Steel Magnolia: Makeup maven has strong Hub City foundation

Janet Gurwitch has had the opportunity to do some amazing things during her career. She’s rubbed elbows and dined with the rich and famous. She created and sold a multi-million dollar cosmetics company. She’s held her own against some of the top labels in the country. She’s part owner of a Major League Baseball franchise. 

Gurwitch wasn’t shipped off to some fancy boarding school. She didn’t further her career by studying within the hallowed halls of the Ivy League. She had a desire and a drive to make something of her life.

And it started in Hattiesburg.

Those who hear of Janet Gurwitch’s accomplishments since she graduated from Hattiesburg High School and entered the University of Alabama might wonder what else is there to do. 

In Gurwitch’s world, plenty.

Granted, Gurwitch has had some incredible opportunities during her career thus far, but she’s worked extremely hard to get where she is and she’s not looking to slow down any time soon.

Gurwitch, a Hattiesburg native, is being recognized as a member of the 2019 Hattiesburg Public School District Hall of Fame.

THE EARLY YEARS

Gurwitch was born at Forrest General Hospital to Shirley and Maury Gurwitch, went to kindergarten with Mrs. Wright, attended school at Woodley Elementary and enrolled at Thames Elementary after it was built. She sailed on through junior high, landing at Hattiesburg High School where she served on the Student Council, was in the Sock and Buskin Club and the Purple and Gold Revue.

Gurwitch said she was a good student; not a straight-A student, but a good student and she liked school.

“I’ve always loved English; I think that was my favorite thing,” she said. “I had a great Spanish teacher, Mrs. Cowart, who had a great personality and was very interesting. I had some very interesting teachers who made me think, ‘What do I want?’”

“It was really an idyllic childhood, a wonderful place to grow up. I had lifelong friends and it was a wonderful, wonderful life. I loved the freedom and the safety. I grew up with people I’ve known my whole life, and then went through school with them. It was very, very good.”

The Teen Center was the hub of activity in Hattiesburg back in the day. Gurwitch remembers spending time there almost every Saturday night.

 “They had a band and it was just great,” she said. “You could go with girlfriends and meet people there or you could go with a date.”

Gurwitch said she had a great group of girlfriends and she did have a boyfriend.  

There were football games at home and away, as well as basketball games, traveling to out-of-town games on a bus. 

“We had a great time. But the teen center was big,” she said. “It was just really the most fun teenage years.”

Gurwitch admits to not being so studious during high school, but rather being very social during her teen days.

 “To be honest, I think I was very social. I’m not bragging; it’s just what it is,” she said. “I know I should come across more cerebral than this, but that’s just what it was.

When I went to college is when I got really serious.”

During her high school years, Gurwitch really didn’t think a lot about what she wanted to do with the rest of her life, what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“At the time, probably not that many women had serious careers, so I don’t know if I thought about it one way or another,” she said. “My parents went to the University of Alabama, and so did I. It’s not like I even gave that a lot of thought. But once I got there, I don’t know, it was like light bulbs started going off in my head.”

In a college sorority, Gurwitch would hear girls say, “What shape do you want? Do you want round, emerald cut?” Not knowing what they were talking about I figured out they were talking about what shape of diamond they wanted. I was 19 years old and so not into that. I thought, ‘What are my options?’ Because that was their option.” 

 Gurwitch wanted to do something  – herself. It was the book “Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan, which she read as a college freshman, that gave her the first insight as to what she might could do with the rest of her life – anything she wanted.

“I loved it and it really kind of changed everything,” she said. “In the book Friedan said, ‘You don’t have to marry a lawyer, you can be a lawyer; you don’t have to marry a doctor, you can be the doctor.’ And it’s just like I’d never thought of women’s rights. It’s like it never entered my mind and it just made so much sense. It resonated. I decided as a freshman that I wanted to do something; I just didn’t know what.”

She wasted no time finding out, jumping feet first into everything she could at the University of Alabama.

Coming from Hattiesburg, Gurwitch hadn’t traveled the world, but she was anxious to see and explore it.

She liked business and fashion, which led her to retail, which she majored in with a minor in marketing. And it just worked. 

“I went from having good grades to great grades and was very involved,” she said. “I was president of my school, School of Human Environmental Studies, which used to be Home Economics.” 

