Beauty is skin deep, but to Stephanie Headley (MBA ’03) there’s always much more under the surface.
As the senior vice president of North America skincare at Procter & Gamble (P&G), Headley is taking the venerable Olay brand and shaping its identity for a new generation.
Headley, the first Black woman and woman of color in her role, isn’t just redefining long-held standards of beauty — she’s shattering them.
“I have this amazing opportunity to help shape the beauty industry and make sure it’s representative of all people,” says Headley. “It’s about continuing Olay’s legacy of empowering women to be confident in their skin so they can be confident in their broader life. That’s how I see my work’s real purpose and mission.”
Olay’s marketing intentionally eschews outdated beauty standards, focusing instead on inclusivity, confidence, empowerment and self-care. It partners with organizations that support women of color who are interested in STEM careers, coding and film directing.
Olay’s “Face Anything” campaign was more about urging women to be unapologetically bold and far less about a new skin cream and serum. It introduced the Olay Skin Promise logo, signifying that the advertisement does not feature skin that had been retouched.
An Olay commercial that aired during the 2020 Super Bowl announced it was time to #MakeSpaceForWomen. Inspired by the first all-female spacewalk, the commercial starred actress Taraji P. Henson as a mission controller, a title with more than one meaning. In 2021, Headley and two of her P&G colleagues were named to Ebony magazine’s Power 100 list, receiving the corporate citizen award for their dedication to creating opportunities that drive the advancement of the Black community.
Olay doesn’t necessarily need to be a forward-thinking brand. It’s as ubiquitous as Tylenol and Band-Aids. But Headley didn’t take the job just because it’s an established $1.5-billion global brand.
Headley is a brand manager and a strategist, but she’s also a storyteller. She’s still writing the story.
“It’s important that more leaders get invited to the table,” she says. “I would encourage leaders who may not feel like their leadership fits the narrow norm to not be discouraged. Every person has gifts and talents that can make them an amazing leader. It’s up to us to embrace leadership that looks and feels different in the very best way.”
What Headley thinks about the most from her experience in UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Full-Time MBA Program is her first-year study group. Some members had extensive supply chain experience, while others had expertise in finance. It was clear to Headley that several were visionaries.
“It was the most unlikely group of five,” says Headley “We were this unique and random cast of characters thrust together on this journey. But what we were able to accomplish and learn from each other taught me the power of relationships in business. So many times in my career relationships were the difference-makers.”
They still are. Olay continues to support Queen Collective, a mentoring program that supports women interested in becoming film directors, including those who may shoot Olay commercials in the future. At Olay, more than half of its scientists creating innovative products are women.
Through partnerships with organizations like Black Girls Code, Headley is targeting the beauty industry’s algorithm bias, which largely favors images of thin, young and white women. The “Decode the Bias” program sent 1,200 girls to code camp to create more inclusive coding. “Beauty,” Headley once said, “is in the eye of the coder.”
Olay worked with Pantene to create “boosters,” ingredients and simple formulas to personalize a beauty routine. It launched 100% recycled jars at Walmart. To encourage interest in STEM, female scientists at Olay created boxed lessons and sent them to science teachers across the U.S.
“We have time and time again received amazing feedback that people felt seen,” says Headley. “It all opens more hearts and minds to what’s possible in a STEM career connected to beauty. We need good scientists and engineers in skincare.”
Promoting STEM is personal. Growing up in Kilmarnock, Virginia, a small town about an hour east of Richmond, Headley remembers her grandmother using Olay Pink Beauty Fluid Lotion. She was much more interested, however, in the math games she played with her grandfather.
Her goal was always to become a high school math teacher. Instead, after earning a bachelor’s in mathematics and secondary education from the University of Richmond, she spent two years as an operations manager at Philip Morris in Richmond. There, for the first time, she saw business leaders who looked like her. The plant manager told Headley she should consider pursuing an MBA.
“I was looking to take my education and professional experience to the next level,” says Headley. I had some good leadership instincts and some exposure to business. I needed more.”
Headley looked at a variety of business schools for her MBA but felt an instant connection with UNC Kenan-Flagler.
“Every single person I talked to wanted to understand what I wanted to achieve and how they could help me achieve my goals,” says Headley. “They all took the time to get to know me. Other schools were the opposite.”
She zealously dove into classes, wanting a taste of everything. Initially unsure if she could be an effective business leader, Headley quickly gained confidence when exploring the principles behind business ownership, entrepreneurship and brand management. She got advice from classmates and faculty about successfully making a career transition and served as vice president of diversity for the Minority Business Student Alliance.
A Global Immersion Elective took her to China, Japan and Hong Kong, igniting a love of travel and, for the first time, exposing her to the global connectivity of business and how she could be a part of it.
She landed a summer internship with P&G and after graduation the following year joined the company as an assistant brand manager for Febreze Fabric Refresher. For 20 years she steadily moved up the ranks, with such roles as senior global brand manager, associate director for brand operations and marketing director for Olay.
“The MBA Program was dynamic. It was energizing. It was this great balance of being challenging but also supportive,” says Headley. “I was able to try on different types of leadership hats and not just grow but thrive. I found my own point of view as a leader.”
Though she’s based in Cincinnati, Ohio, Headley always makes time for UNC Kenan-Flagler. In October 2023, she was part of a global business panel at the Kenan Institute’s Frontiers of Business Conference and was a keynote speaker at the 2021 Undergraduate Business Symposium.
Every year, she returns to the Business School to recruit.
“When I come to UNC Kenan-Flagler I know what kind of leaders I will meet,” she says. “They are confident in their abilities and know exactly what they want. They are agile. At Carolina, I became more confident in my leadership and a bit more courageous to take some risks even when I don’t always see the next steps. I see those leaders at Carolina every time I come back.”