How a Millennial Estée Lauder Built a Widely Popular Beauty Brand

On a recent Monday, Karissa Bodnar, the 34-year-old founder and chief executive of Thrive, a cosmetics company, arrived at a launch party for her latest product line. The setting: a fluorescent-lit, fifth-floor office in midtown Manhattan. The bells and whistles: cheese, crudités, basic beer and wine. The entertainment: a Bluetooth speaker playing early aughts hip-hop (Flo Rida, Lil Jon).

Over the next three hours, dozens of makeup artists, beauty editors and social media influencers accustomed to launch parties in far-flung locales like Tokyo and the South of France would drop by. Maybe.

“Respectfully, I don’t care if editors and influencers show up or not,” Ms. Bodnar said, surveying the windowless reception area. She wore a skirt suit of turquoise and silver sequins that cast a disco-ball glow across the floor. “I had $25,000 to spend, and I wasn’t going to do a lunch at the Four Seasons or rent a house for the summer so influencers could go take selfies.”

As far as beauty marketing goes, events like the two Ms. Bodnar cited are relatively thrifty. Last January, Tarte conspicuously flew 50 influencers and their plus ones to Dubai and put them up at a Ritz-Carlton to celebrate the introduction of a foundation made with a “multitasking superfruit.” In 2022, Chanel flew influencers to Panama to fete a new beauty line; in 2017, Smashbox feted new products in Fiji.

For the April debut of Bigger Than Beauty, a set of skin-care products, Ms. Bodnar chose the headquarters of Bottomless Closet, a nonprofit that helps New York-area women in need enter the work force. “We found out about them through our community,” Ms. Bodnar said. “We post on social media all the time and ask, ‘What charities are moving you?’”

Thrive donated a million dollars of product but the real windfall for the nonprofit may have been the fairy godmother who chose to wave her wand over them.

“She’s the star,” Melissa Norden, the executive director of Bottomless Closet, said, gesturing at Ms. Bodnar. “People won’t show up for us. They’ll show up for her.”

“I’m not trying to create a flash-in-the-pan brand,” Mr. Bodnar said.Credit…Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times

Much has been made of the Rihannas and Kylie Jenners of the beauty industry, celebrities who introduced best-selling cosmetics brands after developing an ardent following. One could argue that given the high profiles of their founders, Fenty Beauty and Kylie Cosmetics were destined for success. To build a brand — and to fill a room — Ms. Bodnar has played not on her name but on consumers’ desire to do good with their dollars and belong to something bigger than … well, beauty. Call her the Estée Lauder that hustle culture built.

“A lot of launch events would be at some swanky place,” Ms. Bodnar told the assemblage. “I grew up on a dirt road. I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of over the swanky events. I think this is the new swanky event — being at places like Bottomless Closet.” Cheers erupted.

‘The Ultimate Unicorn’

If Ms. Bodnar was only about doing good, Thrive Causemetics — the company’s official name, one that gives pause to anyone with an ounce of skepticism — would be a nonprofit.

“I’ve always thought of her as the ultimate unicorn,” said Blythe Jack, a Thrive investor and a former partner at TSG Consumer, a private equity firm in San Francisco. “She built a wildly profitable business on almost no capital.” Ms. Jack invested $100,000 in Thrive in 2017.

Thrive is a direct-to-consumer brand, avoiding the distribution fees associated with selling through Sephora or department stores. It’s a common path for star-founded companies — it’s how Kylie Cosmetics started — but star power can only do so much.

“Karissa was able to build community and brand loyalty before the marketplace got flooded and the pandemic shifted everything,” said Priya Rao, the executive editor of the Business of Beauty, which chronicles the industry.

Thrive declined to comment on its annual revenues. “I don’t want to be out there baring all to everybody,” Ms. Bodnar said. “I’ve earned my spot.”

The Reckoning

If Ms. Bodnar is cagey about specifics, it’s because she has faced controversy. There’s the plaintiff who sued Thrive in 2018, alleging that the company was not donating to charities in the way that it claimed. (The lawsuit resulted in a “stipulated” dismissal; Ms. Bodnar signed a non-disparagement agreement that precludes her from talking about it.) There are the trolls who harassed her on social media when Forbes added her, in 2019, to its “richest women” list.

