Beautycon Founder Is Ready to Fearlessly Lead the Diversity Charge: "It's So Not Hard"

Creative Space - Moj Mahdara - Photographed by Damon Casarez- H 2018
Photographed by Damon Casarez

With the indie beauty space growing into commerce success, Moj Mahdara is making plans to expand her new "experiential retail" POP shop in the U.S. and abroad, and discusses her friendship with Hillary Clinton.

"Welcome to the All Eyes on Me room," says a young woman in a pink and orange jacket as she gestures to a video wall featuring nine blinking eyes. "The live eyes are good for a Boomerang."

This is Pop, a West Hollywood-adjacent retail store that opened to the public Nov. 16 with eight rooms dedicated to taking elaborate Instagram shots. Inside the 25,000-square-foot former Loehmann's also sits an installation called a "confidence runway" and a hall of mirrors. Beautycon CEO Moj Mahdara conceived this limited-run experience as a free-for-all for the photo-obsessed beauty fanatics who flock to her company's festivals each year. It's all part of the plan that Mahdara, 40, has to turn Beautycon into a one-stop e-commerce shop for an array of indie beauty companies like FaceTory and Nomad that most of the country has never heard of.

Mahdara, who emancipated from her Iranian-immigrant parents when she was 16, took a circuitous route to Beautycon. The UC Irvine dropout had spent most of her career consulting with brands on content production when she learned about a small industry conference called Beautycon. After taking over the business, she reinvented it as a consumer event where 30,000-plus people pay anywhere from $50 to $2,000 to meet their favorite lifestyle influencers and try out a company's new products. Using $20 million from A+E Networks, Hearst Media, CAA, and others, she has turned Beautycon's two annual festivals into a serious business, where brands spend upward of $5,000 to build their booths. Now Mahdara — who lives in Los Angeles with her wife and their 8-month-old son, Neev — is weighing a decision to expand Pop in the U.S. and abroad.

What is behind Beautycon's push into commerce?

The indie beauty space is growing in double-digit percentages year-on-year. We're seeing young brands, indie brands like Huda Beauty and Anastasia and Kylie Cosmetics and Fenty Beauty, sooner and earlier than almost every other platform out there. We already do an implied revenue-per-square-foot of, like, $4,200 at the festivals. Our average consumer spends about $300 on-site. We had a choice: Either compete with those indie brands or build a marketplace for them, so we chose marketplace.

Why did you launch Pop?

We really had to think it through when [real estate developer] Rick Caruso reached out and said, "Hey, we have this space. What would you guys want to do with it?" Everyone and their mother wants to come to the Halo Room at Beautycon, which is a well-known Instagram attraction that only the talent has access to. The consumer has been demanding that same moment, but we can't give it to them at the festivals. Here, there are eight rooms for them to engage with and have the big social moment that they want.

You call Pop "experiential retail." What does that mean?

Disney basically invented the blueprint for perfect experiential moments with Disneyland. Disney, Nordstrom, Starbucks — they understand experiential retail better than anyone on the planet. Everyone else is scratching their heads trying to figure out how to make sense of content, brand and commerce.

Are interactive art exhibits a fad or is there a lasting business that can be built there?

It's the beginning of a larger trend. There's maybe a dozen of them right now, Museum of Ice Cream and Candytopia. Everyone seems to be doing pretty well.

When most digital businesses doubled down on producing video, Beautycon pulled back. Why?

I had thought that going down the road of, like, a Vice Media made sense for us, but we quickly realized that it didn't. The digital audience acquisition game is really costly, and unfortunately a lot of publishers who are incredibly talented in storytelling and audience development are going through very terrible times right now. Unless you truly own your audience, you're going to have a really tough time monetizing that business. I hope the platforms like Facebook and Instagram figure out how to be better partners to those publishers, but it's probably too late for that.

Can digital recover from the depression it is currently in?

It is still really early days. Whoever survives this goes on to become much stronger and build much bigger businesses. But digital and traditional Hollywood are completely at odds with each other. I don't know that I would go into business with a traditional media company again. They understand TV, and we're not TV. We actually know who our consumer is.

How does Beautycon work with Hollywood?

The best thing we did this year was a screening for Crazy Rich Asians in L.A. with Warner Bros. [It was one of several early tastemaker events for the film.] We had a massive response from our audience. That is where we should be partnering more: with the Disneys and Netflixes of the world — promoting, premiering, showcasing content.

What can the entertainment industry learn from your business?

The consumer wants transparency. Look at The Rock. He's one of the biggest movie stars on the planet now, but he is using nontraditional marketing methods and really speaking about his vulnerabilities. That access into what really goes on in people's lives seems to be creating so much brand affinity. The problem with Hollywood is that, for hundreds of years, it has been selling fantasy. Figuring out how to sell fantasy and also sell vulnerability and transparency is really tough.

What can Hollywood do to fix its diversity problem?

It's so not hard. They're going to have to open up their boardrooms and executive offices to not just white men. But it's a question of how long until they start to have a decider sitting at the top who is more diverse in background. In a decade and a half, you will probably have some amazing outcomes, but the industry where you are going to have those outcomes right now will be beauty.

You recently posted an Instagram photo of your son on Hillary Clinton's lap. Are you two close?

She has become a really good friend. She has one of the most incredible minds of anyone I've ever met. Women in my generation can learn a lot from women in her generation in terms of where we've been and where we are going.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.