NextGen Collective: My Ascent in the Beauty Industry

Larissa Jensen is vice president at leading market research firm NPD. As she puts it, her journey to success began with her abuela.

My earliest memory is of my Abuelita Maria: sitting at her small wooden vanity, she brushed her long gray hair in front of the narrow mirror as she got ready to settle in for the night.

We were in her house in Puerto Rico, so it was hot even though the sun had set, and she wore a paper-thin white cotton nightgown with a tiny pink rose in the center of the neckline. After brushing, she carefully braided her hair—then waved me over to the bed, where she reached under her pillow and pulled out a small handful of wrapped candies to share with me.

My Abuelita Maria was my great-grandmother; she died when I was two. But that moment is strong in my memory. And it was my first introduction into the rituals of a beauty routine.

Humble Beginnings

I was born in New York City in the 1970s to a young single mother. We lived in Spanish Harlem with my grandparents during my early years, then moved to the Bronx when I was four. It was a dark time in NYC—violent crime was rampant, graffiti covered the subways, and the city lay on the verge of economic collapse.

More than one million households were on welfare, including my own (I remember my mother paying for groceries with food stamps). But I loved and looked forward to my annual trips to Puerto Rico: I’d get to play with my cousins in the lush tree grove behind my Titi’s house, munch on quenepas, sip on mavi, and use a bar of soap to wash up during a sun shower.

My first language was Spanish. I didn’t switch to speaking English until I was in school. I enjoyed school and took my studies very seriously; I was always an overachiever, a straight-A student, giving everything I had into whatever I did.

When I turned eight, my mother married a doctor of European descent. Growing up in a multicultural household was not easy for me. My Puerto Rican cousins began calling me “blanquita,” which stung, even though I secretly appreciated the fact that I looked ethnically ambiguous. I began to feel different, no matter which side of the family I was with. Despite this, I was afforded many opportunities in my new life, and I became the first one in my Hispanic family to graduate from college.

Getting My Start

I majored in communications, with a double minor in photography and writing, at Ithaca College. I initially thought I’d become a photojournalist, but I changed course and shifted my focus to advertising.

My first “real” job out of school was working as an art buyer for McCann Erickson, one of the biggest ad agencies in NYC at the time. I loved my job, but after a few years I began searching for something new to challenge myself. I wanted to try my hand at marketing. Over the next several years, I held marketing roles at an eyewear company and in the footwear industry at Nine West.

And then I got the call that changed my life.

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A headhunter reached out to me about an open management position at L’Oréal. They had me at hello. From the moment I stepped into L’Oréal’s headquarters on Fifth Avenue, I knew that the industry had captured my heart. My first job in beauty was in marketing services, managing the development of seasonal gift sets across the L’Oréal portfolio of fragrance brands. Unfortunately, the role was moved to their manufacturing facility in New Jersey after a year, and I was not ready to relocate.

After a short interim role marketing fragrances for Liz Claiborne, I found my perfect fit at Estée Lauder. I worked on promotional marketing for the Prescriptives brand, which was fun, but I also held an unofficial role as “skin” for the late Mrs. Evelyn Lauder, which meant I got to smell new fragrance submissions. There were a few of us with this honor, and it is one of my favorite memories.

Another great memory was the time I ended up alone in the elevator with Mr. Leonard Lauder two months into my job and seized the opportunity to tell him how much I appreciated the opportunity to work there and how much I loved the company. He chuckled at my enthusiasm and said he hoped to see great things from me.

Busy, Busy, Busy

During my time at Estée Lauder, I got married: I earned my master’s degree while pregnant with my first son. The Fashion Institute of Technology had recently instituted a new master’s program specializing in leadership in the beauty industry. I expressed interest in attending and was awarded a full scholarship from Estée Lauder to attend the master’s of cosmetics and fragrance marketing and management program at FIT—I graduated two weeks shy of giving birth.

I made many wonderful connections and friendships through my involvement with the FIT program, both during my time there and in the years since I’ve graduated. In fact, it was during my studies at FIT that I was introduced to the NPD Group.

