I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, which suited me well because I was an avid horseback rider. I was also really into beauty and fashion – Vogue became my inspiration. My walls were plastered with Estée Lauder and Clinique ads. It was a long drive to get to the closest mall with a Macy’s, which is where I did all of my beauty exploration in those days.

I was always a go-getter. I cared a lot about my grades, and I had a lot of discipline around studying. I also leaned into leadership positions naturally: I was student body president in my senior year of high school, as well as head of the riding team. Figuring out how to balance excelling in both academic life and horseback riding meant learning from an early age about time management, organization, discipline, commitment and most of all, letting your passion guide you. This has stayed with me all these years.

The summer after my sophomore year of college at Tufts, I got a temp role at The Estée Lauder Companies. I vividly remember the moment I first walked into the office on the 42nd floor of the General Motors Building in New York City: I’ve arrived. This is where it all happens, I thought to myself. My temp role was a rotational program where I worked as a receptionist and an admin for the marketing teams; I also updated the company’s phone directory. That role was great because I learned about the many different roles in the company and its structure.

The next summer, I got a formal marketing internship on the Estée Lauder U.S. skin care team. That was the moment I really started to see what I wanted my path to be: working on an integrated marketing team, learning how products were created, and bringing them to market. That summer was also the first time I met Mr. Leonard Lauder, who was CEO and President of the company at the time. I was able to talk with him directly (to this day he has involvement with our intern programs) about my marketing ideas in the U.S. prestige market. That was such a formative experience for me professionally – it showed me what our company was all about and I knew I wanted to be a part of continuing to shape its future. It’s a family company, beginning with our visionary, female founder, Mrs. Estée Lauder, who led with a fearless challenger spirit, passion for innovation, and a belief that anything is possible, which remains at the heart of who our company is today.

Straight out of college, I was fortunate enough to get a role on the Estée Lauder International creative marketing team. It exposed me to marketing, creative, and operational teams, as well as our global markets. At 22, I was working with colleagues around the world to help them bring the Estée Lauder brand to life. At the time, Estée Lauder Pleasures EDP was launching (1995), and I proudly oversaw the placement of the fragrance in scent strips, getting them into many magazines all over the world.

During this time, I was getting exposure to a lot of senior leaders in the company. In hearing their stories, I was picking up a theme around leaders who had MBAs. Knowing that I was ambitious and that I wanted to continue to drive my career, I marched into HR one day and said, Do you value MBAs for people who are on the marketing track? They gave me a resounding yes.

I applied to a number of schools, and Harvard Business School (HBS) felt like the right fit for me. I knew at HBS I would spend the first year nailing down some of the core curriculum, and the second year entirely focused on electives. That curriculum allowed me to dive even deeper into marketing, strategy, and nonprofit management, which has always been a passion of mine. The company was so supportive as they saw the value in me taking a brief break to get this under my belt and I returned to the company immediately after graduating.

After business school, my plan was to join one of the newly acquired or up-and-coming brands within the company’s portfolio. But I graduated shortly after 9/11, and our world was very volatile and uncertain. The best role for me was on the Estée Lauder brand as global skin care marketing manager. At first, I thought, Wait! That wasn’t the game plan! But I saw that I could really learn a lot from the leaders of the team.

It has been my passion for driving innovation and storytelling that has guided my path. I took a marketing role at Origins which was really leading in the Direct-To-Consumer space with a strong online business, 125-plus freestanding stores, and region-wide counters at department stores. I was working on a lot of product innovation and marketing campaigns to grow the brand’s reach, consumer acquisition, and market share. During my six years with the brand, I ultimately progressed to Vice President of both global and U.S. marketing.

Being part of an organization that is the size and scale of The Estée Lauder Cos. means there is always opportunity to grow across the portfolio, so leaning into change is something I always advise my mentees to do. Moving from Origins to Clinique was another pivotal moment in my career. I have so many Clinique memories from my adolescence. When I was young, I’d tried to design my bedroom to look like a Clinique counter with all my products. I was thrilled when I took on the position of Senior Vice President, Global Consumer and Product Marketing for Clinique – which happened to coincide with my pregnancy. I was fortunate to have such a wonderful support system at the company.  When I got to Clinique on my first day in that role, that was definitely a moment. I went to my office and the whole skin care line was set up on a tester unit. I thought, My dream as a 13-year-old has come true.

