I grew up in a very small Wisconsin town — fewer than 2,000 people. I had four siblings (three sisters and a brother), and we were raised on a farm where we all pitched in. The five of us were also all first-generation college graduates. Going to college was my parents’ expectation — not going was never an option.

When I was a teenager, my mother opened her own bridal shop business, a dream of hers. She loved going to the Chicago market and working with the bridal brand partners. Seeing her bring her dream to life using limited means had a profound effect on me, and it sparked my own interest in merchandising.

As for beauty, my experience growing up included a jar of Noxzema, a monthly knock on the door by the Avon lady — and at-home perms. (This was the Eighties!) And we had one bathroom in our home, so my sisters and I had to take turns. I remember getting ready for high school with one set of hot rollers, one curling iron, one blow dryer — and one big can of Aqua Net. Our younger brother never had a chance to get into the bathroom. But this taught me community and the joy that beauty can bring.

Coy with three generations of women including her mother, sisters, daughter Katie, and nieces at a family celebration.

After high school, I started my college career at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Because we grew up with very humble means, I had to stay in-state for financial reasons. I began as a business major but, after my first year, decided I wanted to be focused on retail, specifically merchandising. I liked where art met science in retail — and I actually found retail math fun. Later, I discovered that the University of Minnesota offered a retail merchandising degree with a marketing minor — and Wisconsin and Minnesota offered a reciprocity tuition program, so I transferred to Minnesota while still paying in-state tuition.

I had also done my homework and knew that there were many more retail and merchandising opportunities in the Twin Cities than in the Madison area. I’m going to really date myself, but there was Dayton’s, (which became Dayton Hudson), then Marshall Field’s, then Macy’s; another department store called Donaldson’s (which later became Carson Pirie Scott); and, of course, the Target Corporation — all of which had big merchandising offices in Minneapolis at the time.

During school, I worked as a sales associate for Donaldson’s in the women’s apparel area and I did an internship at Dayton’s in their footwear department. After graduation, I accepted a department manager role at Donaldson’s, which changed shortly thereafter to Carson Pirie Scott.

A couple of years later, Saks Fifth Avenue arrived in downtown Minneapolis, and I had the chance to join their team as a department manager, overseeing five women’s apparel categories located on different floors. I logged so many miles going up and down that escalator.

Then I got married, and my husband, who worked in advertising, took a creative director position at an agency in Chicago. So, we moved to Illinois, and I decided, after spending about seven years in stores, that I wanted to try a merchandising position.

I worked for eight years in apparel, footwear, and accessories product development. I spent several weeks out of each year traveling abroad to Hong Kong, Taipei, Istanbul, and New Delhi — and I was able to see parts of the world this small-town girl never dreamed of visiting.

During that time, I worked with production houses on the cost of cut, make, and trim, the cost of labor and duty rates — and I navigated quota limits. It really taught me the fine art of negotiation across many cultures.

One of the questions many people ask me is “Have you had a mentor or anyone in particular who helped inspire you?” And I would have to say that’s my mother. She has been my biggest inspiration and cheerleader.

All this experience also enabled me to meet so many wonderful people, and in the fall of 2009, one of them called me up and said, “We have an opening at Ulta Beauty merchandising, and I think you’d be perfect for it.” At the time I was a global planning manager for another retailer in the area, and I thought, “Yes, I am ready to get back into a merchant role.” The Ulta position was as a senior buyer, and, while I had never really worked in beauty (with the exception of managing the cosmetic counter at Carson Pirie Scott early in my career), it was my combined experience in stores, product development, inventory management, and financial planning that landed me the role.

I recall celebrating when we hit $1 million in volume on Ulta.com, when we opened our 500th door — and then our 1,000th.  Today, I’m in my 15th year with Ulta Beauty, and I have had eight different roles through my journey, in makeup, skin care, fragrance, wellness and, currently, hair care. It’s been quite a thrill watching the company grow to more than 1,400 store locations and achieve $10 billion in sales last year! But it’s the opportunity to collaborate with so many talented colleagues — in legal, distribution, planning and inventory, marketing, store operations, digital, the list goes on — that really sustains me. I’m also grateful for the connections with so many brand founders and partners who have rich journeys of their own.

One of the questions many people ask me is “Have you had a mentor or anyone in particular who helped inspire you?” And I would have to say — and I mean this with all my heart—that’s my mother. She has been my biggest inspiration and cheerleader. She would often say to me, “Oh! You’re doing something I’ve always wanted to do!” And that continues to drive me.

I also believe I’ve shown my two daughters that you can have a successful career and raise children who are kind, beautiful, and talented. I’m so proud to have been a leader to so many women and mothers on my team throughout the years, too. Ulta Beauty is more than 91 percent women, and I believe that fostering the value of women within our community is key to shaping future leaders. I tell young women today to look for that kind of culture in a company. Life may not always be a 50/50 work-life balance, but you want to be somewhere that helps you achieve what I call “work-life harmony.”

Coy and her daughter Mackenzie in Rome 2023.

My husband and I have always worked toward that harmony, and I think it was critical in raising our two beautiful daughters. I’m fortunate that Katherine, a millennial, and Mackenzie, part of Gen Z, have always been interested in the companies where I’ve worked and that they share a love for products and are very willing to test for me. They have also helped me understand what motivates and engages young people today. When TikTok first came out, I wanted to get up and going on that platform and I had to tap Mackenzie, who was only 14 at the time, to show me how.

Finally, the most important lesson I’ve learned throughout my journey is that being in the right place at the right time can be powerful. And I’ve been fortunate. But I’ve also combined that good fortune with determination and hard work, and that’s made all the difference.

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.