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Ulta Beauty CEO on the ways the retailer listens to and reflects its diverse customers and associates

September 29, 2020, 9:43 PM UTC

It was a moment Ulta Beauty CEO Mary Dillon said she’ll never forget. The retailer had just reset its wall photos for a new salon season, and the new images depicted models of various races and identities. Upon seeing the photos, the general manager of one Ulta store told Dillon of the display, “That’s the first time I saw someone who looked like me, so thank you.” 

A remark like this is not taken for granted in an industry that historically has ignored or underrepresented a large proportion of the population. As Dillon herself acknowledges, systemic, ingrained biases require an ongoing effort to overcome and replace.

“From day one,” said Dillon, who has been Ulta’s chief executive since 2013, “I was insistent that every single shoot that we did, every single piece of content and social media really reflected the beautiful diversity of our country. Whether it’s age or race or gender identity, male, female, everybody participates in beauty.”

Dillon, who ranked No. 42 on Fortune’s 2019 Most Powerful Women list, participated in a video conversation with Fortune senior writer Phil Wahba as part of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit on Tuesday. The company’s conscious efforts to represent a range of individuals extend beyond its displays to its product offerings, she explained. For example, it recently launched the brand Pattern, a product for curly and textured hair. But Dillon said that Ulta has plenty more to do when it comes to offering services and products for “everybody,” calling further progress “an opportunity.”

“As an industry, if we can’t be inclusive and diverse, I don’t know who can be,” Dillon said of beauty, calling it a business of “human beings and human emotions.”

The element of personal human connection is also at the forefront of how the retailer interfaces with its employees behind the scenes, explained Dillon, who serves on the boards of Starbucks and KKR in addition to helming Ulta. When the company had to make the difficult decision to close its stores for several weeks during the COVID-19 pandemic, it also furloughed many of its associates. In doing so, Ulta facilitated a personal conversation between each furloughed worker and their manager, favoring this personalized approach over a mass email or conference call to break the news.

“We are going to be judged coming out of this crisis on how we treated our people, how we treated our customers, and how we set our business up for long-term success,” Dillon said. “It’s about having humility to say, you don’t have all the answers, but the human connection and the trust and respect, to be as transparent as you possibly can.”

Dillon also framed Ulta’s efforts toward environmental sustainability as a conversation. On the topic of her company’s carbon footprint, she referenced Conscious Beauty, a forthcoming platform Ulta plans to launch in some markets next month. 

“Through this is our desire to help our guests navigate and solve the needs and interests that they have in beauty,” she said. “Some people are looking for natural or organic ingredients, some are looking for vegan or cruelty free.” She also mentioned a pilot program with a company called Loop, which is helping the retailer learn about options for reusable packaging and product refills. “But certainly the packaging discussion is one that we’re having across the board with our guests,” Dillon said of the company’s customers.

She also acknowledged the conversations the company has with its vendors, and its role as a leader in beauty to influence priorities for the industry at large.

“I’ve been at this for a while, over 35 years in business,” said Dillon, who previously held executive roles at McDonald’s, Gatorade, and U.S. Cellular, “and I haven’t worked this hard to get to this place and not really be a champion for what’s right.”