For writer and the Estée Lauder Cos.’ global changemaker Amanda Gorman, the intersection of beauty and literacy has always been clear.
“One of the first things I said to [Estée Lauder] when we first started talking was that I’m not here to be a pretty face or a pretty smile — I’m here to be a thought partner in what we’re doing,” said Gorman at the Beauty CEO Summit in conversation with Cori Murray.
At 23, Gorman became the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, captivating the nation with her original poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at president-elect Joe Biden’s 2021 inauguration. Seven months later, she penned a contract with Estée Lauder as the brand’s first global changemaker.
“Being able to step into the beauty industry as a dark-skinned African American woman descended from slaves — I would have loved to see something like that growing up,” said Gorman.
Now 25 years old and nearly two years into her role with Lauder, Gorman has been a face of the brand and helped spearhead its Writing Change initiative, which pledges $3 million to supporting grassroots organizations dedicated to advancing literacy.
“I want to focus on using my platform to give resources and attention to organizations that are using literacy as a passageway to equity,” said Gorman, adding that it was a full-circle moment for her to give back to the Los Angeles-based writing program and her alma matter, WriteGirl, through the grant.
“I think I was 8 when I wrote [my first] poem about feeling weird at school because I was like, the only Black girl besides my sister, that also spent time reading books on the playground while other kids played ball. I felt very alienated at a young age,” she said.
She came to the realization early on, though, that self-esteem “isn’t something we possess — it’s something we practice.” That understanding has since allowed her to show up as her full self even in spaces where doing so as a Black woman is inherently an act of radical self-love.
“One of the first steps to protecting your sense of self is knowing yourself in the first place — it’s very difficult to protect that which you don’t understand you need,” said Gorman, adding that sometimes it’s the little things, like reciting affirming mantras in front of a mirror, that allow her to “stretch her self-love muscle.”
Other times, it’s unapologetically wearing her hair in braids to pay respect to her heritage on a national stage.
Said Gorman of her attire at the 2021 presidential inauguration: “I was like, ‘yeah, I’m going to wear bright yellow — who cares? Yeah I’m going to wear my hair natural, and it’s going to be three feet tall on my head, and yeah, I’m going to wear this headband that’s not going to be tilted exactly right — because I want that crown.”
To that same end, it was Estée Lauder’s deep commitment to fostering inclusivity that drew her to the company.
“I like to look at all levels of the organizational structure of the brand — how many women are being employed? How important is diversity and representation to the DNA of that brand? And that was something that really came to the forefront with Estée Lauder,” she said.
This level of authenticity, she believes, is key for brands seeking to resonate with young, value-driven consumers.
“One of the hallmarks of Gen Z — which is both powerful and terrifying at the same time — is we can smell B.S. from a mile away,” said Gorman, adding that brands must be willing to involve Gen Z voices in their development processes in order to successfully reach that consumer.
“I think so often when we see ‘canceled’ ads, the first question that pops up is, ‘who was in the room?’ and I can tell you it’s no one who was my age and no one who looks like me, typically. So, let’s get them in the room and see what happens,” said Gorman, suggesting focus groups or appointed youth councils as ways companies can diversify their brand direction.
Uniting the young poet’s recent efforts is an ultimate goal to — literally and metaphorically — pass the mic to rising artists and changemakers.
“My hope is that we are helping to create networks and systems in these organizations, not so we see more Amanda Gormans, but so we see so many other young poets who deserve to be named, and have their own titles and fame in their own right,” said Gorman.
And she is determined to see this mission through at the highest level possible.
“In 10 years, I see myself running for president,” she declared.
“When I was growing up, it was less about dreaming of being the first at something and more about dreaming of not being the last at it. A dream that just contains yourself is an empty one; a dream that contains others is not only full, but possible” said Gorman.