About Desirée: From politics, publishing to beauty, Desirée Rogers becomes a force in every industry she enters. From her role in the Obama Administration as the first African American Social Secretary, becoming the first ‘non-family’ lead of Johnson Publishing Company, to supporting Black-owned businesses as CEO of Black Opal Cosmetics, Desirée is a change agent who brings passion and authenticity to everything she does. When asked about her success, ‘luck’ is not in Desirée’s vocabulary. Growing up in New Orleans, Desirée always knew she wanted to be a leader, working hard to attend Wellesley College and Harvard Business School.
Upon receiving her degrees, Desirée took her leadership ambitions to Chicago, becoming the Director of the Illinois Lottery. After six years in her position, Desirée joined Integrys Energy Group, where she was promoted to President of Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas. In 2008, Desirée became President of Allstate Social Network, spearheading the first social network strategy. Desirée then left Chicago in 2009 to become the White House Social Secretary for the Obama Administration, putting on over 350 events in 14 months.
In 2010, Desirée left her position, taking on the role of CEO for Johnson Publishing. In this position, Desirée worked to grow the company’s three subsidiaries, including Johnson Publishing’s media outlets (Jet and Ebony Magazine), the Johnson Archives, and Fashion Fair Cosmetics. In 2019, Desiree harnessed her passion for working within the Black community and the beauty industry to become the CEO of Black Opal Cosmetics. Through her position, Desirée strives to bring more minorities into the beauty industry while also creating more opportunities for Black-owned businesses.
In this week’s edition of Executive Insights, Desirée discusses the challenges black-owned businesses face, the importance of creating opportunities for minorities in the beauty industry, and how to become an effective leader.
What did you want to be when you were younger? How did you end up on your career path?
People rarely have it all planned out from a young age. As a kid, I just knew I wanted to be in charge of something. So, I had to figure out how to do that while using my skill set and doing something I could be proud of. I’m constantly trying to add to my tool chest. I believe that being a lifelong learner is important to your quality of life. Don’t block yourself off from learning new knowledge. There are so many times I say, ‘I know that’ because I am interested in learning something new. I don’t like to spend a lot of time regurgitating redundant information. I’m always searching for new knowledge. It keeps me fresh and on my toes.
I like to challenge myself to see what I can do. I don’t always play it safe, which is evident in my career. I've been in so many industries over the years. Some things have gone really well; others have not gone as well as I would have liked, but I look back, and they all have been a part of that tool chest of learning. I want not only to improve my skills but improve myself as a person. I try to grow from my mistakes instead of being bitter or angry. We all go through those phases. I’m only human. But it all comes down to how fast you can maneuver yourself away from that negativity to stay on the right path. Throughout the years, I’ve realized that we only have one life. You have to make the most of it.
What was it like living in Boston during your college years?
I spent quite a few years in Boston. I'm originally from New Orleans, so it was my first extended time outside of my home state. Louisiana is, of course, very Southern. There’s a lot of tradition. So, I moved to this very cool climate, and it took me a while to get adjusted, but I really loved my experience at Wellesley. It was a great time to explore my love of learning and the Northeast corner. I got to see all of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. I stuck around in the same area for my MBA at Harvard. I like Boston for the time I was getting my education. There are so many colleges and universities, it's just a beautiful city.
As a native Bostonian, I am often asked about the city’s contentious history of racism. Did you notice that when you lived there?
When you're there for college, you're pretty coddled. Especially in the suburbs of Wellesley, you’re in your own little bubble. I spent most of my time at Wellesley or with friends on another college campus. I wasn’t around many local Bostonians. I think we were pretty well protected from what was going on in Boston at the time. Despite this, you always experience discrimination as a minority and a female. It’s always there. Especially in the 1980s, we were so trained to make it work. My parents and grandparents always said you have to be strong. You can’t let any of this destroy your goals, mission, or ambition to do what you want. I’m sure I have blocked out a lot of negative experiences from that period. At the same time, I have to put it in its proper perspective. Now that I’m older, I am trying to work on the issues more than when I was in my 20s.
What has been the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?
Nothing is easy. You still have to work extremely hard, have discipline, and stay focused to keep the strength. Some days are much harder than others. There are times where we can see the movement and progress. There are also times where it’s very frustrating, and you’re working through tears to figure out how to fix your mistakes and where you went wrong. You just have to get yourself back on track to try and fix it as quickly as possible. The key is to not make the same mistakes twice by getting to the bottom of why that mistake happened. It’s very detrimental to try and hide your mistakes. You have to figure out why it happened, even if the answer is as simple as an oversight. Believe me, you’ll rest easier, and the people working with you will rest easier if we know the cause, how to fix it, and how to avoid the mistake in the future. It’s less about placing blame and more about finding the problem.
