As told to Victoria Kirby

People who work in beauty often say it’s always been in their blood because their mom or grandmother taught them about makeup or skin care from a young age.

That’s not me. Beauty came to me later in life when I started my role at Sephora. Growing up, I was a fashion junkie: footwear, handbags, clothes — those were my passions. Of course, my mom takes pride in her appearance and wears makeup, but she didn’t have that need to teach us about it, and we never played with makeup together.

Alison and the Sephora team in a Sephora store

However, I always loved the idea of giving people products that make them feel more confident. You know when you’re trying on a pair of jeans and you look in the mirror and think, Wow, my butt looks good in these jeans? That moment when a product makes you feel better about yourself is what motivates me to do what I do.

I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia surrounded by women. My mom is one of three girls, and I have three sisters. My maternal grandmother was our family matriarch — not in a strong-handed way, but gentle and wise, which is how my mother is as well. I’m the third child, and I think birth order definitely influences how we show up in life. I was always the goofball middle child vying for attention. In family photos, I’m the kid making a funny face

Alison and her family

My mom, grandmother, and aunts weren’t career women, but they were very active in our community. They were diligent in raising money and building up the community and doing work for Hadassah, a Zionist women’s organization. They did all this while raising kids, and when you think about it, you need a business mind to raise children. You’re jostling multiple calendars and creatively solving problems every day. As kids, if we were bored, my mom would turn a paper towel roll into a game. Or if we were in the car getting antsy, she’d have us look out the window and see how many different states’ license plates we could spot.

I don’t have children, but growing up seeing how these strong, gentle, wise women in my family were always able to pivot and be flexible and creatively solve problems influenced my work and my management style.

In school, I didn’t have my sights set on any particular career, and I was a bit lost right out of college. I graduated with an international business degree and enjoyed those studies, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was living at home and saw an ad for the Macy’s buyer’s training program — which, at that time, was called Bamberger’s and was considered one of the best training programs in the country — and it piqued my interest because I was so into color and fashion and putting together outfits. Plus, I was attracted to going someplace that was considered the best.

Alison and her girl crew

In 1986, I was accepted into the last Bamberger’s training program before it became Macy’s. What I loved about that program is that we were trained in both science and art. They taught us analytics and the bones of how to look at a business, but they also emphasized the art piece of merchandising. Because what we do as merchants — and I’ve always been a merchant — is place bets on what people will want to buy. We’re like a mini stock market making educated guesses at what might delight consumers in six months, a year, a year and a half out. Data and analysis can only tell you so much — the other piece is this inherent, almost indescribable art of being able to look at a product and say, yes, I think people are going to be really jazzed about this.

My seven years at Macy’s gave me a great foundation, and from there I moved on to Saks, where I worked as a buyer for seven years honing my skills in luxury designer goods. I was happy at Saks and wasn’t looking to make a change — until I got a call in 1997 to interview at Banana Republic to run their catalog business.

The job was in New York City where I was already working, but their headquarters were in San Francisco, so they flew me out there to interview with the team. This was when Mickey Drexler was CEO of Gap Inc. [which owns Banana Republic]. After the interviews, they said, “Forget the catalog job — we want you here in San Francisco where the heart of the business operates.”

At first, I said no, because all my family and friends were back East. I didn’t know a soul in San Francisco! But they kept pressing, and ultimately, I couldn’t say no to Mickey Drexler. That was the biggest personal risk I ever took, uprooting and relocating to the other side of the country. But Banana Republic made my transition very comfortable, and I’ve been in San Francisco for 26 years now.

When I look back on why I was offered that larger role at Banana, I think they saw my passion and energy. I’ve always shown confidence in my ability to do what I do and do it well.

“The balance of art and science is incredibly important in the product world, and today, it’s become a little more data driven and less about art and taking risks. I think they saw that I really value the art and taking risks, which fit into their culture.”

I spent seven years at Gap Inc., then I went on to work as VP of Merchandising at Cost Plus World Market, and later at Restoration Hardware.

When a headhunter called me in 2011 about heading up makeup merchandising at Sephora, it excited me because it was a new challenge. Even though I had zero makeup experience, I think, like Mickey [Drexler], Sephora’s CEO saw that I could fit into their culture, and how I look at product and embrace risk-taking. It was a huge leap and I had to learn a ton about the science and art of makeup, but helping people feel more confident is what drives me, so it was a good fit in that sense.

At first, it was tough getting back into third-party merchandising after over a decade in specialty retail, but the Sephora team was so seasoned and patient with me. And the beauty brand community is so delightful! If doomsday ever hits, I could happily be in a bunker with my beauty brand partners.

After eight and half years overseeing makeup, I took over fragrance as well in February 2020. It was very interesting learning fragrance during COVID, especially since the scent business boomed in the pandemic. Again, I credit my incredible team and the brand partners for helping me understand the category while navigating such a crazy time. And in September 2020, the Sephora at Kohl’s partnership was announced and I oversee all of the product categories for that business.

But that’s retail — we’re always facing new and unique challenges, which is why creative problem solving is critical in this business. Just opening your mind and thinking outside of what’s expected, that is the art piece of merchandising.

Another piece is people skills, which are integral to success at every level. Whether you’re fresh out of college or C-suite, being able to deal with different personalities and figuring out the best approach to use with one group versus another is essential in any workplace. Not to mention, my best ideas come from listening to other people — it’s never me sitting alone at my desk. Listening to your colleagues and spending time together generating ideas is where the magic happens.

Fostering inclusivity is part of our business philosophy. When we launched Fenty Beauty in 2017, it was a huge wake-up call to the beauty industry to prioritize inclusivity and celebrate diversity. Rihanna really unlocked that, and ever since, we’ve been building our makeup assortment to serve all people and all skin tones. We developed our Mobile Color IQ technology and advanced training for our beauty advisors to ensure that Sephora’s shade matching is a universal technique.

Ultimately, my job and my team’s job is to continually delight our clients with makeup and fragrances they love and need. Retail is about more than just offering product — people want to be delighted. I’m here to drive a business, after all, and figuring out what people need before they can even articulate it is the real challenge and the art piece of what we do. Hopefully, the products we present will inspire confidence, self-love, and joy. That’s really what I hope to achieve in my work.