Everything Comes Together

I have spent the past sixteen years at NPD, a global market research firm that tracks the sales of over twenty different industries around the world. While at NPD, I welcomed my second son. I’ve also learned a lot about myself and my personal and professional capabilities. I am fortunate to have been afforded many different opportunities within the beauty practice at NPD, each one presenting new challenges and areas to grow my skill set and business acumen. My marketing background and extensive professional network have also benefited my role at NPD, providing a unique perspective in my analysis and recommendations to both beauty manufacturers and retailers around the world.

In many ways, my current role is a culmination of everything I’ve learned in my career thus far. But it didn’t happen overnight. My path was what I would call slow and steady, offering a more thoughtful growth trajectory than a quick and early path to leadership. I feel more comfortable with where I am because I recognize I have the experience I need to be here. And I am lucky enough to have the support and continued guidance from executive leadership at NPD as I continue to grow in my role today.

A Multicultural Home

While my early memories were heavily rooted in my heritage, I held a loose rein on my Puerto Rican roots throughout my career and for most of my adult life. They never really came up, other than when I checked “Hispanic” on official documents, and I went through most of my life as an ethnically ambiguous “blanquita.”

But I held on to those precious memories of my early years. My husband is Greek and Danish. We joke that our boys are Puerto-Greek-an, and we make sure to continue the traditions of our families with the food and music we grew up with. I hope to instill a sense of pride in my boys about where they came from, and to encourage them to embrace their multiculturalism. That multiculturalism is as American as apple pie—a family favorite in my house, along with pastitsio (Greek lasagna) and pernil (Puerto Rican roast pork).

Early in my time at NPD, my abuelo and abuela came to visit me at work. They were always so proud of me, and I enjoyed showing them around my office whenever I had a new job. The president of the beauty practice came out to say hello and told them how impressive I was and how one day we would all read about my contributions to the beauty industry. My grandparents beamed with pride. They are no longer here to read this, or to see how far I’ve come, but I know they are smiling up in heaven, very proud of their “muñequita.”

Lessons Learned

Seven years ago, I was diagnosed with a massive bilateral pulmonary embolism that should have taken my life. Instead, I spent five days in the ICU and two years recovering while never missing a beat as a mother, wife, or employee. While I faced many challenges and had some dark moments, I kept a positive and grateful attitude throughout—which I attribute to my abuelo and abuela, who smiled through every hardship and found joy in every day. I am grateful I inherited their outlook. They are my guardian angels.

My life has taught me many things. I believe these lessons are strong advice for young Latinx people to remember, regardless of their career trajectory:

  1. Always remember where you came from.
  2. Be grateful for everything you have.
  3. Have patience in your career path.
  4. Know your worth.
  5. Never take one day for granted.

As I look to my future, I am excited for what lies ahead. I believe there are many more great milestones to come, both in my personal life and in my career. My pride in who I am and where I came from will continue to be a pivotal force in what drives me forward. And when I braid my hair before bed, I will always remember my Abuelita Maria and the treats she shared, a precious reminder that life is sweet.

Larissa Jensen, vice president and industry advisor at the NPD Group, is an expert in the prestige skincare, makeup, fragrance, and hair categories. She travels globally to lend her knowledge of the US market to the beauty industry, which includes the evaluation of new business opportunities for top beauty manufacturers around the world.

Larissa shares her expert insights and analysis on the NPD Group Blog, and contributes to major media outlets including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Women’s Wear Daily, Vogue, the Business of Fashion, HAPPI, and GCI Magazine. She has delivered keynotes and trend presentations at established beauty events and conferences, and she has been a guest lecturer at the Columbia University Business School and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). She is an advisory board member for FIT’s CFMM Master’s Program and is on the board of advisors for Beauty Packaging magazine.

Larissa joined NPD in 2005 following her marketing roles at the Estée Lauder Companies Inc. and L’Oréal USA. Larissa earned a bachelor of science in communications from Ithaca College and a master of professional studies in cosmetics and fragrance marketing and management from the Fashion Institute of Technology.

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