Gurwitch admits she can’t cook and she doesn’t sew.

She also majored in business, which put her in both schools. She was vice president of Associated Women Students, and was very active politically on campus. She became interested in the women’s movement, even though she was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

“It’s not like I was in Boston,” she said.

She represented the school at a big event in Chicago where she remembers hearing Gloria Steinem speak, as did Friedan.

From that moment on, she was determined “to do my thing.”

A phenomenal professor at Alabama, Wilma Greene, provided that opportunity.

 “Not that many women students wanted serious careers at that time, but I did and she was fabulous in helping me plot out what I could do, which was retail,” Gurwitch said. 

Gurwitch established the Gurwitch-Greene Endowed Scholarship in their name in 2012. It is given to undergraduate students in the Fashion Retail Internship Program, one of the oldest in the nation.

The two women studied the best retail programs in the United States with Bloomingdales being No. 1, but Foley’s had the No. 2 program and it was in Houston. And Gurwitch loved Houston.

Upon graduation she moved west to Houston for the Foley’s Executive Training Program, which took 10 college graduates a year.

Gurwitch had found her love, unlike those sorority sisters who were eyeing a specific cut of diamond. Gurwitch had found a love with business.

 “I love diamonds, don’t get me wrong, but it was not something I was going to work for,” she said.

 Gurwitch came by her choice honestly, having somewhat of a background in business. Her father, Maury, was a retailer who opened the Smart Shoe Store that was located in downtown Hattiesburg and later in Cloverleaf Mall. He also owned several other shoe stores, as did her grandfather before him. Her first job was working at Waldoff’s Department Store.

 “I worked in LaPlace, the junior area, and at Christmas wrapped gifts. I also worked during the summers while I was in college,” she said. “I loved it. It was great, but I wanted to go for a larger audience than Hattiesburg. But I do believe retail was in my blood. My father loved it.”

MAKING HER WAY

Once she hit the ground running, there was no stopping Gurwitch. 

From Foley’s, Gurwitch found herself at Neiman Marcus, where she served as executive vice president, establishing the merchandising strategy from 1992-1995. On the cusp of becoming the first female CEO of the company, she set her sights on a new goal and founded Laura Mercier Cosmetics & Skincare, a global brand of high-end niche cosmetics, whose main competitor was Chanel. She oversaw the day-to-day business operations, strategy development and retail negotiations. 

 “I’m really glad I did my own thing,” she said. “I was in the heyday of retail and got to enjoy the best years of retail. Today that’s not the case. I went from a fabulous job to learning all types of new skills. 

“I even had to learn how to buy a forklift for my warehouse and price lipsticks in different currencies,” she said.

Gurwitch admits she took a risk. 

“And I’d say I’m not a serious risk taker, but I believe in myself and I believed there was an inflection point in the beauty industry at that time, in 1995, for new brands to have a chance,” she said. “I took all the money I had in the world, and I put it into building the Laura Mercier brand.”

But her new venture was not without its challenges. In fact, it brought on a whole new set of challenges, and Gurwitch loved it.

 “Not to say it wasn’t hard, because who am I to start a beauty brand? But I did and it worked,” she said. “I have no regrets. And I will be forever grateful. In a career that I’ve enjoyed every dimension, having your own brand, creating your own product and your own culture, I just don’t think anything could be better than that.”

And from there the owners of Neiman Marcus became involved as backers.

She sold Laura Mercier, which is now owned by Shiseido Corporation in Japan, in 2008. 

In the meantime, the Neiman Marcus partners started a Boston-based private equity group, Castanea, where Gurwitch has been an operating partner for 10 years.

“So I’ve had a third career, which is private equity, where I do specialize in the beauty consumer space,” she said. “But you know, I’ve just learned a whole other business and it’s been fantastic. Everything is built on everything.”

Today, Gurwitch is an investor in and on the board of directors of Drybar. She formerly served on the boards of Tatcha, First Aid Beauty, Dollar Shave Club and Urban Decay Cosmetics.

