girlfriends of any race and get a makeover.
EBONY.com: You have access to almost every beauty product imaginable. What are your go-to products?
SA: I’m such a product junkie; all of my girlfriends from around the world always tease me! The Even Better Clinical Dark Spot Corrector is fantastic for me, because I am aging by way of hyper-pigmentation. One of the hidden gems for women who wear their hair natural or curly is Aveda’s Be Curly line. I use their curl enhancer to achieve my look, its fantastic and awesome. My go-to hostess gift is a Jo Malone candle for men or women. It’s better than showing up with a bottle of wine to a party. Everybody loves them!
EBONY.com: What is the best beauty trick or tip that you have learned over the years?
SA: My dark circles happen to be blue. I know a lot of women who have them, but they are just a darker version of their skin. For years, I was trying to find a concealer that was a variation of my foundation shade but it always ended up looking gray, like I had on bad makeup. Bobbi Brown has a color corrector in an orangey-peachy shade that neutralizes the blue. I just put powder or foundation on top and it zaps it out. After learning about color theory, it totally changed the game.
EBONY.com: Any last thoughts?
SA: For me, it’s not so much about the product in production. What’s really rewarding is when I walk into the store, go to the counter, and see the diversity on both sides. This is the way it should be, because this is the way our country looks. [Estée] also has a relationship with the Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem. I absolutely love speaking to the girls there. When I talk to the girls who are in math or science, I can always say, “Well, you can be a chemist in cosmetics, we also employ physicists and biologists.”