EXECUTIVE IMPACT

Going Beyond Performative Allyship: SheaMoisture CEO Cara Sabin

By Leah Fessler

Chief Member Cara Sabin, CEO of SheaMoisture, Co-Founder of 25 Black Women in Beauty, speaks to her present experience as a Black CEO, including how to avoid performative corporate allyship, and her perspective on vulnerability. Prior to Sundial, Cara served as an executive at the world’s most prominent beauty brands, including NARS, Clinique, L’Oreal, Korres, Avon, and more. Prior, she worked in brand management at Kraft Foods and Capital One Financial, where she launched the first "What's in Your Wallet?" campaign.

I was recently texting one of my good friends from college, who is the CEO of a small biotech company. She sent me a message that was very à propos. She said, “How do I handle all of this new attention, the invitations to attend industry events, panels that previously excluded us, now that everyone wants to hear from us?”

I’ve been experiencing the same thing. It’s difficult. I’m being really intentional about where I lend my voice, because I don't ever want to be used as a token. At the same time, it’s incredibly important that as leaders, we work together and have these conversations.

As a Black executive, part of the challenge of this moment is being the “go-to” person. An example: I’m the Chairperson of the Minority Alumni Advisory Board at my graduate school, Duke’s Fuqua School of Business. I've been in conversations with our Dean about how we can play a role in dismantling systemic oppression that has impacted students, alumni, and the community. And the truth is that while I can lend my voice based on my personal experience, I don't have all the answers. No one does. We're all figuring it out at the same time.

Still, many people want Black women to provide solutions. But what’s not said in that text from my friend is that we have always had perspectives, voices, and experiences to share. In the past, our input has not been sought out, and now it feels expedient to do so. So in seeking our perspectives, it’s essential to come from an authentic, genuine place. That authenticity requires realizing that we are not having these conversations right now only because of the death of George Floyd. Obviously that has been the senseless and tragic spark, but this is a centuries old issue. Many Black people are carrying so much generational and systemic trauma and pain. So while I appreciate that people want to have these conversations, there needs to be an understanding of the emotional position we are occupying — and the pain it entails.

We are also having conversations with allies about how they can take action against racism without being performative. There is no easy fix — the solution lies in building an organizational structure that is truly inclusive from the bottom up. To give a personal example, in April, SheaMoisture and Sundial Brands (its parent company) launched a $1M relief fund for women of color entrepreneurs impacted by the pandemic. This could have been perceived as performative. It wasn’t, and that’s a testament to Sundial’s founders, and how the organization was built.

When the Dennis family founded Sundial, they established their mission to be "over-serve the underserved." Initially, over-serving the underserved manifested in the business providing beauty products for women of color and Black women specifically in a time when they were overlooked by the mainstream beauty industry. Quickly, this mission evolved into the Dennis family’s decision to improve economic equality by reinvesting proceeds from our products into the communities we are serving. This is the driving force behind what we do. Our organizational structure is designed to advance this mission. We have an entire team devoted to strategically reinvesting our proceeds in the communities we serve, which is run by Simone Jordan, an executive with deep non-profit experience leading similar work at the National Urban League.

To invest in this work, it needs to go beyond comms, and be interwoven in your organizational structure, hiring practices, budget, internal business practices, and overall business goals. You cannot have a growth strategy without a multicultural strategy.

The importance of this authenticity also extends to how we personally show up as leaders.

This has hands down been the biggest leadership challenge in my career. Starting with COVID, for the first time in my career I experienced the responsibility of knowing my employees’ lives were in my hands. We have a manufacturing facility that produces hygiene products and hand sanitizer, and we could not close when everyone else went remote. Then came the social justice movement over the past couple of weeks. What I’ve realized is that being a leader means you have to be a leader 100% of the time — there’s no “time off.” That can be a very challenging standard to hold for yourself.

There have been moments where I’ve cracked and shown my vulnerability. This is uncomfortable because I’m a very private person. I derive my energy from moments of quiet and solitude. Usually, showing vulnerability is a challenge. But what’s happened over the past couple of weeks is that I’ve had no choice. I haven’t decided, “I’m going to be vulnerable in this moment.” It literally happens because while I’m talking to my team, I get choked up and break down.

As I've had those moments, I’ve realized that expressing that humanity is actually a good thing for my team — to see that I'm a leader, but also a human. Because the other side of vulnerability is just being who you are, 100% of the time. Through my career I have not always had this privilege, but I do in my present role, largely because of the business I’m leading, the customers I serve, and importantly, the leader I have in Esi Eggleston Bracey — who is also a Black woman. Esi allows me to lead in the way that is most genuine for me and my team. This experience is a testament to why it is never enough to have just one Black woman at the top.

Years ago, I plateaued at the VP level. It was very challenging for me to rise higher, despite my contributions, the impact I was making, and my ability. When I was appointed this role as CEO of Sundial, my hiring manager was a Black woman. I think it really took a Black woman to see my talent. So I guess that is my final message for people who are leading organizations right now: Really, really look at the Black talent that you have. There are likely hidden gems that have been overlooked because of unconscious bias. You need to realize that the talent is there. The talent is definitely there.

Originally Published June 22, 2020