Sara Ravella, L’Oréal’s Executive Vice-President of Communication, Sustainability and Public Affairs and Chief Executive Officer of the L’Oréal Foundation, is a force to be reckoned with. She took up one challenge after the other as she climbed up the corporate ladder, joining L’Oréal’s top management in 2010. eniGma’s Omnia Zaied caught up with Ravella in Beirut and found out how she helped make L’Oréal one of the world’s top beauty brands.
It’s been a busy night in Beirut, winners of the L’Oréal-UNESCO Award For Women in Science Levant and Egypt have just been awarded their certificates. A huge reception is thrown in their honour at the University of Saint Joseph. Ravella is excited, moving from one corner to the other congratulating the winners, giving them advice and words of encouragement. Eventually I managed to steal her away for a few minutes to conduct the interview.
Ravella’s excitement is understandable; she is a woman who knows how difficult it is to finally “make it”. After graduating with a PHD from the London School of Economics, and dreaming of changing the world, she joined the UN in Geneva as an advisor for the South Asia region. “This gave me a chance to start travelling and exploring amazing countries in an early phase of my life, which not many young Italian girls get to do,” she says. Ravella then moved to the private sector jumping from one industry to another. She spent a few years in electronics, before she moved to France and made a career shift to human resources. “I realised that working with human material is much better than working with figures and I was very interested to see how empowering people can improve the general performance of the company. While the regular approach was to get the job done first then to take care of the people, I wanted to work on both simultaneously,” she says. And although jumping from one industry to another may scare some, Ravella doesn’t see it that way. “It is scary only because I am a perfectionist and I always demand the best from myself. But it’s not scary enough to stop me; sometimes you just have to follow your gut,” she says. She finally joined L’Oréal in 2010.
Joining L’Oréal as Executive Vice-President of Communication, Sustainability and Public Affairs and Chief Executive Officer of the L’Oréal Foundation wasn’t like any other professional move in her career. For the first time, Ravella was working in a feminine field as opposed to the masculine, industrial world she was used to. “It was great to finally feel less alone,” she says. “And it was also great to work in a more consumer driven field,” she adds. Ravella wasn’t only working for a company that caters to women, but also working with a lot of women, managing and inspiring them.
Joining L’Oréal also gave Ravella the chance to be involved in the L’Oréal Foundation, which allowed her to return to her original dream of changing the world. The L’Oréal Foundation aims to promote science and help the most vulnerable. That is why they decided to partner with UNESCO at the For Women in Science program in 1998. “L’Oréal is about women, they are our customers, and it is also about science since it was founded by a scientist. We believe in the concept of “science in a jar” and that is what our products are all about,” she says. “That is why we decided to participate in the initiative because it is in alignment with our message, supporting both science and women,” she adds.
The program has been implemented in 48 countries around the world over the past 16 years, and five years ago it was launched in the MENA region. Now the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science program sponsors more than 2000 international researchers, two of whom have been awarded the Nobel Prize. “The program managed to create good visibility for women in science,” Ravella notes. “The next challenge is to fill the pipeline to support these ladies and to encourage them not to abandon their work. To get them to believe that science rocks!” she adds. There is a majo r difference between the applicants in the west and in the Middle East. While the international contestants are being awarded for their achievements, the Middle Eastern applicants are given a push to continue their research. And it is working. “The sophistication of the science is increasing, and so is the number of applicants, especially in Egypt. Also the range of science is varying,” says Ravella. This has encouraged L’Oréal to nominate Arab contestants to international awards as well. This year, eight contestants from the region qualified, including three from Egypt. “It is actually moving forward, little by little, and my advice to anyone who thinks of applying is to find a good sponsor to help them complete their file and then to just go for it and apply,” Ravella says.
In addition to the For Women in Science program, Ravella and L’Oréal are also involved in providing education to beauty professionals through the Beauty for a Better Life program.
The program provides training for underprivileged people, mainly women in the beauty profession, by L’Oréal’s own beauty experts. “We work with local NGOs to identify the beneficiaries and after the training we give them a diploma that is recognised by the local educational systems,” says Ravella.
It takes a lot for one woman to take charge of several projects to help support other women. To Ravella, this is not a problem. She believes in the cause so much that to her, doing this is not just part of her job description; it is part of being human. “You always have to make sure that what you do is in alignment with your wishes and your values. Once you have this, nothing can stand in your way,” says Ravella. “A lot of young women add more load on their shoulders by thinking about what other people will think, but if you have that alignment you know you are right, you allow yourself to be who you really are,” she adds.
Despite all the travelling and hard work that goes into these projects, Ravella, a wife and a mother, still manages to find time to spend with her family. She defines her success by her ability to juggle it all. “I never really planned to be here now, it all sort of just happened. I have been so lucky. Churchill used to say that success is moving from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. I think I am successful in that sense. Every time I fall, I recover and I move on,” she says.
For Ravella, beauty is much more than just looking pretty. It is also about feeling better and being stronger to succeed in the world. This is why L’Oréal is the right place for her right now, because they believe in helping and supporting women all over the world, because they are simply worth it.