Ever looked at a company’s founder, or woman in a high-profile job and wondered, “How did she get there?” Same. In our series “How I Got Here,” we speak with women who’ve navigated the ups, downs, and sideways maneuvers that make up today’s modern work version of “climbing the ladder.”
Nicci Levy began her career working the Benefit Cosmetics counter in the mall. After falling in love with the impact beauty has on women, she went on to have a 10-year career in corporate cosmetics at companies including MAC Cosmetics and Nordstrom, where she piloted a personal shopping program for cosmetics and skincare and, later, at Calvin Klein Beauty, where she launched their cosmetics line.
Today, she’s the founder and CEO of Alchemy 43, a aesthetics bar with a growing number of locations, specializing in micro-treatments. Impressed? Here’s how Nicci Levy chartered her career path, in her own words.
Meet our career woman
Name: Nicci Levy
My job: Founder of Alchemy 43
My school: B.A. in Communications, University of California, Davis
What my work consists of…
Right now, I’d say it’s a healthy mix of daily operations and planning for the future. Oversight of all the different company functions means regular sync meetings with my team to look at patterns and discuss how we can be improving.
On getting my start
My major at UC Davis was Communications, which is very broad scope and the subject matter was good for preparing me for a career in sales and marketing. Even though how we communicate has changed, the fundamentals of communication between human beings whether its professional or personal remain the same.
I grew up in the beauty industry: cosmetics and skincare. That’s always been a passion and an interest of mine since I can remember. I’d always been the friend that would do the other friend’s makeup. And you know I loved watching my Mom get ready. When I was little, I would go in her room and watch her get ready for date nights with my Dad because I loved watching her put on her makeup, and put on her perfume, and kind of watching her ritual.
It felt very much just like something I enjoyed and something that would be fun for a part-time job. I never really envisioned I could make a career out of it.
While at UC Davis, I got a job just to make extra money working part time at Benefit Cosmetics counter at Macy’s. I wanted to kind of get a part-time job to make some extra money, and that sounded like a really fun job. They were brand new at the time, too! It was my junior year, and I told them upfront it was just going to be for the rest of the school year because I was going home to Orange County for the summer.
When it came time to go home for the summer I said, “Thanks so much. Bye.” I kind of assumed that was the end of the opportunity and they were like, “Well, do you want to work for us in Orange County for the summer?” And I was like, “Absolutely.” That kind of ended kept happening, so Benefit must have kind of really seen something in me and wanted to kind of cultivate that. I started to understand that I was doing something right.
On finding a career I was passionate about
“It was like trying on a size too small or something that just didn’t click for me.”
I kept trying other things all throughout my early 20s of things that I thought I should be doing, things that I kind of imagined myself doing after college. Nothing felt right. It was like trying on a size too small or something that just didn’t click for me. And I kept getting these great opportunities to come back to cosmetics, like with Nordstrom and MAC, and I would be making more money than any of my friends that were working entry level at advertising agencies.
I then realized at a certain point that you could actually make a career in beauty. And there could be a bright future for me in that world. So, I kind of stopped resisting it.
I don’t think there was a single “a-ha” moment where I knew I’d be an entrepreneur. It was more a path that I found myself on both because of my personality and other people seeing that in me. I’ve always been someone who thinks about how things could be done better. That probably made me an annoying employee, haha. I was never okay with just staying in my lane at jobs. I was always thinking about how things could be better. And throughout my career, people have recognized my entrepreneurial nature and given my opportunities to pilot things or lead and create
My path to launching a company
After a pilot cosmetics program I was working on for Nordstrom ended, I lined up a job with a company called Mecca Cosmetica of Australia. I was about to move there. I was 10 days away from moving to Australia, and I got a call from a woman who was a corporate veteran at Estée Lauder Corporation. She said, “I have an opportunity I want to talk to you about. Can you meet me to discuss it?”
The opportunity was to launch a new cosmetics brand under the Calvin Klein name. The company, Markwins International, was known for its success in mass market cosmetics. They owned brands like Wet and Wild, Physicians Formula, and Black Radiance, as well as many more. They wanted to expand into the prestige cosmetics market, so they recruited two industry legends and me and said, “Build your team. I want to do luxury.” Basically, I was presented with this opportunity to—at 27 years old—create a cosmetic line from scratch.
