It’s a rite of passage for New Yorkers to cry on the subway. For Ella T. Gorgla, it happened after the beauty company she worked at for five years told her not only that she wouldn’t be promoted that year but that she would never be. Never. As a driven individual who took pride in her accomplishments — being named one of Inc. Magazine’s “11 Leaders to Watch” in 2011, founding a dot-com startup named one of the “Top 10 NYC Startups to Watch” by Time Inc. — Gorgla was crushed. She says, “People always talk about turning your pain into purpose. The pain of that led to 25 Black Women in Beauty (25BWB).” Gorgla co-founded it along with Cara Sabin, the CEO of Sundial.
Founded on Juneteenth in 2019, 25BWB is a member-based organization designed to celebrate and advocate for Black women in the beauty industry and, most importantly, to act as a real vehicle for change. “The goal is to see more Black women in leadership roles or more in the pipeline toward leadership and to highlight some of the inequities taking place in the corporate world,” Gorgla says.
To accomplish that, they do talent acquisition with brand partners such as Ulta and Chanel, have a very active careers board, and they host corporate events, intentional networking hubs, entrepreneurship-resource directories, and more. Members include Lacy Redway, Sharon Chuter (the founder of Uoma Beauty and the “Pull Up or Shut Up” initiative), and Karla Davis, Sr., the director of integrated marketing communications at Ulta Beauty. The Cut talks to Gorgla about the injustices that need to be addressed in beauty, how to spot performative activism, and going to the same spa as Naomi Campbell.
What are the current inequities in beauty?
The Pull Up for Change organization showed that there is a lack of people of color at the larger beauty brands, beauty retailers — in some cases, no Black people at all, and that is not acceptable. There isn’t a sense that diversity is represented in leadership, but also within the ranks, i.e., using Black-owned creative directors, Black writers. That’s a part of it. But microaggressions take place daily. I’ve shared my own personal experiences. Beauty is particularly unique, because this is the industry which sets the standards of what beauty is. For too long you weren’t seeing faces reflect what beauty truly is — only European standards. The whole thing was just a mess.
How can things change for the better?
There has to be a real desire to change at the top level, to make a better, more equitable, and more beautiful working environment. It’s simple. It’s not even that complex. Once you have that desire, everything else is purely authentic and more intentional. You want to see more diverse people in your pipeline and to set them up for success.
You don’t have a Black woman at the table to check a box. You value her background and diverse opinions. That’s the core of it. The challenge is if there is no desire, and deep down, they don’t want Black people in their leadership. That’s where consumers and employees come in. Millennials have a totally different view of what an equitable work environment looks like. As employees, we have to hold them to account. We have to question them and place pressure on leadership. Perhaps it’s not one or the other. We want to see the actions, and if we don’t, we act. You can do both. It is important that we create environments filled with love and beauty — more now than ever before.
How can you be a real ally?
People need to appreciate what it is we are working toward. You don’t have to be a Black woman to join 25BWB. I like to be very intentional and targeted. If you are part of an organization that could benefit, reach out and let us know. If there are executive-level opportunities at your company, at the manager level and above, share it with us. We have a fairly active career board. If there’s a way for us to do an event on allyship and intentional networking, reach out to us so we can be a part of that.
Beauty is a particular industry where inequities have been unveiled. While a lot of brands posted a black square or took a subtle stand for what is right, people are still hesitant. It’s performative when people run for cover when there are true atrocities. They’re not willing to stand up for what is right but will join in only if everyone else is doing it. There’s no doubt that we need as much support as we can get. I love when people reach out.
What, in your opinion, are the best affordable beauty products? Why?
Any multi-use product is what I’m chasing right now. For example, I love a good co-wash and then using it as a leave-in conditioner. I have 4C hair and use Mane Choice. I also love this lovely lavender oil called Flower Supply Hair Oil from Together Beauty. I use that on my scalp (for the smell) and as a moisturizer. It’s such a perfect blend.
What’s the wildest luxury beauty experience you’ve ever had?
