Mary Van Praag
CEO, Milani Cosmetics
“I am trying to make mentorship personal and encourage people to take chances. Whether it’s an international assignment or your first PNL assignment, I believe in encouraging women to see the possibilities and pursue their dreams…”
What, in your opinion, are the qualities of a power woman?
I love the concept of a power woman. I think first and foremost, it’s a bit of confidence, but balanced with being empathetic, which I think is a unique quality in being a power woman. There has to be some vulnerability in this quest for learning and listening. I also believe for a power woman, success is defined through values and integrity in my mind. Everybody has a different definition of that, but I believe that if you live your life based on your values, and it’s demonstrated in your work, success follows.
Do you believe that there is any gender-specific role for women to play in the COVID-19 pandemic? Do you think the response of the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the natural resilience of women?
Well, we’ve all been living it right? So I think we’ve all been adapting. It’s the agility, which is such an important component. Everything has been advanced three or five years: The workplace dynamics, the telecommuting, the e-commerce aspects, the humility, the values. Suddenly, it’s not how rich you are, it’s, am I healthy? Can I provide for my family? Am I around loved ones I can share my life with? It’s also people creating new hobbies. I think women have a clear role in that – the humility, the guidance. Many people who I work with are now also teaching their children, and suddenly all of life is converging in one area. I absolutely think women have a clear role in creating that balance in perception at this time.
With all of the different issues that we could focus on, how do you balance your efforts in the pursuit of gender equality? Is that a global approach or is there a specific issue you might be passionate about?
First of all, I make mentorship a priority and really try to help women in leadership roles. I try to make it very personal. I was defined by my mother’s values. I would consider her someone who said that there should be no boundaries for women, and you should be able to do whatever you set your mind on. So I was fortunate that I had that voice in my life; it kind of helped in pursuing my goals, passions, and interests. I am trying to pass that belief forward. I am trying to make mentorship personal and encourage people to take chances. Whether it’s an international assignment or your first PNL assignment, I believe in encouraging women to see the possibilities and pursue their dreams. To me, it’s both inspirational and personal at the same time.
What do you think is the number one action we, as a society, can make in the move toward gender equality?
I go back to thinking about women and power, and also thinking about corporate America. So much of that is just making sure we have board representation, CEO representation, diverse slates, persons of color. Giving the people the opportunity and challenging others…we have to look around and say, “Are we represented?” If not, why? What’s prohibiting that? One of your later questions is, have you ever encountered a sort of block in the workplace? Which I’ll talk about in a moment, but I believe you have to always give people the opportunity. Then, pick the best individual based on that. I think some of the things they are doing regarding board representation in California and a number of other countries is really smart. It’s hard to break through, but we all know what the success metrics are when women are represented. Think about womens’ buying power, women in families, women in education. All of these show that it is super important that we’re represented in the decisions of these companies. I’m always going to give you my business plan on things because that’s what I do. I think it is critically important.
Can you tell us a story that got you to where you are today?
So you’ll get a kick out of this. When I was with a fairly large public company, they sponsored me to go to Harvard for an eight week general management program. I felt very honored. First of all, I was one of three women in an over 60 person class that went through this general management program. There were people from all over the world, persons of color, but I was one of three women. Throughout the entire tenure, and you do business cases which I want to say was about 120 business cases we went through, only 3 of the business cases we went through had women leadership roles. The first one that we did was on Nickelodeon. It was a woman that was on bedrest leading the team. I just thought ‘I’m sorry but we can do better than this.’ I found it a bit offensive, and clearly not okay. I remember talking to the professor after doing the survey about the curriculum, but having said that I was a part of a group of people that were male, and you live in these little pods and come together to study, I thought I could easily sit back in my room and not participate. But instead, I put myself out there. I studied, and went to spin class with them, and went to a jazz club one night. I said I am going to get as much out of this program as I can. It was a profound moment because I became quite close to these other men. Even my husband and I vacationed with them for a couple of years afterwards. Some of us are still in contact a decade later. It was atrocious. Hopefully, things have changed considerably since that point. I thought that was very difficult. The other example I can give you is I worked for a very large beauty company. During my tenure of seven years, there was never a single board member that was a woman representing a large beauty company. Obviously, beauty company’s key constituents are women. I found that at one town hall, I was a general manager running a country at the time, the question was posed to the executive team, “why is there not more women representation?” The HR delegate at the time pointed to myself and a woman who was a plant manager and said, “oh, but we have two general managers within the organization.” Meanwhile this is two levels down and the entire audience clapped. I remember going home and telling my husband, “they actually clapped because I was a woman.” I found that horrifying as well. There wasn’t a single woman on and they just didn’t get it. After that, I’m sure many comments came in. I find both of those experiences, as a woman my age, I wouldn’t call myself a trailblazer, there were many before me, but I find those examples profound.
Do you think that asking for previous salary requirements in a job interview contributes to the gender pay gap. I know you give lots of interviews so I wanted to ask is this still something that goes on? Are you still being asked what your pay gap is between women and men? Should we push for a nationwide van on this, like in New York?
