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Racism Made Huda Kattan Feel ‘Really Ugly’—Then She Created a Billion Dollar Makeup Empire

October 23, 2019, 6:39 PM UTC

Business founders often talk blithely about addressing their customers “pain points.” But it’s hard to imagine a deeper pain than the one that drove Huda Kattan to found the $1.2 billion makeup empire Huda Beauty.

“I felt really ugly as a child,” the nascent Iraqi-American mogul shared in a characteristically frank session at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women summit on Wednesday. “We grew up in Tennessee; we were the only brown people in the city. There were a lot of times when children made us feel like we were not beautiful.”

Kattan said she also felt inferior to her sister Mona Kattan, who shared the stage at the summit.

“My sister was in beauty pageants, and she just looked like a doll. If you know anything about Middle Eastern families, the lighter-skinned you are, the more beautiful you are,” she said. “Ultimately, I just felt like I didn’t belong, and I wanted to feel beautiful . . . I felt like if I could feel beautiful, it would solve a lot of my insecurities.”

Those feelings assailed her, she told Fortune’s Maithreyi Seetharaman, as early as age nine. That drove her to become a makeup expert by the time she was 14.

“I felt powerful when I learned how to fix my brows and how to do certain things. I felt really good. I felt like I had a secret,” she said.

Even still, she didn’t plan on a career in beauty. Her family encouraged her to pursue a more traditional role in finance, and when she pivoted to focus on makeup, she said, “My parents were like, ‘Oh god, this girl, she’s a loser. Let’s just leave her.’”

Despite parental skepticism, the decision has more than paid off: Huda Beauty grew to unicorn status—a company with a valuation of $1 billion or more—in just five years. Much of that growth came through Huda Kattan’s leveraging of Instagram, where she now has 39.3 million followers. The company is also now the focus of a popular reality show on Facebook Watch, Huda Boss, which follows the inevitable drama of a company run by three sisters—Huda, Mona, and the eldest, Alya—as well as Huda’s husband, Chris Goncalo.

Even with all her success, Kattan said she faces a new set of challenges as a woman doing business in the Middle East, where Huda Beauty is based.

“I still struggle today when we’re in meetings and people refuse to make eye contact with me, and they’re making eye contact with my husband,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘No no no, don’t look at him. You have to convince me.’”

Ironically, Kattan has also discovered that the beauty she saw as “armor” as a young woman is sometimes itself an obstacle.

“People will see all of this glam, and they make so many assumptions on that. They assume that you can’t be beautiful . . . and also be serious, and also be a good mother, and also have intelligence, to be quite frank… Why can’t every woman be every single part of who they are?”

That yearning for authenticity has been key to Huda Beauty’s success on social media platforms, according to Facebook’s Marne Levine.

“Business is personal,” Levine told the audience. “They speak in such a personal, authentic way . . . I think that’s how they’ve built this global community, and this global brand.”

More must-read stories from Fortune’s MPW Summit:

—Retired Air Force Colonel Martha McSally on why courage is just as important off the battlefield
—”I don’t regret enforcing the law.” Former DHS head Nielsen defends family separation in heated interview
—Why 3 major companies decided to take a stand on gun violence
Tulsi Gabbard calls Hillary Clinton’s Russian jabs “outrageous” at Fortune’s MPW Summit
—Anita Hill calls on candidates to address gender violence
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