How do you deal with failures running a large organization?
I don’t deal with failure well. I like to win whenever possible. I am very competitive, and I don’t like to lose. I prefer to win on my own terms, beautifully. Beauty is real. It’s unique. It’s smart. It’s fun. It’s easy. I like to win that way. The reality is, the more you play, the more you have an opportunity to lose. You must play and put losses in the proper perspective. You don’t want to be sitting on the sidelines every day watching others on the field and being sad you’re not in the game. You can’t dwell on failures, and some lessons take time to learn.
What skills do you think are most important to be a successful industry leader?
As you choose where you’re going to work and what companies you’re going to associate with, you have to believe in the DNA of that company. You have to understand it and have a relationship with that business, almost like a relationship with a person. As the leader of a company, you’re asked to exemplify that relationship and the personality of the business. You have to model your life around that. It’s difficult, and you will make mistakes. After all, you’re just a person. Despite this, your job is to create a culture where people can do their best work.
I push really hard because I love greatness. You’re not going to achieve anything without a solid work ethic. Nobody is going to give you anything. I can’t speak for everyone, I only have my personal experience as a Black female, but it’s difficult. You have to speak up and speak out. You have to try and create change and be proud of who you are. Most of all, you have to be passionate about what you’re doing. If you don’t like your work, you’re not going to be great at it. It takes a lot of time and energy, and you have to work hard to succeed. I know this personally. Back in school, I used to stay up all night studying and teaching myself the material. At the time, I didn’t know I was dyslexic, which is why it took me longer to learn and grasp the material. I had to put in a lot of work to be able to succeed.
Who do you surround yourself with and how does this factor into your success?
Part of being successful is having fun and having an enjoyable, happy life. So, I have lots of friends that keep me happy and keep me emotionally grounded in who I am. We have a lot of fun together. We also have meaningful conversations on difficult topics such as race, immigration, and wealth disparities in the African American community. It’s important that you have a group that you trust and can have purposeful discussions with.
What do you think executives like yourself need to do more of?
I would like to see us collaborate more. I have a friend in New York who keeps the hundreds of us together. He’ll share what he sees on the news and will celebrate our successes. He also helps us think about the charities we participate in and where we can help. I think he’s doing it right. I would love to see more of that, even starting with a small list and just share resources to start a conversation. If we could start getting executives together for mini discussions, we could make a real difference. Numbers are power. We need to better organize our voices around more macro issues. There’s so much talent out there, and it can feel lonely. We need to come together.
How did you come across Black Opal Cosmetics?
After 2017, I was determined to be in the ethnic beauty space and began looking at companies. I identified Black Opal very early on. I felt that the product quality was far ahead of anything else I had seen in the marketplace, and I also liked their price point. I spent two years pursuing the owner of Black Opal. When we finally struck a deal, Cheryl came on as my partner. We’ve been together ever since working on the product. We bought it in June 2019 and have a great base of products.
What is your vision for Black Opal Cosmetics?
We are trying to hire as many minorities as possible to create careers for people who look like us. Currently, 80% of our staff are minorities. Too often, we are frozen out of that side of the table in the beauty industry. Everyone wants to sell to Black and Brown people, but when you peel back the layers, Who is really making those decisions? In cosmetic companies, there are not as many minorities in those roles as we would like. In addition to our staffing, most of our partners are minority-run companies. Our goal is to grow their businesses as we grow.
In terms of our products, everything is under $20 and is of phenomenal quality. We have a strict list that we abide by for what ingredients we don't want in the cosmetics. We are working to improve what was already built on by the original founder, his wife, and a dermatologist. We have an African American dermatologist on staff that works through the products with us. She helps us make sure we’re doing what's right for darker complexions. Overall, we have a great opportunity to offer very high-quality products for under $20 and made by us.
What does Black Opal Cosmetics hope to accomplish within the Black community?
We want to create wealth for our community. Cheryl and I are trying to create wealth for every employee and every business that works for us. For us to advance as a people, we need wealth. We also need to be in charge of it. We do not want a handout. The more wealth I can create in my community, the more I know my community will be taken care of.
I want to push money back into the Black community. The charities I give to will be charities that are taking care of people that look like me. If Cheryl and I can create this tiny little snowball. And if we just keep packing on to it with more people creating wealth, then maybe we have an opportunity for some real change in our neighborhood. At the same time, looking pretty good doing it.
How has COVID-19 affected the beauty industry?
Our sales were affected by the pandemic. We’re lucky in the sense that our largest retailers, Walmart, CVS, and Rite Aid, remained open during this time. I believe that helped us, but what took the biggest hit was our international business. Our domestic sales in Africa and the Caribbean were down significantly. This experience has allowed us to take a step back and really work hard on our digital platforms. We plan to come out really strong in 2021, not only with ourselves but with our retailers.
