Donning a turquoise apron dotted with red cherries, 34-year-old Huda Kattan examines the pink, retro kitchen surrounding her. To her right, there’s a whole wall of shelves crammed with fake flour and sugar boxes emblazoned with her name. Kattan has styled the props and set as the perfect backdrop for Instagram-worthy photos to celebrate her latest cosmetic product, a loose finishing powder called Easy Bake. At the launch event, Kattan refers to her fans as “cake faces” – since they wear layers of makeup. Retailing for $34, the new powder is the latest of Huda Beauty’s more than 140 products, from eyeshadow pallets to lip gloss, that together bring in at least $200 million in annual revenue.
“A lot of people don’t always know how successful our brand is and we don’t ever talk about it. But it’s exciting to see the brand resonate so well with people,” Kattan recently told Forbes after flying into New York for the launch from her home base in Dubai. “Nowadays, you’re only limited by your dreams. We think big and we dream big.”
Part of that dream came true late last year when Kattan and her two cofounder sisters Alya and Mona, both of whom own smaller stakes and help her run the company, sold a small stake in Huda Beauty to strategy investor TSG Consumer Partners. (TSG is known for making early investments in beauty companies and building them into global brands ; it was an investor in IT Cosmetics and Smashbox). Forbes estimates that Kattan, who still owns the majority, is worth $550 million, based largely on our valuation of her stake in the company. While Kattan won’t comment on the record about the deal, she and her sisters did set aside $10 million of the proceeds to create the HB Angels, an early stage investment fund for entrepreneurs, particularly women founders, starting companies in a range of industries.
The U.S.-born middle daughter of Iraqi immigrants who settled in Oklahoma, Kattan grew up in a small, mostly white and Baptist town. Struggling with self-confidence due to bullying about her ethnicity, she used to tell her young classmates that her name was Heidi. Comforted by cosmetics, she started wearing heavy makeup at age 12. “I always felt like a misfit. Even now, I still struggle with this a little bit. And I think that’s what probably motivates me so much,” Kattan says. “You internalize. Kids used to tell me I was weird all the time. When I got older, I wanted to embrace my name and I put it on everything. And I also wanted to embrace being weird.”
After majoring in business at the University of Michigan Dearborn, she moved to Dubai for a finance job at consulting firm Robert Half’s Middle East headquarters. She settled there with her husband and gave birth to a daughter. It didn’t take long before she was dissatisfied with the finance gig and quit to become a makeup artist. She briefly trained in Los Angeles but struggled to get clients back in Dubai and worked mostly for free. In 2010, Kattan started a beauty blog. It took off as fans became taken with Kattan’s how-to videos. As her fame rose, she realized she had a knack for understanding what products work best.When she couldn’t find premium false eyelashes that worked well, she decided to start making them herself. Kattan borrowed $6,000 from her sister Alya and spent another $10,000 from her savings for the packaging.
She didn’t have enough money to do the manufacturing, so Kattan’s distributors paid for it and took a cut of sales. In 2013, Kattan launched her own line of synthetic and faux mink lashes, made in Indonesia. She sold out on her first day and lucked out when Kim Kardashian became a vocal, early fan. Retail sales hit $1.5 million that first year and jumped to $10 million the next. Soon she was making all sorts of cosmetics and peddling them on her website – which is now the most viewed beauty blog on the Internet – as well as on Instagram, where she has close to 26 million followers.
The TSG Consumer Partners investment was a turning point for Huda Beauty, which Kattan still affectionately calls “a baby brand.” While much of Huda Beauty’s sales come directly through the website, which gives the company a greater share of profit on each sale, it is also expanding its in-store presence. It’s already the top-selling cosmetics brand at Sephora in the Middle East. But by the end of 2018, Huda Beauty will be in more than 900 stores across the U.S. including Sephora and J.C. Penny, as well as another 600 globally, up from just 200 overall at the start of the year. The company will also open its first U.S. office, either in San Francisco or Los Angeles, by year’s end. Revenue for 2018 is expected to be roughly $300 million.
One of the planet’s most in-demand influencers, Kattan, who is CEO, has still bigger ambitions. She says she wants to build Huda Beauty into a conglomerate able to compete with the likes of L’Oreal, Estee Lauder and Coty. “We have been contacted by every big conglomerate [for acquisitions]. It just didn’t feel right. There’s so much to do for this brand. Why can’t we be the next Estee Lauder of our time?” Kattan says. “Why can’t there be the opportunity to build something? And why can’t we at least strive to start building that?” Her first step in building her bigger empire is to launch a perfume brand, which will be sold through a separate standalone company, later this year.
“We’re working our butts off and the team is working their butts off, but I feel like it’s bigger than just even makeup,” Kattan says. “It’s really hopefully to prove to the world that a little person can make it.”