When Ukonwa Ojo left Nigeria for the United States to attend the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, she had no clue she’d eventually become global senior vice president for Coty Inc.’s CoverGirl brand, but she knew she had a dream.
“My parents were gutsy enough to let me move to America by myself to follow my dream,” said Ojo. “I always knew that I wanted to work in business, and America was like the nirvana of business.”
Fast-forward to the present day, where that same bravery kicked in when Ojo, who joined CoverGirl in the fall of 2016, gave the brand a makeover by changing its slogan, “Easy, Breezy, Beautiful CoverGirl,” to “I Am What I Make Up” after just a year at the company. Ojo and her team added more brand ambassadors to round out their roster. Along with singer Katy Perry, the new CoverGirl ambassadors included chef and author Ayesha Curry, who is half of a power couple with NBA All-Star Stephen Curry; Issa Rae, the creator of HBO’s Insecure; fitness guru Massy Arias; 69-year-old model Maye Musk; and professional motorcycle racer Shelina Moreda.
It wasn’t an easy decision, but the feedback has been incredible and allowed CoverGirl to bring a lot of innovation to market with bolder colors, deeper tones and glitter with a spring collection that will launch 114 new products.
Making tough decisions isn’t new for Ojo, who decided to change her career after working nearly six years in the finance department at paper company MeadWestvaco. A finance and accounting major in college, she was good at math but realized that she wasn’t in love with it and couldn’t see herself doing it for the rest of her life. Then she heard about brand management.
“I realized that what I didn’t like about finance was that I worked alone most of the time. But with brand management, I’m constantly collaborating and building together with so many departments,” said Ojo. “I’m a classic extrovert, so I get energy from other people.”
Ojo earned an MBA at Northwestern University and, while there, interned at General Mills, where she spent seven years. She handled marketing for brands such as Betty Crocker, Honey Nut Cheerios and Progresso from 2004-11. Later, she worked on branding for the French’s mustard portfolio, as well as Durex and K-Y in London for the British multinational consumer goods company Reckitt Benckiser until 2015. She stayed in London and joined Unilever as senior global director for Knorr, the food and beverage brand, before moving to New York as a CoverGirl senior vice president. With more than 20 years of marketing and brand management experience, she now oversees the cosmetic brand’s global strategy, advertising and communications.
The Undefeated visited Ojo at Coty’s offices in the Empire State Building to learn more about CoverGirl’s evolution, how she exemplifies why “you are what you make up” and why she lives by her Instagram bio, “working hard, playing harder and praying hardest.”
What is a typical day like for you?
There is no typical day, which is one of the things I love about this job and the beauty industry: It’s so fast-paced. I can be looking over the innovation within production operations, presenting to our board of directors or the executive committee, reviewing a pitch from our media partners who may have an amazing idea to meeting with our sales team on how we’re going to drive growth for that quarter. The scope of my role is so broad that it keeps things interesting and my brain challenged.
What’s the most rewarding and challenging part of your job?
The brand means so much because of the impact it has on culture, and that creates such a rewarding feeling for us. The challenge derives from that same responsibility of running such an iconic brand. Whatever you do, you know you’re standing on the shoulders of giants and that you’re pushing culture forward through the brand and the business.
What was behind the decision to change CoverGirl’s slogan from “Easy, Breezy, Beautiful CoverGirl” to “I Am What I Make Up”?
The decision came from really listening to people. I learned how makeup is so much more than cosmetic, and every day when they stand in front of the mirror with their makeup bag they are actually creating who they wanted to be that day. Women play so many different roles in society, and our makeup changes based on those roles because it’s a form of self-expression, and there’s a story behind each look. We realized that some of these looks weren’t so easy, breezy, and in some ways that was limiting us to go on that journey with her to create whoever she wanted to be that day.
How has CoverGirl evolved in how it chooses ambassadors?
It’s never easy picking a CoverGirl because of the legacy and history of what it stood for. It’s one of the hardest things we do as a team because it’s far more than just beauty that meets the eye. We’ve historically always stood for inclusiveness and diversity, but it was primarily limited to ethnicity. We wanted to continue to celebrate ethnic diversity but also the beauty that comes in all ages and vocations. A lot of our CoverGirls usually come from the entertainment industry as models and actresses, but we thought, ‘How awesome would it be to show women in various roles that are pushing society forward?’
Why did you choose Ayesha Curry, Issa Rae, Massy Arias, Maye Musk and Shelina Moreda?
We loved that Ayesha Curry was a chef, entrepreneur, a mom and a wife and was playing these roles in such an inspiring way. Massy Arias, a fitness sensation that could kick anyone’s butt at any time, is balancing that with brand-new motherhood and the ups and downs that come with that and was still thriving on that journey. And then we have Issa Rae, who we loved because she was really pushing the boundaries in Hollywood about what entertainment should look and feel like. She’s a director, producer, writer, actress and just a strong role model for women. [Model] Maye Musk exemplifies how even at 69 years old you can still do what you love and inspire at that same time. Shelina Moreda is the first woman to have raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and at the Zhuhai International Circuit in China.
We just wanted to show all of the different ways that women really thrive in society and have that be an inspiration to us and other women out there.
How can we increase diversity in managing advertising and brand campaigns?
I believe it’s a combination of not knowing that this is a career path and how there’s still a long ways to go on representation on all levels in this field. That’s why I try to be visible in my role, whether that’s with mentoring, participating on panels and speaking engagements so African-Americans not only know but see that this is a path here for them too. Brands, especially those that impact culture, have to have diversity in front and behind the camera to authentically push diversity and inclusivity. I’m very intentional at building a strong and diverse team.
Is it better to be feared or loved as a leader?
I don’t subscribe to fear and would never want to generate that on my team. If I had to pick a word, it would be respect, and I would choose that over being loved. As a leader, you’re going to make decisions that people aren’t always going to love, but if they respect you and you’re transparent, then they’ll recognize that your intent is right.
What is your advice to young women who don’t feel beautiful because they compare themselves to what they see on social media and in Hollywood?
Beauty really does come in every shape, size, ethnicity and vocation. It’s so important that we champion that and show how beauty is confidence. People try to water it down to an idealized vision of beauty. But at the end of the day it is confidence, and when you learn to accept who you are, you will automatically perfect beauty into the world.
What would be your personal theme song and why?
“Live Your Life” by T.I. featuring Rihanna, because I believe in writing your own rules. People could have statistically said where I should end up or what a senior executive should look or lead like. I love challenging those notions. Like our slogan says, ‘you are what you make up,’ and you can become whoever you want to be.