I think that it’s more widespread than that. To my knowledge, you cannot ask salary requirements. At least that’s what recruiters say, you’re not allowed to ask for previous salary. You are allowed to ask what your expectations are. So I think it spans well beyond New York. With all the recruiters I’ve talked to, you cannot ask that question. We all know we can find out through proxy statements and benchmarks. I believe it’s irrelevant. It shouldn’t matter what you were making. It’s about what does the job pay and what are the skills, qualifications, and leadership that is warranted? I think women need to ask for more, and be more shrewd negotiators. They need to put themselves in that position in influence and power just like men do. To make sure we are fairly compensated.
There are many studies that show that a female presence in the boardroom increases the bottom line and leads to a healthier work environment for everybody. What can we do to continue to support and enhance the growth of women in high profile positions?
I think it goes back to the conversation we had on board equity. Women on boards. I recently joined a startup board and what I was attracted to was that the recruiter was a woman founder who previously was a CEO of a public company as a female. Her whole goal was to run a woman-only board for her start-up. I was attracted to that because I thought, here is an example of who is leading the way. There are other coalitions that are happening in the industry right now about women board candidates, portals and things giving women the opportunity so that we can get better representation on boards. I mentioned to you, the California legislation I think is very helpful and set a new precedent. Most board seats are occupied for a number of years with very few openings. I recently went to an accreditation program called NACD and they gave tips too. It’s a huge opportunity for visibility, counting the numbers, looking at the success rate, and helping one another to get exposure.
Was there a defining moment in your life that led you to where you are today?
I think it’s a series of things. First and foremost, one of the things that makes me a bit different is that I was able to relocate a number of times in my professional career. And I am getting ready to move to California soon. I will have moved 17 times. I believe that openness to change and assimilating to new cultures and environments, as well as risk-taking, gave me the opportunities and exposure to various cultures and business environments that has led me to where I am now. While I don’t wish that upon everyone, as I do think it’s a lot of disruption in people’s lives, it has provided such a strong foundation for me. It’s helped my curiosity and openness to change that has led to much of how I operate today. I think that is probably something that differentiates me from most. It also allowed me to have some defining moments throughout my career. One is early in my career, I was able to leave the commercial partnership with Walmart. I lived in Arkansas to have the opportunity to learn how that business works and how to lead a large business, which was a defining moment. Another defining moment was my first international experience. While people think Canada is the continuous state, it’s not. It’s separate languages, separate laws, separate cultures. I actually had this wonderful association in Canada and learned so much about how to conduct business in different countries. Also, that first PNL general management experience led to another one I took over. Running a PNL was an important part of my leadership. I encourage more women to have that opportunity in business because it leads to larger roles in a company. You have to understand that and be given that opportunity. I’ve worked in large corporate environments, and very small private companies. I think it’s that duality of being able to manage entrepreneurial situations but also large corporations. Those are the defining moments in my career that have led me to the position I am in today.
Have you seen a change in the political landscape for women over the past few years? If so, what and why? How do you feel about what is happening right now?
It was great to see a nomination for a female VP and a person of color, which was phenomenal. I think all levels of the political landscape are changing, even globally. There are a lot of female leaders of other countries. I think our congressional seats have changed. It’s getting a lot better, and it is so important. It is a big statement to see a woman of color as a VP nomination.
If you could have someone else’s job for a day, who and what would it be? Why?
I can’t tell you a certain person, but I would love to be a journalist for a day. Bring issues to light and hear other people’s perspectives and bring that out. Not to judge, but bring various constituents and point of views for issues, for people to make their opinions. Maybe a newscaster at some point, but we’ll start with a journalist.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Find your unique leadership voice. I remember when I was speaking council as a young female leader, I was fortunate to have several people in senior roles hold a mirror up to my face. I remember one definition was you appear to be a quiet leader. I wasn’t sure I quite liked that definition. What does a quiet leader mean? I didn’t perceive myself that way. What they were really saying is in order to find your influence, you have to find that special skill. You have to influence others. I associated quickly with that piece of advice. So mine is constantly being on a quest for constant improvement. I use that throughout my life and throughout businesses. I am always challenging the status quote. I want to move from good to great. I inspire others. Sometimes it may seem critical, but it’s not meant to be that way. It’s more to get us from point a to point b. That was the best advice I ever got. I needed to find what that voice was. I also tell this to people seeking counsel from me because it’s very different depending on who you are. If you can associate with that skill or quality that makes you different and gives you confidence to speak your influence, whether it’s teaching, analytical, or you might be the best communicator, but I associate it with mine and through that advice.
What’s your favorite book? Fiction or nonfiction, present or past?
I read a book every two weeks, so I don’t usually remember them. So, I’m going to give you my favorite movie instead. My favorite movie is Life is Beautiful. I thought that was the most moving, beautiful film I’ve ever seen. It’s about the Holocaust and this father raising his child in a concentration camp and making life appear beautiful in the most trying of circumstances. It’s absolutely the most beautiful film you’ll ever see, you’ll weep.
Which trait do you most uncomfortable in yourself? In others?
For me, that self-critic. I’m too critical of myself at times. I’m trying to do my best to listen to it, but not antagonize it. What I might deplore in others is integrity issues. I can sniff that out anywhere. It’s intolerable for me. That’s completely not okay.
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Friendliness. It’s a matter of definition. You can be very introverted and very extroverted and still be friendly. I think it’s overrated.