After fifty plus years at the top of her game, Estee Lauder became the only woman on Time magazine’s 1998 list of the 20 most influential business geniuses of the century. Despite her death six years later, the company she founded continues to enjoy tremendous success. It was ranked 340th on the 2006 Fortune 500 list and currently earns over $6.4 billion in revenues.
Josephine Esther Mentzer was born in 1908 in the Corona section of Queen’s, New York. Her upbringing was a modest one; she lived with her eight brothers and sisters in the apartment above the hardware store that their father owned. Her parents, Max and Rose Schotz Mentzer, were of Jewish background and had recently immigrated from Hungary and Czechoslovakia, respectively. Much of the family’s time was spent in simply trying to make ends meet with most of the nine children helping out at the family’s hardware store below.
It was while working in this store that Lauder got her first taste of business. It was not the world of big business that Lauder would find herself in later, but her father’s hardware store did give her a better understanding of entrepreneurship and what it takes to be a successful retailer. Despite, or perhaps because of Lauder’s exposure to business at a young age, her childhood dreams actually took her as far away from business life as possible. Until World War I, Lauder had always wanted to be an actress, dreaming of her “name in lights, flowers, handsome men.”
After the War, Rose’s brother, Lauder’s uncle John Schotz, came to live with the family. This would prove to be a turning point in the young Lauder’s life. Schotz was a chemist who had devoted most of his life to creating “secret” skin-care products. After having built a mini laboratory in the family’s stable at the back of the house, Schotz took on the role of mentor to Lauder. “I recognized in my Uncle John my true path,” Lauder recalled. “I watched and learned.” Together, the two of them began working on creating special skin-care products.
Lauder had now switched her focus; no longer did she dream of the brilliant lights of Hollywood. Now, she wanted to be a scientist. She began working with her uncle’s mixtures and trying to modify and improve them. She also took on a key sales role for his new company, New Way Laboratories. But, her dreams were soon placed on hold when she met Joseph Lauter, a textile salesman. The two were married and soon relocated to Manhattan, New York.
Up until the time of the birth of her first child in 1933, Lauder’s professional dreams had never quite subsided and she continued to experiment with different concoctions in the kitchen of her own home. Her husband supported her goals and, together, the two purchased a converted restaurant in which Lauder could continue to try to create new potions. In 1947, the two finally decided to go official, and Estee Lauder Inc. was formed.