The Road to a Bigger Life
“It is an honor to be considered a legend at The University of Alabama.” – Janet Gurwitch
Janet Gurwitch grew up dreaming of the big time. Her years at The University of Alabama equipped her for that.
When it was time to go to college Gurwitch wanted to travel – but not too far – from her home in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. With UA alumni for parents, she already had a love for all things Crimson Tide, making The University of Alabama the natural choice. A harder choice was finding the right major. After forays into political science and elementary education, Gurwitch found her true passions. “I loved business and fashion and it’s been the right road ever since,” she said. The College of Home Economics (now the College of Human Environmental Sciences) became her academic home.
Gurwitch embraced her college years with the same enthusiasm she later showed in her business career. She took part in Freshman Forum, and in her junior year was elected president of her college. But it was in an organization called Associated Women Students that Gurwitch learned the crucial business skill of negotiating. “We even negotiated with Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, who at the time was the athletics director as well as the football coach, to increase the amount for scholarships for female student-athletes.”
As part of the College of Home Economics, Gurwitch had as a role model a woman dean, Dr. Mary A. Crenshaw, and a professor who became a mentor and helped set Gurwitch on her career path. Professor Wilma Green showed Gurwitch how to write a resume, pick places to interview and helped her get her first job. As Gurwitch’s teacher she led an Interim term trip to New York City, a tour of the New York fashion industry that included a Bill Blass fashion show and the Metropolitan Museum. The trip gave the Mississippi native a life-changing perspective: she saw herself living in a big city and working for a major department store. “I wanted a bigger life,” Gurwitch remembered thinking.
After graduating in May 1974 with a degree in fashion retailing, Gurwitch aspired to work for Foley’s Department Store in Houston, Texas. As Green had taught her, she sent in her carefully crafted resume and cover letter, only to receive a written rejection explaining that Foley’s interviewed only with a few select colleges. Gurwitch’s father insisted she travel to Houston to win the job in person, which she did. She eventually became one of Foley’s youngest senior vice presidents. And she framed the rejection letter.
After 15 years she accepted the position of executive vice president of Neiman-Marcus. While Foley’s was a regional powerhouse, Neiman-Marcus was a national brand. The move took Gurwitch further down the road both metaphorically and literally, giving her opportunities to travel extensively in Europe and the U.S. while meeting the founders and leaders of the world’s great fashion lines: Hermes, Armani, Hilfiger, Klein, Spade and others. Her dreams of a bigger life, sparked during that class trip to New York, were coming true.
While flourishing at Neiman-Marcus, Gurwitch saw a business opportunity in an opening for younger cosmetic brands tied to living makeup artists. At age 42 she left the retail giant to go her own way. She licensed the name of French makeup artist Laura Mercier, known for her work with celebrities such as Madonna and Julia Roberts, and her signature look of creating a flawless complexion. The two co-launched a cosmetics line in 1996, which grew to 400 employees and reached 27 countries. The company was acquired by a Japanese business group a decade later.
Gurwitch traveled to Italy for some rest and relaxation. “While there I realized how much I enjoyed working,” she said. Her passion for business led to her newest venture, private equity investing focusing on cosmetic brands such as Urban Decay. She has served on several company boards and invested in ventures such as dollarshaveclub.com. An avid sports fan since her days rooting for the Crimson Tide, she is a minority investor in the Houston Astros baseball team and serves on the board.
When people marvel at the path Gurwitch’s career has taken, through the finest department stores to her years as a successful entrepreneur and investor, she says they sometimes assume that path started at an Ivy League school. The business legend says her response to that is, “I very proudly say I went to The University of Alabama.”