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Sweet Tarte: Taking Inside-Out Beauty to Heart

By: Karen A. Newman
Posted: August 26, 2008, from the October 2007 issue of GCI Magazine.

Maureen Kelly arrives at a Midtown Manhattan restaurant for a scheduled interview, glowing and wearing a smile that should be protected by trademark or other legal device. She quickly reveals that the glow comes in part from her second pregnancy. The rest of it surely comes from her passion for the beauty business and the success of her own growing enterprise. The creator and CEO of tarte cosmetics is having a very busy year, but from the look of things, she thrives on it. Kelly is accompanied by tarte vice president Alexis Mezzina DiResta, who exhibits her own kind of energy, leaving little doubt that this duo is a force to be reckoned with.

The company got its start back in 1999 in Kelly’s one bedroom New York apartment. Its first product, a cheek stain, was designed as an alternative to available stains that Kelly says streaked and were generally difficult to use. The latest-generation cheek stain launched recently, and incorporates some of Kelly’s new thinking in response to trends she feels strongly about: the new stain is all natural and preservative-free. What’s more, the colors come from tarte’s proprietary t-5 super berry antioxidant blend. So, how did tarte grow from its first cheek stain to proprietary blends in just a few years?

Business 101

The number and range of products in the tarte line suggest a passion for product development, an area where Kelly and DiResta make no bones about how their current process differs from the early days. Back in the day, they would find a unique packaging component and decide which product would work best in it. “This actually helped us create some great products in a really organic way,” says DiResta. “It helped us to think outside of the box, which I think is crucial for a young company.” Today, function comes first, starting with selecting a great formula and adding skin-benefiting ingredients. Their focus is on delivering a consistent message about the ingredients they use and matching up a great formula with packaging that DiResta says is chic, user-friendly and visually supports the message they’re trying to send. Kelly elaborates saying they have refined their process over the years to a set of questions relating to new products. The main focus of the questions is whether the packaging is aspirational and fashion forward and whether it is derived from healthy, natural ingredients. The importance of refining their product development process is just one of the important lessons the pair have learned over the years, and not all have been learned on the job.

Both Kelly and DiResta acknowledge the influence of some important men in their lives on the success of tarte. Kelly cites her husband, who, despite being educated at a top business school and possessing a widely varied business background, believes that humility and being a team player are the most important leadership qualities. “He is forever encouraging me to see things from my team’s point of view and to be a good listener, so I have multiple opinions before I make a decision,” she says.

DiResta gets her passion for work, and for marketing in particular, from her dad, and says they both enjoy analyzing the DNA of a brand. But the most important lesson she’s learned from her father echoes the guidance given by Kelly’s husband. “He just has an innate sense of fairness, and was always putting the well-being of the company and the employees before his own,” she says. DiResta says people remember her father because he listens to what they have to say and truly takes their opinions to heart. “As a manager, I really try to emulate him in that respect.” DiResta is grateful to Kelly, too, for insisting she attend a broad range of meetings, including PR and product development, from the moment she joined tarte in the very early days of the organization.