Kecia Steelman has what many would call a “dream job” as Chief Operating Officer of the country’s largest beauty retailer, Ulta Beauty, but getting to that role wasn’t always so rosy for her.
Steelman’s humble beginnings started in a lower middle class family in a small farming community in Iowa. Her parents divorced when she was a teen, leaving her to start working at a young age to help her mother pay the bills. Later, she had her first child at 20.
“As a young mom, trying to figure out my life and my career wasn’t easy,” she says. “I will never forget the moment it really hit me — in my mid-20s — that the only person who can help me get out of a situation or become a better person is the person looking back at me in the mirror. No one is going to fix anything for me; I have to work hard and be committed to myself … and if I do that, I will be successful.”
That kind of self-talk, full of perseverance, confidence and positivity has shaped her entire life.
Starting with her first job as a floor associate at Target in the ’90s, she’s now had a 30-year career in retail with leadership positions at Family Dollar Stores, Home Depot and now Ulta Beauty. As COO, Steelman is responsible for overseeing a team of 50,000 associates, 95% of whom are female.
She is a mother of two, stepmom of three and a grandmother of a toddler boy whom she calls “the love of my life.” Her voice lights up when she talks about her large, blended, ‘eclectic family unit’ that took shape nearly 10 years ago when she married her husband Gray — a family with adult children who get along well, vacation together and even work together in a self-made business.
We sat down with Steelman to find out more about the secret sauce to her career and personal success.
Better: You strike me as a woman who “has it all” — do you?
Kecia Steelman: I don’t know if I “have it all,” but I will say that to have a family and do my job takes a tremendous amount of support at home. I have a wonderful, supportive husband who stepped back from his own career when I became COO at Ulta Beauty to let me focus. It’s worked well for us.
I’ll add that it’s easier for women to support a husband with a big career; it’s a little more nuanced, even today, having a man who supports his wife in her career, both personally and professionally. If you are on a career journey and continuing to grow, plus raising a family, there might be a point in time to make a decision about how you structure your team. Who is going to take the lead and who is going to take the supporting role?
Your career trajectory is a model for many young women with high aspirations. Can you tell us about that and what you’ve learned along the way?
When I took my first full-time retail job at Target as a team leader making $8 an hour with benefits, my perspective was ‘this is just a job.’ To my surprise, I quickly realized I wanted a lifelong career in retail because I discovered that I loved interacting with other team members and guests. Plus, I had the ability to have a different kind of day each day at a fast pace. Retail is in my blood.
Early on, I realized how important it is to surround myself with people who think differently and who have strengths I don’t. Some people might be intimidated by that, but I’ve always thought it was important to work with the best team possible. I’m not just talking about the people who are above the ranks, but also the ones who report to you — you can learn just as much from them.
That “ah-ha” moment in my 20s made me realize I need to work hard, commit to myself and my family, and success will come. I don’t know if I ever thought it would take me to where I am today, but I didn’t have specific aspirations for any one job or title, and I’m glad I didn’t because I would have limited myself. I went after opportunity and that’s what’s driven me throughout my career.
What advice would you give to young women just starting out in their careers?
One thing I see among individuals, especially women, is a need to achieve perfection before moving into another role or getting promoted. That doesn’t need to be the case. Sure, you should know enough to be successful and even a little bit dangerous, but you don’t need to master a role before you take on something else.
Along those same lines, if you are willing, open and energized, having the mindset to try something new can really open doors. I would always raise my hand for new opportunities or challenges, and I believe that’s what has fueled my growth. While I may not have been the most qualified, I was the most willing to lean in and do the job.
I don’t think there isn’t a finish line for personal or professional growth. Think of it as a marathon for which you set the pace. When you start getting too comfortable, it’s a sign that you need to check yourself, ask for more or push yourself out of your comfort zone.
What about balancing career and family? This is something that feels difficult to many women.
It is hard. Balance is important but striving for perfect balance will set you up for failure. Prioritize the things that are important for your family the same way you prioritize the business opportunities in your career — and realize that sometimes there are unavoidable trade-offs.
I calendarize my personal life and I treat my personal activities with as much priority as I do my work activities. When I can’t make something personally, I proactively share that with my family; likewise, if I can’t do something for work due to family obligations, I do the same. I make a point of always having a good plan and communicating that plan to everyone.
Who’s been your biggest inspiration in life?
My mom. She has had to overcome a lot and has always been there for me, no matter what.
What would you say to your 22-year-old self?
Don’t be so hard on yourself. Give yourself grace. Continue to move forward. If you do all these things, the best is still yet to come.
How do you like to give back to the community?
I’m on the executive committee for Metropolitan Family Services, an organization that impacts people’s lives every single day. What’s wonderful about them is that they bring in external experts to offer support in many directions for Chicago’s most vulnerable families and can handle cases ranging from domestic abuse and housing assistance to education and empowerment. I came from humble beginnings and know what it was like to wonder about my next meal, so giving back not only with my money, but with my time, energy and heart is important to me.
I’m also on the board of directors for the Adler Planetarium, a future-focused museum that fosters curiosity about outer space and offers STEAM programs for the younger generation. Adler also offers free museum evenings for families, which I think is great.
Want to stay up-to-date with Kecia Steelman? Follow her on Instagram.
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Margaret Smith is a Chicago-based writer and editor with a passion for socio-political storytelling about their community. They are a graduate of Columbia College Chicago.