Beautycon used to be about exclusivity. When it launched in 2011, the industry festival was a place for beauty bigwigs to mingle and network, showing off the latest innovations that would potentially transform makeup, skin care, and hairstyling as we know it. The only way to get a ticket was if you knew someone. And YouTubers were the only real celebrities you'd find mingling around the brand stalls.
But when Moj Mahdara, co-founder of Beautycon, took over as CEO in 2014, she brought with her a new vision of what the festival should look like. For one, she wanted to open its doors, make it substantially more diverse, and bring in celebrities who reflected more than one point of view.
But even with a personal calling to disrupt the beauty industry and make it more inclusive, she felt an immediate need to quiet down the parts of her identity that didn't fit into the rooms of white, male investors where she was pitching. A self-described "brown, gay, butch woman," Mahdara didn't feel like she could even begin to reflect the vision she saw for her own brand.
"I grew my hair out to my shoulders when I was first raising money for Beautycon because — not that I could cover up my queerness — but I was trying to assimilate more," Mahdara says. "All these companies I was meeting with were run by people who were conservative. And so, I was like, 'OK, I'm gonna have to fit into this crowd and figure out how to fundraise.'"
For the first few months as CEO, Mahdara even dressed what she thought was "the part," and chose to cover up her numerous tattoos with longer-sleeved shirts. "I didn’t go to a great school," Mahdara says. "I didn’t have some kind of pedigree. But I wanted to be given a shot. I think it was after my 100th 'No,' it was like, OK, I have to figure out how to navigate this."
After securing the trust of enough investors and shareholders for her company revamp, Mahdara was finally able to present herself as herself, with a little help from the Beautycon community, too. "Our audience is expressive, creative, self-possessed," she says. "Watching the way they live their lives made me feel like I needed to authentically live mine."
Since then, Mahdara has been able to grow the Beautycon Festival to new heights, popping up internationally in Dubai and London, and bringing in celebs like Kim Kardashian West, Laverne Cox, and Chrissy Teigen as guest speakers. Next Saturday, on April 6, Mahdara and her team will be putting on their fifth New York festival — and the biggest in Beautycon history. For one, Cardi B is headlining. And while at any other festival that'd mean she'd be performing, at Beautycon she's going to be on stage for something else. "I'm really proud of the fact that she wanted to come and have a conversation around money and what financial literacy means to women and how women need to take authorship and ownership of their own financial well-being," Mahdara says.
It's a discussion that Mahdara needed to hear herself in an industry that continues to be dominated by men. "There are not that many female mentors," Mahdara says. "I have like 100 shareholders and I had this desire to have my new largest shareholder to be a female-founded fund or a female operator and it’s been daunting for me to not."
Because of that, Mahdara finds community with other female founders — something that she says is her form of survival in a cut-throat environment. "I think we’re conditioned by the media and our counterparts to compete with each other," Mahdara says. "I love toasting Glossier’s success. I love that we can celebrate Jen Atkin's success. There's an opportunity to create a larger ecosystem for all of us, rather than one of us getting through at a time."
There's an opportunity to create a larger ecosystem for all of us, rather than one of us getting through at a time."
But even with outside support, Mahdara's accomplishments haven't come without their struggles. "I’d say that having a kid and growing a brand at the same time has been a lot of humility," says Mahdara, whose son was born last year. "There’s no real blueprint for a person like me who’s a brown, gay, butch woman who’s married with a kid. I don't see a reflection of myself in society as the one who’s out there running a company and having a successful, happy family."
At the same time Mahdara was navigating a new phase of life at home, Beautycon also went through a restructuring. "We tried video. We tried subscription boxes. Luckily for us, our festival business and our experiential retail really hit," Mahdara says. But with that, she also had to make the decision to do layoffs. "Hiring a bunch of people to relocate from New York to come and run your business on the content, retail, and comm side — they’re pissed off at you that you had to let them go," she says. "But that’s what we had to do to move the business forward."
Now, in addition to festivals and experiential, Beautycon is looking to break ground in the industry in other ways, including launching an e-comm marketplace on its website stocked with indie brands, many of which are founded by women of colour. In presenting these people as the ones to pay attention to, Mahdara is doing her part to make sure the industry sees that its audience isn't one conglomerate of white, cis, privileged, straight individuals, and should be appreciated for that.
"We were the 'not-beauty' people who came to the industry to redefine beauty," Mahdara says. "I think at the end of the day, we are celebrating fans of beauty. It goes back to our whole motto: 'You don’t need lipstick, lipstick needs you.' The consumer doesn’t need these products. It’s literally these companies that need these consumers."
And in the same way, it's the beauty industry that needs women — not the other way around. "I unfortunately end up in a lot of rooms where there are some women, but they’re just not the deciders," Mahdara says. "There’s a push for inclusion from a staffing point of view, but I don’t know if there’s a push for inclusion from a decision-making point of view. You’re talking about what’s really going on when you’re on your way to the restroom afterwards with the other women. It’s still a very male-driven business."