Essie Weingarten is wearing Really Red. The FIT alumna and founder of Essie flashes those red nails as she enthusiastically gesticulates while addressing more than 200 students gathered to hear the “Essie story” at the Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology Fall Dean’s Forum on Thursday, October 22.
Weingarten’s story begins when, as a difficult middle child who loved getting her nails done, she was allowed, if she was good, to get a manicure on Saturdays at the local hair salon in Queens, NY. That love evolved into what would become Weingarten’s dream and starting in 1981, a highly successful business that she sold to L’Oreal in 2010 for an undisclosed sum. At a time when there were only a few companies producing nail polish, Weingarten saw an opportunity. “I wanted to create a nail polish that was long-wear, chip resistant, went on like silk, and wore like iron,” she said. “If I could do all those things, I knew I would have a business.”
The clever names everyone associates with the brand came later, as a way to give the brand personality. “When it came to colors, I was a leader,” Weingarten says matter-of-factly. “I changed the way women think about nail color.” When she sold the business, there were more than 750 colors; now there are close to 1,000.
Weingarten cleverly started out by taking her products to Las Vegas, where she knew there were dancers, cocktail waitresses, and card dealers who wanted their hands to look good. She made kits containing 12 nail colors (three of which are still in the collection) and three treatments, and left them with the 100 or so salons located between the hotels. Within a week she started getting calls. From there she did the same thing in her native Queens. Her business was born.
Weingarten was at the helm of every aspect of the business, down to the shape of the unmistakable bottles, which are made in Parma, Italy, and have curved edges on the inside so the color won’t settle into corners. But her increasing success never overshadowed her core belief that a person could change their entire attitude when they changed their nail color. Even during challenging financial times when people didn’t have as much expendable income, her business kept growing. “It’s an inexpensive luxury that can make you feel good,” she noted.
As she told her story, Weingarten peppered it with nuggets of great advice for the students. Be creative. Find a niche you love and go for it. Don’t do what someone else has done; be authentic, creative, and really love your idea. In business, never burn bridges. Business changes and you have to evolve. If you don’t make mistakes, you’re not trying hard enough. Before venturing out on your own, work for someone else. If you want to work somewhere, you have to give your all.
Throughout her career, her success, and the lessons she has learned, Weingarten is still, at heart, that little girl who loves to get her nails done. Today, however, she goes to the Samuel Shriqui Salon (an Essie Flagship salon) on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. “We talk about theater, recipes. It’s just a place you want to hang.”