Ilaria Resta joined Firmenich as Global President Perfumery and Executive Board Director in March 2020, a time when most were not expecting the world to change forever. Luckily her 22 years of building iconic brands at Procter & Gamble would give her the leadership skills required to take on overseeing a company just as all of the rules of fragrance would be redefined. Here, Ilaria, who holds dual Italian and Swiss citizenship, talked to CEW Beauty News about how the pandemic has elevated the role of fragrance to play a pivotal role in self-care, the importance of anticipating trends and changing consumer needs in the age of COVID, and how Firmenich is future-proofing its business by becoming more consumer-centric.

Beauty News: You’re the only woman who has served as president of a perfumery division. Why is the field so male oriented, and how did you break through?
Ilaria Resta: Yes, if you look at the biggest fragrance houses, I’m the only one. The first one needs to have determination. I’m very humble coming to this role, even more so because I come from outside the industry. At the same time, changes are happening very fast in the industry. Gender equality and diversity are becoming more important. Perfumery is a very small industry, talent normally moves from one house to another, or people have a very long tenure. It’s been very male dominated, but from the client side it’s not the case. Clients are definitely more diverse. I am looking increasingly at people coming outside the industry to bring a different point of view.

BN: What industry did you come from?
Before coming to Firmenich I worked at Procter & Gamble. I started in marketing, and rose all the way to Senior Vice President of the Hair Care division in Beauty Care, North America. I was the leader of the North America business and was working with Firmenich and other fragrance houses, of course.

BN: Is there a difference in being the only woman or is it just business as usual?
I have never felt that gender was in any way a limitation in my career. I felt incredibly welcomed and supported. My philosophy is you need to earn respect through success and the results that you bring. If you have a point of view around the table, I don’t think it makes much of a difference where the voice comes from, as long as it’s an interesting voice.

BN: When did you join the company?
IR: I joined in March 2020, so it was a memorable start. Joining at the start of the pandemic, not being able to meet people face-to-face, was tough.

BN: So how did you navigate being at a new company with so many challenges from day one?
My name means happiness. I am a born with a natural bias towards positivity. Of course there were many issues to deal with, but the positive thing is that I arrived when the world was facing massive transformation, and I am a game-changer by nature. I like to leave a big legacy on the business. So it was a great coincidence that at the time of major change, I was able to reset the strategy of my division and think, ‘What are the opportunities for growth?’ When you bring ideas, you should never be apologetic. Frankly, I tried a big change immediately, both within the organization and with regard to the direction [of the organization]. And it happened to be very timely because the company needed new guidance within that context.

BN: What were some of the things that you had to tackle immediately?
I had to fly the plane while the plane was flying in a circle during COVID. The focus was, first and foremost, the safety of my reporting lines, my employees all over the world, while at the same time offering spotless service to our clients in terms of creation supply, and making sure the business continued running. This is an industry where face-to-face meetings, smelling sessions, developing the product, creation, and labs require you to come to the office. We are not in a business of virtual work. Virtual was almost impossible. We had workers go to the labs to do the perfumes, and test fragrances with consumers. You can imagine how difficult it was. I had to run the business under new conditions, including the safety protocols. I also had to think of what would happen in two and to three years’ time, knowing that the world might land in a completely different place. I was juggling the today and the tomorrow while flying in a fog.

BN: Now that the world is somewhat returning back to normal, what is top of mind for you?
Executing the transformation and strategy as we laid it out over the last few months in order to be ‘future-proofed’. I’m shifting innovation and the creation focus to serve new wellness trends. There are trends that were there before, such as safety, sustainability, good for you, good for the planet, that are getting even more important. The key question is how olfactive trends and olfactive preferences are changing as a result of COVID? We are redoing listening studies with consumers, and readjusting innovation to respond to new needs.

BN: Wellness and self-care emerged as all important in 2020 and 2021. How does that impact your business as a fragrance supplier?
Fragrance plays an incredibly critical role in emotional wellbeing. 70 percent of consumers told us that fragrance has increased relevance, for different reasons, both during and post-COVID. There is an emotional reason, which is proven: fragrance can lift mood, drive energy, promote relaxation, help with quality of sleep, and boost performance. How do you assess whether a surface is cleaned properly? How do you make sure your floor is clean? Fragrance can make things that are invisible become visible to you. The notion of a long-lasting scent is proof of functional performance. There are also fragrances that have a real physical benefit when it comes to being microbiome-friendly or microbiome-positive. Fragrances that are proven to increase the hygiene benefits of a formulation.