What percent of your business is online versus in-store?
We want to expand our online presence. As the world has changed in the last 10 months, people are more willing to buy products online. There’s no longer a use of testers in today’s marketplace. So we as beauty companies have to make it easier for you to test the colors that you want for your skin tone. Two days ago, we launched a project with Google Marketplace that allows customers to virtually try on Black Opal lipsticks then go to our website and purchase the product.
Especially during this time of COVID, we’re looking to provide an easy and safe experience for our customers. We’re investing heavily in our digital footprint and figuring out how we can improve the customer experience. We’re also investing in our brick-and-mortar relationships with retailers that we feel have a predisposition to allow us to be authentic. When you enter our new locations coming in January, you will see that we are very proud of being black-owned and who we are.
What is the biggest misconception about the beauty industry?
The biggest misconception is that there are all these Black-owned companies in the beauty space. There are not, especially majority Black-owned. There are many founders, but they may or may not own the majority of the company. It's very difficult for a Black business owner to create scale in the beauty industry because the price of entry is so high. If you want to be in Walmart, CVS, Rite Aid, Ulta, Target, or Sephora, the money it takes for you to open your stand is enormous. First, you have to get the money, then you have to be willing to put that money at risk to sell your product. It is a lot less expensive to do that online. So, as more people shop online, we should be able to see more growth in Black-owned businesses that may not have had the capital to open in these pricey retail environments.
One of your past roles was the White House Social Secretary for the Obama Administration. What did that job entail and what was your experience like working for that administration?
The job is responsible for any events that the President and First Lady host. Most of those events are in the White House, but I did work on other events outside of the White House. Each year, they have a big party in front of the United Nations congregation in New York, they have the G-20 and G-10, and many other events. I got into some trouble at the time. I went into the role as not just a learning experience but trying to figure out how I take the skills that I've learned up until that point and use them in a way that's beneficial to the President and First Lady.
My background is in business, and I thought of it as the marketing of the brand. I wanted to bring to life what they promised America through events and through the selection of entertainers. The goal was to give them the best that America has to offer across all types of arts. Whether it's country singing, jazz, artists, storytellers, poets, actors, Olympians, or chefs. I wanted to bring people together in a way that was different than ever before. Not just meeting the First Lady and President, but mix it up a bit to be more inclusive and exciting.
For example, the Easter Egg Roll was the largest one that’s ever been done. We created a lottery system to get in and gave people 2 hours before the next group arrived. That had never been done before. In the past, people would stay all day, and only so many could go. So, we used this idea of inclusion to make it a larger event. I got to use my lottery and event planning background to bring things together. It was a very different experience than the previous Easter Egg Rolls. We wanted it more rounded, more reflective of who the Obamas are and how they wanted to bring America into the People's House. Working for that administration, I did about 352 events in 14 months.
Do you think you left a legacy or changed the Social Secretary role by the time you left the administration?
To some extent, yes. I know many of the social secretaries on the democratic side have followed that pattern of what we were doing. In terms of the documents we put together, the music series, and the other things our team put in place, we are all very proud. I think being on the first team is different than being on any other team. You have that enormous amount of excitement, but no one knows exactly what their job entails because they haven’t been in those positions before. It feels surreal, and you pinch yourself every day that you get to be there. I’m so grateful for the opportunity, and I met some of my best friends during that time. You definitely bond to working in such an intense environment.
Would you consider working in politics again?
No, I’m good. I will show my support, but I have too much of a business mindset and meritocracy upbringing to do that. I don’t see myself running for anything. It takes a lot of energy, and I’m not a good six-dimensional chess player, so to speak.
What was your experience going from Washington D.C. to the CEO of Johnson Publishing?
I had several jobs before I got to Washington, including my role as president of Peoples Gas here in Chicago, so I’ve done a lot of work in corporate settings. Some of those fundamentals translate into a family-owned business, but a lot of them don’t. You might have a general framework, but nothing can prepare you for the emotion and company history. On top of that, being a world-renowned brand that’s so close to every African American I know, it’s very humbling to be asked to do the same work that John Johnson did. This role was probably the most difficult work I’ve done, considering the state of print at the time and being a family-owned business with both founders having passed away. There was grieving inside of the company because they had worked there. Many employees had worked with them and stayed for life, and there was a lot of emotion there.
The world was also changing very rapidly in terms of views on African American publications and businesses. There’s still a tremendous amount of racism that affects the success of these prints and organizations. They also lack capital. I was trying to spread capital across the publishing, the Johnson Archives, and Fashion Fair Cosmetics. The Guggenheim just bought the archives, so now the world will see the rich history that the Johnson family created for everyone, not just African Americans. I am very honored to have been a part of that history and continue the cosmetics brand legacy.