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Recently, CoFounder and CEO of 25BWB, Ella Gorgla spoke at the WWD Beauty Summit. The topic, Turning Accountability into Action. The focus was on corporate accountability. It was a thoughtful candid conversation and afterwards, there was praise. We were stepping into our truth, having those difficult, but necessary conversations.
The problem is, we have not been standing in our truth and there has been no accountability.
Ms. Gorgla has been harassed for over two years and things have escalated to the point that the New York District Attorney’s Office has opened an investigation.
This is a story of failed systems. Failure of the NYPD to take basic complaint reports. Failure of Mount Sinai to preserve evidence. Failure of the NAACP (NY and National Offices) to serve as advocates. Failure of the NY Human Rights Commission to protect her basic human rights. And failure of Estee Lauder Companies on numerous levels.
Our hope is that the NY District Attorney will not fail to do their jobs.
And perhaps most importantly, that we as a beauty community must not fail to hold them accountable.
This is her testimony.
The name 25 Black Women in Beauty was inspired by 22 Black women at Estee Lauder Companies (ELC) who gathered during the summer of 2018 to present a letter to Senior Management expressing our discontent with the treatment of Black women at the company. Specifically, failure to promote, racial animus, discrimination, pay inequities and unchecked microaggressions. I was a part of the group – one of the leads. As an Executive Director (ED) at MAC Cosmetics, I dealt with each of these claims. In my nearly five years at the brand, I was never promoted nor was there any Black person promoted or hired at the ED level or above while I was there. I was the highest-ranking Black female at the MAC global headquarters in SoHo. I would later be told that despite my credentials, experience and performance, my role was leveled at ED.
And so, the 22 Black women gathered – by phone and at my home, we ordered pizza, shared our stories and put forth a plan. We would present a letter to the CEO & Chairman, signed by those willing to sign and stand together. Support each other. This was the summer of 2018. Before George Floyd. Before the corporate reckoning. What we were doing was unprecedented, but so deeply necessary. ELC had a Black woman problem.
In a perfect world, we would have done just that – presented the letter, demanded change and stood together, but unfortunately, that did not happen. A letter was drafted and circulated, but never formally presented. However, change did come. Black executives were suddenly being hired and promoted at a much faster rate. Workshops on cultural sensitivity were offered and a number of the 22 Black women were made whole – promoted, moved to different departments, etc. The letter was likely leaked.
For me, however, things shifted. This is where my story takes a much darker turn.
Never have I been subjected to such level of intimidation, harassment and attempts to cause me physical harm as this. Things started in September of 2018, over two years ago. Used condom packets, urine bottles, muddy sneakers – all thrown on the back patio of my home on a regular basis.
In February 2019, as I was hosting a Black History Month event for nearly 200 guests as head of the ELC Network of Black Leaders and Executives (the company's Black Employee Resource Group), a former employee of ELC left inflammatory comments about me on the company’s Instagram Page. The Global Communications team that handles the account left the comments up for two days until I discovered it. The incident was escalated. To my knowledge, the employee was never reprimanded by ELC – though she was still under a severance agreement.
And there was the surveillance. In restaurants, while I was grocery shopping, in my neighborhood, directly outside of my home, in my hometown, everywhere. There didn’t appear to be a real attempt to disguise it. I’ve had my picture taken in restaurants, even once on an airplane. Things got so bad that I complained to an SVP at ELC and said that I believed that the harassment was tied to my role in orchestrating the letter. Nothing was ever done. It continued.
Finally, in September 2019, I decided to leave ELC. I had co-founded 25BWB earlier that year in June and felt hopeful (and rightfully so) about the future of the organization. I wanted to make a difference, change the narrative and do my part to elevate Black women in beauty.
Before I left ELC, I had one final act. A letter. This time I decided to write a letter for myself, outlining my claims, expressing my discontent and deep disappointment in the company and their tactics. It was 13 pages and detailed examples of microaggressions, failure to promote, discrimination, retaliation – my experience. I had given so much of myself to the company - made a clear and visible financial impact (a number of my projects were lauded in the press) and was hurt and amazed at the willingness of the organization to diminish me - to hurt me. I had been traumatized in the workplace.
The letter laid out my claims, particularly the claims of harassment. The company conducted an investigation of themselves and concluded they did nothing wrong.
I moved on, but strangely enough, the harassment against me continued. Urine bottles were thrown in my back patio regularly – often thrown as soon as I entered my home – a signal to me that someone was watching me or had access to my movements.
More surveillance, even in my hometown of Toledo, Ohio. One incident took place at a local Starbucks. I became so frustrated that I texted and emailed members of ELC Senior Management and within minutes the gentlemen that I suspected of following me, left. I was scared.
There were two attempted break-ins to my home. On both occasions, the NYPD refused to take a police report and my landlord refused to show the security cameras.
As I write this, I am no longer in my home. Even at nearly $3,000/month, it simply wasn’t safe.
The latest and most egregious incident is what compelled me to write this piece and share my story. I’m simply done suffering in silence.
On September 8, 2020, I consumed some juice in my home. It was a large bottle that was purchased about two weeks prior and was about two thirds gone. I had a glass of the juice and immediately began to feel dizzy. I checked my pulse with a pulse oximeter (part of my Covid-19 preparedness kit). My pulse was 155. I knew I was at risk of going into cardiac arrest. I gathered my things and in between deep breaths, I could hear my Mother’s voice. She had passed the year prior on Christmas Eve. I could hear her voice guiding me, rushing me out of the apartment, keeping my mind active.
I knew someone had deliberately contaminated my drink.
I took a cab to Mount Sinai (ER) and notified my family. This is where my story takes yet another odd turn. At the ER, I told attending doctors and nurses what happened, that someone contaminated my drink with a stimulant and it was still in my system. I insisted they perform a drug test – I wanted to know what I had consumed. They agreed and also suggested I contact the NYPD. They took urine and blood. As I waited for my results, the NYPD came. I video taped the exchange. In short, I told them someone attempted to poison me, that I believed it was part of a pattern of harassment and I was afraid for my life. They refused to take a report – making this the 3rd time I reported an incident related to my harassment and the NYPD again refusing to allow me to file a complaint report. It was odd.
The lab results were taking long so the doctor suggested that I go home and simply check it online. The next day, partial results were available. What was missing? The results of the drug screen. I contacted the hospital, emailed the doctors and even escalated the incident to the hospital’s President. The response from their General Counsel was a bit harsh. In short, there was a miscommunication, no drug screen was performed (although hospital release forms clearly indicated a drug screen was being performed and I had the attending physician on camera indicating they were waiting for results from toxicology), and it was within their right to perform a pregnancy test on me, without my consent. And furthermore, I was warned that if I contacted them again, they would consider it “harassing”.
I was stunned.
Out of sheer frustration and fear, I began a letter writing campaign, seeking an advocate and counsel. Sadly enough, the institutions that were designed to support citizens in matters such as mine, would not help. The NAACP New York and National Chapter – nothing. The NY Human Rights Commission – nothing. My Councilman, Congressman, Senator – nothing. The NYPD – nothing (as stated above). Countless law firms –we believe you, but this is a difficult case, no thanks – nothing.
And finally, there was a glimmer of luck and hope. Someone suggested I contact the New York District Attorney – the DA. As in ‘Law & Order’ DA. And I did. And they responded and took my case.
And here we are. My freedom and safety are in the hands of the New York District Attorney. I am hopeful, but measured. I wonder almost daily, how did I get here? Why me? But I stop myself and remind myself that I am not alone in this. God is by my side. My Mother is watching over me. I remind myself that I must trust the process and trust His timing.
To be continued…