By Maureen Nolan
She describes herself as a self-taught digital media maven who started blogging to promote her stand-up comedy. But that was the mid 1990s, ages ago for technology and the forward-looking Rachel Weiss ’93, who is now vice president for digital innovation and entrepreneurship for L’Oreal.
Weiss is a trailblazer focused on how technology impacts culture. “My job is looking across the ecosystem of entrepreneurs and consumer attention, at how people are spending time, to drive growth for L’Oreal,” she explains. She works with a small team whose members are part hackers, business developers, product managers, and trend forecasters. They view themselves as “intrepreneurs” who bring an entrepreneurial perspective within a giant corporation.
The rapid pace of technological changes, among them virtual and augmented reality, reminds Weiss of the 1990s. “We’re in a time where technology is changing so much how people behave, how they spend time, how they communicate with each other,” she says. Lately, among other tech developments, she has been investigating how people talk to things like Alexa and Google Assistant.
The project that may be closest to her heart, however, is Women in Digital, which she founded 2011. It’s a L’Oreal project created to help women entrepreneurs scale the new technology they build. Women in Digital looks for game changers in technology who can have an impact on the beauty industry, specifically.
“Advocating for diversity has always been a mission of mine personally in business and in everything I’ve done or studied,” she says. “But advocating for women who can create in an economy around technology is something I’m really proud of because it’s the future of work and the future of wealth creation and the future of jobs. I want women to invest more in women because it’s hard for women.”
Each year, Women in Digital bestows NEXT Generation Awards and subsequent support on promising companies. L’Oreal says that, collectively, winners have raised more than $300 million to invest in their businesses and created a network of more than 2,000 women-operated companies. The 2017 winners: Siqi Mou, founder of Hello Ava, which uses a “chatbot” to help customers select skin-care products; Courtney Caldwell, co-founder of ShearShare, an app to connect cosmetologists and barbers to empty salon space; and Naomi Hirabayashi and Marah Lidey, co-founders of Shine, a service that sends positive messages to subscribers five days a week.
Weiss has been enamored of technology since she sent her first email, a milestone that occurred at Hamilton. The recipient, who was sitting across from her on the other side of the table, was the only other person Weiss knew with an email address. At that moment it hit her, a comparative literature major, that technology was a way to bring her art and stories to more people.
After graduation, she earned a master’s degree in cinema studies at New York University. She’d hunker down in computer centers, learning everything she could about new technology like the Internet. She viewed technology as a hobby she was compelled to pursue.
Addicted to early Geocities (a web-hosting service) sites and dabbling in stand-up, Weiss came up with the idea of building her own website to drive people to her shows. “I really taught myself to do this, and for me, that became my entire career. I found that I was driving more people to my Geocities website than were coming to my comedy shows,” she recalls.
One of her first tech jobs was working at SONY Online, an early gaming site that offered its employees a chance to take courses. Weiss studied HTML and basic coding. She moved on to other jobs in digital marketing and innovation, joining L’Oreal in 2007, where she still takes online courses, like how to program for blockchain.
As Weiss was shaping her career, she didn’t have her own computer and couldn’t afford to buy one until 1999. Nor did she know women who were as interested as she was in tech. She didn’t encounter like-minded women until she started to develop Women in Digital. Coming from there, Weiss looks for ways to mentor women emotionally and financially.
“I’m really hoping if I advance in my career, I can have enough capital to help the next level of women entrepreneurs so they can build their dreams, build their own companies, really for social good and to make their world a better place. That’s the one thing I dream of,” she says.