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This CEO went from bagging groceries to building a billion-dollar cosmetics business—here's how

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How this self-made millionaire CEO went from bagging groceries to running a...

Even in the beauty industry, where products are almost exclusively marketed to women and girls, men dominate leadership positions. Revlon made headlines earlier this month when it named Debra Perelman CEO, the first woman to lead the company. As of May 2017, only one woman had served as CEO of one of L'Oréal's brands since the company was founded in 1909.

Jamie Kern Lima, co-founder and CEO of IT Cosmetics, broke into the male-dominated industry by using her biggest competitive advantage — actually being a makeup consumer.

Growing up, Kern Lima, 40, worked many different part-time jobs and held the title of Miss Washington. Her early career included stints on reality TV and in local news, but in 2008 she quit her job to launch IT Cosmetics with the goal of creating a product that would actually work for women like her.

For years, she struggled to make her mark on the $445 billion beauty industry, working long days and weathering dozens of rejections, but in 2016, L'Oreal bought IT Cosmetics for $1.2 billion in cash, making Kern Lima a certified multi-millionaire.

She says the secret to her success has always been taking risks, being obsessed and trusting her gut. Here's what it took for her to make it happen:

Jamie Kern Lima when she was a Denny's employee.
Courtesy of IT Cosmetics

Risks

Kern Lima's tendency to follow her instincts started with her decision to go where no one in her immediate family had gone before — college.

She worked her way through college by holding several jobs including babysitting, teaching gymnastics, working as a receptionist, serving food at Denny's and bagging groceries at Safeway.

As she was about to graduate, Kern Lima was considering a career in finance, but took a risk instead. On a dare, she submitted an application to be a member of the first season of "Big Brother" in the U.S., and was accepted. While Kern Lima says that she might make the decision to go on reality TV if she was a recent grad today, she says that the experience taught her to take risks.

After "Big Brother," Kern Lima became a reporter. While she loved telling stories, she knew in the long-term the job was not the right one for her. She grew tired of constant critiques about her appearance, including the large red blotches that appeared on her skin because of rosacea. So one day, she quit.

"I quit my job, you know, before having really any type of safety net," she says. "It was a big risk, but I think you have to do it otherwise, you know, you have regrets."

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Obsession

When she realized the gravity of her decision to quit, Kern Lima almost panicked. Instead, she sprung into action and decided to build a career out of her biggest obsession — makeup.

During her time as a reporter, one of her biggest frustrations had been finding products that worked for skin like hers. As she searched for solutions, she realized there was a hole in the market for a product that helped people with rosacea and other skin conditions.

"I kind of just became obsessed," she explains. "Why are there millions of makeup brands but nothing works for me? There must be other women out there that feel this way, and I kind of became obsessed with that idea of creating something that truly works if you have issues with your skin."

This obsession inspired Kern Lima to invent what would become IT Cosmetics (the IT stands for "Innovative Technology.") She carefully crafted her business plan, painstakingly perfected her products and faced rejection for years. She was determined to create a product that provided results, rather than what was in vogue.

"Lima's collection of concealers and foundations is neither cool nor trendy," The Cut's Linda Wells writes. "IT Cosmetics is to makeup as Spanx is to lingerie; it's unsexy but gets the job done."

Jamie Kern Lima
Courtesy of IT Cosmetics

Trust

Kern Lima met with representatives from major cosmetic companies for years but was unable to sell her idea. After being rejected by retailer Sephora several times she recalls, "I didn't know how our company was going to stay alive at that point."

But her instincts told her that her company was not a lost cause. She tells CNBC Make It that she and her team have worked 100-hour weeks for the past ten 10 years and that her co-founder and husband Paulo Lima have not taken a day off since they launched the company.

Kern Lima's strategy included relentless marketing and advertising. Harnessing her pageant and reporting skills, she made in-store appearances, shot YouTube videos and talked on QVC live with the same consistent message — her product worked, and she could show you.

According to The Cut, her appearances always begins with her talking calmly into the camera about women's grievances with makeup. Then she uses a face wipe to remove the makeup on her right cheek to reveal her rosacea. Finally, she reapplies IT Cosmetics products and her red marks disappear.

"Lima repeats it, almost word-for-word, over a 40-hour QVC marathon," writes Wells.

The message started to resonate with makeup lovers. According to Women's Wear Daily, in 2015, IT Cosmetics reported $182 million in net sales. By early 2016, the brand was projected to pass over $400 million worth of sales. This 56 percent year-over-year increase caught the attention of L'Oreal and in August of 2016, the company made Kern Lima an offer — $1.2 billion in cash.

The deal made IT Cosmetics the French conglomerate's biggest acquisition in eight years, according to Forbes. As the majority owner, Kern Lima pocketed about $410 million after taxes.

"I started IT Cosmetics and I knew I believed in the idea. I believed that our products would change women's lives, but literally, everyone said 'no,'" she says. "If you have a dream or and or you want to go into business or start your own business be ready to hear 'no.'"

Video by Andrea Kramar.

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