What Sephora Knows About Women in Tech That Silicon Valley Doesn’t

Sephora’s formula for women in tech includes urging them to take risks without fear of failure. PHOTO: JASON HENRY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Sephora’s formula for women in tech includes urging them to take risks without fear of failure. PHOTO: JASON HENRY FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By John Simons

Updated Oct. 10, 2017 12:01 a.m. ET


In a San Francisco office an hour’s drive from some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley, Sephora has managed a corporate feat that would make the leaders of Google Inc.,Apple Inc. and Facebook Inc. FB +0.16% envious: a majority of the cosmetics retailer’s technology workers—62%—are women.

At a time when technology companies are struggling mightily to attract and retain women with computing and engineering skills, the beauty retailer’s tech staffing is notable not only for the numbers but also for the relatively simple way it got there.

Women in the Workplace

This article is part of a Wall Street Journal special report on women, men and work, based on a survey by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co.

Women hold 23% of roles in the technical ranks at the top 75 Silicon Valley companies, according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A report from the commission attributes the scarcity of women in those roles to inhospitable work cultures, isolation, a “firefighting” work style, long hours and a lack of advancement.

At Sephora, women make up the majority of its 350-person digital and engineering staff and hold all but one of the roles on its six-person digital executive leadership team. Women lead everything from digital marketing and customer experience in apps to back-end programming of the company’s e-commerce systems.

Though large tech companies employ several times as many engineers as Sephora, its share of female digital talent is worth noting. Managers say the retailer has managed to attract technical women by recruiting with an eye toward candidates’ potential rather than specific skills, encouraging hiring managers to take risks and ensuring that job performance is assessed fairly.

The key to Sephora’s success, says Mary Beth Laughton, the company’s senior vice president of digital, is a dedication to technology with a strong connection to the consumer. And, women at the company are encouraged to take risks without fear of failure, she adds.

While tech companies commonly urge workers to embrace failure, the message at Sephora is specifically tailored to help employees avoid common pitfalls that women encounter in tech careers, people at the company say.

Jenna Melendez worked in a number of digital roles at Sephora until she left the company last May. Before joining in 2012, she spent two years as a website merchandiser in Amazon’s Paris offices and observed few female colleagues. When she arrived at Sephora’s San Francisco headquarters, Ms. Melendez says, meetings were free-flowing and open. “Everyone spoke,” she says, “and felt comfortable offering opinions on anything from e-commerce to a shade of blush.”