At Clinique, I was working with our teams to drive innovation, building the global brand strategy, leading and implementing conceptual marketing programs, and of course the best part, which is bringing ground-breaking products to market. I’m so proud of all the products that I helped create and launch but one that stands out is Clinique Smart Clinical Repair Serum. I loved working on that product not just because it was so scientifically innovative, but I really connect with it as a consumer. My son was young at that time, and as every working mother knows, the multitasking never stops. For this product, we took an angle of scientific results, but also celebrating multitasking women. Even today, I am proud of it because it’s become a central part of the brand’s product lineup.

When the role of General Manager for Clinique became available in North America, it wasn’t something that was on my list of goals, but I jumped at the chance because marketing and strategy are at the core of what I do and to own the P&L of the brand I loved was an amazing opportunity. We always talk about the importance of continuous learning at the company, and this role was incredibly humbling – I had to increase my knowledge of the commercial side of our business and spend a ton of time with our retailers, which I’m so grateful for. I didn’t know how important that role was going to be for my personal and professional development – it really showed me what I’m capable of.

Belknap with William Lauder, Executive Chairman of ELC.

In 2021, I began my current role as Senior Vice President, Enterprise Marketing and Portfolio Strategy, North America, for The Estée Lauder Cos. where I work across our full portfolio of brands. I get to focus on connecting the dots between many key strategic priorities across the company. My team comprises seven centers of excellence. We cover everything from innovation and portfolio strategy and planning to consumer insights, customer relationship management (CRM) and data analytics, creative, education, sales analytics, and media and influencer marketing. As a brand lover and a brand builder, it’s been incredible for me to bring my cumulative experiences to the greater portfolio.

Belknap with her husband Tim Kees and their son Will.

But of all the roles I have had, the most important one I hold is mom to my son Will. He is and always will be the greatest joy of my life and taught me more about myself than anything else ever could. He’s an aspiring NFL quarterback and driven student who loves history – so I see some similarities between us. I love watching him do what he loves and I am now an avid football fan and support his dreams. I am incredibly grateful to work for a family company that supports working parents and it’s really important to me that I support my team and colleagues as they manage the juggling act. I pride myself on having bandwidth and being all-in, but I strive to do that with a huge balance of humanity. I believe my teams would say that we work really hard, but we also have a lot of fun together. We’re able to find that balance.

When I was a new mom, one of my dearest colleagues gave me the following advice, When you’re at work, you will always feel like you should be home, and when you’re at home you will always feel like you should be at work. This was so powerful for me as it really verbalized exactly how I was feeling and gave me peace when I felt overwhelmed. I work really hard at being 100% present wherever I am, and I don’t ever want anyone to feel like they have to apologize for trying to be an amazing parent.

Belknap and the Clinique NA team celebrating the launch of My Happy.

Reaching this point in my life and career, I’m increasingly conscious of how I can use my years at ELC and life experiences to help shape our company, drive our brands, develop teams, and pave the way for the next generation. I have been so fortunate to have many mentors and I am really determined to pay it forward. I invest a lot of time in my role as executive sponsor of the company’s North America Millennial/Gen Z Advisory Board, which is a reverse mentor program that pairs young talent with executives. I love mentoring the next generation of leaders and helping them imagine and map out what their future careers could be.

As I reflect on my career, it’s not lost on me that I am a part of an amazing legacy at ELC. Being a part of this rich heritage, as well as a part of an industry that is transforming how people show up, feel, and experience beauty, is truly an honor and privilege. And for me personally, a lifelong dream come true.

Be sure to celebrate this year’s Achiever Award Honorees with 1,000-plus beauty industry executives at CEW’s annual awards luncheon taking place April 25, 2024, in Manhattan. For table and ticket sales, visit cew.org.