I viewed it as an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. I canceled my ticket to Australia. I canceled my job there. I stayed for this job. I got to do everything from naming the eye shadows, to working with the R & D lab on formulas, to writing and executing the training and education program for account executives, to meeting with the retailers. I literally got to have the experience of launching my own cosmetic line from scratch. I knew for sure at that point that I was going to do something on my own. I just wasn’t sure exactly what it was going to be yet.
After about a year and a half of doing that, they decided that the prestige market was not for them and decided not to renew. That’s when I made the jump into medical aesthetics. I wanted to get more experience in broader areas within the beauty industry. A girlfriend of mine who’d I’d known from cosmetics who used to be an executive for Lancôme, I ran into her, and she said, “Oh, I’m working for this company called Allergan. They’re a pharmaceutical company, and they’re launching a product called Latisse, which is a product that grows your eyelashes.”
I applied, and eventually landed the job as the Business Development Manager, for Beverly Hills which was one of the largest territories in the United States in terms of volume. In this role, I was responsible for selling and marketing Botox, Juvederm, and Latisse to all the providers within the Beverly Hills 90210 area.
Even though the outcome of these treatments has to do with beauty, there was nothing else even remotely similar about the experience of going for a medical aesthetics treatment and the experience of going and buying a new skincare product, getting your makeup done or learning about a new product line. I felt like most offices that did Botox and filler treatments did them as an add-on.
They viewed it as very much of an afterthought. Like, “We do clinic dermatology and also, by the way, we can also do your Botox for you.” Or, “We do plastic surgery and, by the way, we also can do your Botox.” And I thought, wow, it’s so interesting how people are spending thousands of dollars and when they go in and they get their Botox, they’re treated like a patient. But really, these treatments are all about looking and feeling great. That was kind of the white space for me, the “ah-ha” moment where I was like, I really think there’s an opportunity to kind of re-categorize these treatments and make them into a beauty ritual.
At the same time, that was in 2010 Drybar opened. I thought it was so amazing how they took something that was part of a larger hair styling experience and they kind of extrapolated that out and they made it its own category. So, I thought, why can’t we do this with injectables? Why can’t we literally extrapolate it out of the larger medical or dermatology or plastic surgery experience and really focus on it and make ourselves experts at it? Why can’t we make it its own category and really create a category around it? So, that was really the inspiration for Alchemy 43.
How I really made it all happen
I took time to write the business plan, then had to go out and find investors. I had this idea and this concept, but I had no track record. I had never done this before. My brother happened to be in business school in France, so he helped me a lot with how to reach out to potential investors and find somebody who was interested in giving me money with just my idea and my resume. Luckily, I was able to do that.
I raised $720 thousand pre-launch, just with my idea. That round was led by a woman named Toni Ko, I would call her my fairy godmother. She founded NYX Cosmetics and sold it to L’Oreal in 2014 for $500 million. Amazing woman and just is a total hustler!
I saw Toni Ko speak at a women’s entrepreneur event in LA and I basically followed up with her on LinkedIn and I said, “Hi, you don’t know me, but you will, and I’d like to talk to you about this idea I have.” So, she agreed to meet me for breakfast, and by the end of breakfast she was like, “I’m in. How much money do you need? Let’s do this.”
She really is the one who believed in me from the beginning. Between her money and the people that she brought to the table, and a couple of friends and family that put in small amounts on my side, we were able to raise enough money to get the first store opened.
I’ve chosen a path based on my passion and a true dedication to disrupting the status quo. I genuinely care about what I am trying to do. But the main thing I credit to my success to is just pure, unadulterated grit. I will do anything and everything possible to ensure my vision is fully realized. There is no absolutely no back up plan. That’s what I believe it takes, and that is what’s gotten me to this point.
So much great advice over the years. I think for me, the things I refer to most often are “assume positive intent” because even though missteps or mistakes happen, usually the intent is good. So it’s more about redirecting the energy. People usually mean well. Another piece of advice is to “question everything”. When it comes to your business, no one knows the inner workings of it or the vision as well as you do. So if you have a question, never be shy to ask it.
Give the vision lots of thought. Know “the why” like the back of your hand. Think bigger. Look at the competitive landscape. Ask yourself, where does my product/service fit in? What problem does it solve? What differentiates it? Make all your decisions with those answers in your mind.
Comments have been edited for length and clarity.