At the time, it seemed like a wild luxury because I was younger and didn’t have money. I would go twice a month to the Mario Badescu Spa in New York and just indulge. I wasn’t making a lot of money, so I was like, Why am I spending all my money over here? Then I would just buy all their products. Naomi [Campbell] went there, and they did do an excellent job, but it was an experience.
Fill in the blank: Unfortunately, _______ is worth it.
Sleep is worth it. Often, we are so busy that we are not getting proper rest. Even now, as we are spending so much time indoors. Our schedules are so weird. But when you do get the proper rest, it’s worth it. Your skin looks better, your confidence is better. I used to convince myself, all I need is four hours. But when you get a full eight to nine hours, it’s like, Oh my god, this feels good.
Is eye cream “worth it”? And which one is your favorite?
I have to be honest, I don’t know if it is worth it. I go back and forth. I would get access and discounts to all kinds of eye creams. I know what does work is when I use basic cucumbers and put it on my eyes. There’s also little coffee things to reduce puffiness. Those kitchen hacks work more than eye cream. I just don’t see it.
Bu, this is where I would lean on a dermatologist. Maybe there’s something more at a micro level, and this cream is perhaps changing my under eye. If you have dark circles, what products can address that? I don’t know. There are great concealers that work magic.
Do you think of beauty as self-care? Why or why not?
Yes, 100 percent. Beauty is a self-care. When it’s time for me to wash my hair, it’s a whole calming experience. Or if I go through my ten-step routine on a Saturday, that is me relaxing. They are products to reinforce the love you’re showing yourself.
Has the way you think about beauty changed during the pandemic? How so?
I’m just using less makeup. I’m spending more “me” time, more self-care. It’s giving myself beauty targets, like my hair needs to grow six to 12 inches. I should be able to do all the things, more deep conditioning, scalp therapy, that I can do while I’m at home. If I’m not using foundation, I should be able to clear my skin. I can grow out my eyebrows or fix my beauty issues. I also do use lipstick more. For my Zoom calls, the one way I make myself look bold and ready is a nice, beautiful lipstick.
What do you wish more people understood about what you do?
I wish every single person understood that the work we do comes from a pure place. It comes from a pure heart, and the goal is for equity. Is it not meant to dismantle any brand or to cancel any brand. It is meant to drive equity. If companies are behaving badly, sometimes you have no choice but to vocalize that. Even during this time of spending more time indoors and being isolated, I find myself becoming more spiritual and wanting to go through this deeper spiritual formation. I know that I am doing good work, positive work.
If companies feel targeted, then they need to examine why people are outraged. There are brilliant people who work in beauty. We are all problem solvers. Whatever is driving this “cancellation,” you can examine and resolve it. Is it how you’re treating a specific class of people? Then, what steps can you take? And not just change it for a little, but what systemic changes can you make? If there is intimidation and bullying, people will speak out about that.
When people cry out in pain because of the treatment they experience in the workplace, they’re doing it for a reason. It isn’t for attention but because they want the trauma to stop. If you’re worried about your reputation or being canceled, make a real effort to stop it, and stop from going back to your old ways or blaming the victim. Look to what can be changed.
Where would you like to see the beauty industry go from here?
I would like to tidy up the image of what the beauty industry is, including that mean-girl stigma. We have to be authentic about inclusive leadership and beauty. We want to see us actively continue to evolve and change and be more and more inclusive. That’s across the whole industry — not just the big companies but also the indie brands. We see growth happening in a lot of indie brands, and I want to see them innovate. I also want to see more Black-owned brands lay claim their fair share of this industry.
What was the biggest “no” you heard in your career, and what did you learn from it?
The one who inspired me to co-found 25BWB. I have solid credentials. I got my MBA at Columbia, I did grad school in London, I pride myself in the quality of my work. I was told, “No, you will not get promoted, your position was leveled, and there was no opportunity for growth.” It was shocking, especially if you had been told there was a chance for advancement.
On the packed subway home, I cried. I couldn’t help it. I was deeply disappointed in myself. It didn’t make sense. Ella, what more could you have done? I went through that. There were folks who deal with that expected promotion year after year, but you’re told you’re never going to get it. I was trying to figure out, Why is this okay? Not everyone’s role is level. You talk to people, you share your story, go through your own process for healing. That’s what I always continue to do.