In 1999, Gurwitch was named a finalist for Ernst & Young’s “Entrepreneur of the Year Award” for Houston. In 1994, Business Week included her as one of the “Top 50 Chief Executive Prospects in the Nation.” She has affiliations with CEW (Cosmetic Executive Women) Board of Governors and Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business Advisory Board,

Gurwitch’s personal community involvement includes supporting the Menil Collection, a museum housing the art collection of John de Menil and Dominique de Menil and consists of paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs and rare books, Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera and Hermann Park Conservancy. 

PLAY BALL

And then there’s the matter of the Houston Astros, the 2017 World Series Champions.

Gurwitch is an investor, the only female investor, and sits on the board of directors.

She admits this is her most fun investment to date.

Gurwitch is a  friend of Jim Crane, the majority owner of the Astros, who purchased the franchise in 2012. 

“He is the most competitive person I’ve ever met and I thought he could turn this team around,” she said. “We’d had a real losing team forever. We’d never won the World Series and had only been in it once. I just thought if anyone could do it, it would be him.”

She explained that Crane was taking in investors and talked to her about the prospect. She asked if she invested could she sit on the board. 

“So here I am,” she said. “And in five years, in 2017, we did win the World Series. He has rebuilt this brand and this team and again, it’s been a great learning experience to see up close how you take a national sports team and rebuild.

“I think we again have a good chance to win the American League; I don’t know if we will. I know yesterday we had a bad day.”

Gurwitch said she probably attends 20 or so regular season games a season, which is a lot. And during post-season play she tries to go to all of the games she can.

Like members of the 2017 World Series team, Gurwitch has her own World Series ring. The championship ring has 214 diamonds, 16 genuine blue sapphires and nine genuine orange sapphires. But most importantly, it bears the Gurwitch name.

“I’m very proud of it,” she said. “I don’t really wear it. If I give a speech and I know mainly men will be there I do wear it so someone can say, ‘Excuse me, what are you wearing?’ I am very very proud I have it.”

Baseball also helped play a role in her business.

Gurwitch read the book Moneyball, a business approach to baseball. She liked it so much that she had her senior team at Laura Mercier read it because she felt it showed how the little guy, the new guy on the block, in whatever industry, had a chance to compete with well-funded competitors.

“In my case, with Laura Mercier, I was competing with Chanel,” she said. “The Oakland A’s were competing with the New York Yankees. In their case, they took metrics that were available to everyone, but they were using them in a different way and it was giving them an edge. So I told my team, we’ve got to find what our edge is.”

Gurwitch is busy and just as involved in her work as ever. She doesn’t see retirement anywhere in her future.

“I hope I never use that word,” she said. “It’s not that things wouldn’t continue to evolve like they have. When I sold Laura Mercier, it was in 27 countries with 400 employees. I knew I didn’t want that responsibility again, but then I found private equity, where I can really work with entrepreneurs and help them build their companies and help them sell them successfully. It’s a different requirement because I’m not running it. So, I hope I can continue doing that because I like it very much.”

Gurwitch feels very lucky in her life. 

“I grew up in Hattiesburg and because I am a pretty ambitious person, I love having that Mississippi background,” she said. “I think that gives it a nice balance.”

Gurwitch said she was quite taken aback when she was contacted about inclusion in the 2019 HPSD Hall of Fame Class. 

“I was surprised and very complimented,” she said. 

When she was notified, Gurwitch said she didn’t know if she could be in attendance for the October event. 

“But as I read and thought about it, I’m really very proud that I grew up there and how lovely they would honor me,” she said.

“My parents, who have lived in Hattiesburg all this time, moved to Houston four years ago at the age of 85, which to me shows they took a risk because they had a wonderful home and everything. My brother, Louis, and I both live here, so I haven’t been back in those four years.”

Gurwitch has been back many times through the years to see her parents prior to their move, as well as to attend all of her high school reunions. 

“My 50th is next year, which is just shocking, and I will come to that,” she said.

“I had a wonderful childhood, young adulthood in Hattiesburg. I had and have wonderful friends. And I think I’m still that person who grew up in the Hub City. I’ve traveled the world and I’ve done a lot of interesting things – dinner with Princess Diana at Kensington Palace when she worked with Nieman Marcus – and I’ve had so many exciting opportunities, but I still feel that I am that person at my core and upbringing and I feel very fortunate, so honored that I can come back and be a part of the Hall of Fame.”

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