“It was actually quite scary when that list came out,” said Ms. Bodnar, who splits her time between Seattle and Los Angeles, where Thrive is headquartered.

Ms. Bodnar grew up in rural Washington State. “We went to church every Sunday, but Allure was my bible,” she said. She worked at Sephora to pay her way through community college, which led to a job at the Seattle office of Clarisonic, a maker of a mechanical face brush that L’Oréal acquired in 2011.

“Among all these men on the team, she was very impressive,” Carol Hamilton, the president for acquisitions for L’Oréal U.S.A., recalled. “She wanted to understand the ‘why’ of the work, how big companies operate.”

In 2013, Ms. Bodnar’s close friend, Kristy LeMond, who had been working in the nonprofit sector, died of soft tissue sarcoma, a rare cancer. Ms. Bodnar had a reckoning. She quit L’Oréal. She bought a bunch of makeup. She wrote a business plan in the notes app of her iPhone: vegan makeup with a business model that mimicked Toms and Warby Parker, the pioneers of the buy one, give one model.

She got a day job at Bulletproof, the supplement company, to finance her after-hours innovations, like false eyelashes that “work whether you have lashes or not,” Ms. Bodnar said. “So much of what I heard in the beginning was, ‘If a women’s going through cancer, we tell her not to wear makeup.’ I was like, ‘That’s not an acceptable response.’”

Like any star, Thrive needed a breakout hit, and in 2014, Ms. Bodnar found hers: Liquid Lash Extensions, a mascara that encases eyelashes in tiny, ziti-like tubes. The mascara adheres to a degree that may find users ripping out their lashes if a generous amount of makeup remover isn’t used to dissolve the residue.

Liquid Lash Extensions mascara was a breakout hit for Thrive. “We sell one every five seconds,” Ms. Bodnar said.Credit…Thrive Causemetics

Customers seemed unbothered. “Best mascara ever” reads a recent review on Thrive’s website, one of more than 34,000 reviews posted for the mascara. “We sell one every five seconds,” Ms. Bodnar said.

Social Conscience as a Strategy

Combined, Ms. Bodnar and Thrive have more than 830,000 Instagram followers; by comparison, L’Oréal U.S.A. has just over 150,000. Her direct messages with customers turn into real-life meet-ups: “This woman just invited me to run a half marathon,” Ms. Bodnar said, showing her phone screen.

“The conglomerates are always looking to update their portfolios,” Ms. Rao said, “and they’re desperate to connect with millennial and Gen Z consumers in the way that Thrive has.”

Ms. Bodnar said she has turned down offers to sell. What about an I.P.O.? “My goal is to donate a billion dollars,” she said. Thus far, she has donated $125 million, which a public offering would likely preclude. “I’m not trying to create a flash-in-the-pan brand,” she said.

Employee-generated content fuels Thrive’s social media feeds as well as ire. An April, Instagram post of a male employee applying concealer, eyebrow gel and pressed powder generated a slew of hateful comments and disavowals like, “If this is turning into a ‘woke’ company, I’ll stop buying.”

“People get very upset about the L.G.B.T.Q.-plus and reproductive rights stances we take,” Ms. Bodnar said. “I would have thought that those same people would care about our immigration support, but ….” She shrugged.

There are advantages to stoking discord.

“You might take a stance on a divisive issue because you know that your target customer is likely to take the same stance,” said Jonah Berger, a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “You may be doing it because you care about that issue, but you may also get attention from it.”

Ms. Bodnar claims to care about making a difference but social conscience can also serve as a strategy. Half a dozen employees (the company has about 100, total) had filed in for a weekly product development meeting in a glass-walled conference room at Thrive headquarters on the west side of Los Angeles. Ms. Bodnar sat at the head of the table. Lipstick prototypes were smudged on hands and analyzed under varying shades of light. Someone brought up their competition.

“That makes me think of one of my favorite books,” Ms. Bodnar said. “The Infinite Game” by Simon Sinek. “We think that business is a finite game,” she said, “but you can’t win a business in the same way that you can’t win a friendship, or a marriage. He talks about worthy rivals.”

“Who’s a worthy rival?” she asked the room.

One employee: “Lululemon.”

Another: “Patagonia.”

Ms. Bodnar smiled. No one had mentioned another makeup brand. “OK,” she said. “What’s next?”

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