BN: You mentioned sustainability, and that leans into Firmenich’s global EDGE certification. Where you are in the process?
I liked the way you asked the question connected to sustainability because people look at sustainability as it relates to planet safety, but there is an aspect of social responsibility and social sustainability. What we are doing with EDGE started in 2019. We were the first company in our industry, and the seventh in the world, to be certified by EDGE. Basically EDGE is the world’s leading business certification standard for gender equality. It is a third party that does a very robust assessment process. We have upgraded our status to the second level EDGE Move. We are not only looking at equal pay, but at the broader spectrum of impact like policies and practices, all the way from recruitment to promotion, training, and mentoring. We want to make sure our workplace allows women to nurture themselves and exploit their full potential. That’s why we want it to be certified: to know where we stand in the journey of equality. You not only want to make sure that your organization is in order, but that you partner with companies that share your values.

BN: What talent have you brought on since your appointment almost two years ago to help you achieve your goals?
Step one was defining the strategy because recruitment follows strategy. I didn’t immediately bring new talent because first I had to assess that the capabilities and talent that I had. At the same time, I was designing a new set of strategies that informed my choices on talent. Then I brought new capabilities. Specifically, I created the position of Chief Consumer & Innovation Officer. Although we are a B2B business and we serve our clients, at the end of the day our innovation is inspired by consumers. The closer we are to consumer needs and consumer trends, the better we create for our clients. That is the biggest change I made: becoming a more consumer-centric organization to best serve our clients. I brought new talent to add diversity for that reason. Instead of sourcing mainly from the industry or fragrance houses, I brought in talent from the FMCG industry, I brought in talent from the beauty industry, and from the food industry. I have three new talented women in the leadership team, including Robin Mason who is leading the North American fine fragrance business. And I have other very talented women in my group.

BN: Anything else that you would like to highlight?
IR: It’s important that we look at macro trends, keep an eye on the future, and stay agile. There are a few trends that are very interesting for the industry, including the trend toward healing that I’m very passionate about. In the post-pandemic era, consumers need to heal from COVID, and heal the planet. Concepts around wellness are evolving towards healing: healing the soul, healing our body. Then there is sustainability which will evolve further into the concept that I call ‘green life’. I love the double meaning of ‘green life’ because it is a desire to live consciously, live honestly, but at the same time make sure there is a connection between behavior, sustainability, and clean and hygiene. Last but not least, storytelling is especially important for fragrance. Consumers want to know what’s behind the creation. They want to see the creators. They want to know what is inside the bottle. We give transparency on ingredients. The concept of science and art combining is incredibly insightful moving forward. Science plays a very important role in my innovation process.

BN: What is the future of storytelling, especially for designer and celebrity fragrances in view of the fact that some of the world’s beauty powerhouses are exiting this part of the business?
IR: That’s a very good question. It’s true that there are fewer celebrity fragrances, but in other categories, I’m looking at Jennifer Aniston entering the hair care category, and I see more celebrities entering skin and makeup. In the past, celebrities were the face of a product, they were just a spokesperson. Now, more celebrities are putting their name on products they co-designed, addressing specific needs, like Lolavie’s detangling spray that Jennifer Aniston recently launched. Personally, I am working with lots of celebrities in the world of fragrances. These women want to be part of the creative process with our perfumers, they want to be sure that what we put into the fragrances match their preferences and sustainability beliefs. That’s what I love, compared to celebrity fragrances from the nineties or early 2000s. It’s real storytelling.

Firmenich is supporting CEW’s 2021 Beauty Creators Awards by sponsoring this year’s Sustainability Award. To learn the winner of this year’s highest honor in sustainability, and to celebrate all of this year’s Beauty Creators Award winners, be sure to tune in on December 1 for a virtual Winners Celebration. More than 29 winners in as many beauty categories will be announced, to be hosted by reality T.V. star Lisa Rinna. To attend the Winner’s Celebration, please click here.