Cara Sabin has mastered the art of fulfillment and balance, both professionally and personally. Sitting at the helm of two companies, Sabin holds the titles of President of Beauty & Wellbeing for Unilever North America and CEO at SheaMoisture. Sabin joined Sundial in 2019 and worked through the pandemic on specific marketing strategies that showcased the brand’s value during uncertain times.
This wasn’t Sabin’s first time in the leadership role. Throughout her prolific journey working at companies like Neutrogena, L’Oréal, and Avon, to name a few, Sabin recognized the power of pivoting with intention. But after attaining the kind of high-profile success almost every career-driven woman strives for, she had an epiphany. “After Neutrogena, I needed a break,” she says candidly. “I realized I needed a sense of purpose in my professional life.” Here, she shares what that looks like.
Caroline Wanga: Who is Cara Sabin?
Sabin: First, she is a daughter. I am an only child, and my parents mean everything to me and my identity and who I have become, I give all the credit to them. I’m also a wife, stepmother, friend and hopefully an inspirational leader. I am someone who cares and feels deeply and someone who lives in the spirit of optimism.
Wanga: Where does your story start in life?
Sabin: The reason I said daughter first is because it starts there, with my parents. I was born on an Air Force base in North Dakota. The first five years of my life were spent in Northern California, during the Black Panther era. Then we moved east, to D.C. In terms of what defines me? Like many people, when your parents’ marriage dissolves, that is a profound moment that affects you deeply. Needing to be resilient made me a more empathetic child because I always wanted to make sure my mom and dad were good. As an only child, I think it makes you more creative because you’re playing games by yourself. I would create whole worlds because that fantasy makes you much more outgoing. It shapes you in a lot of ways.
Wanga: Why did you first pursue beauty?
Sabin: I initially limited myself because, at that time, the beauty industry was not for us. You didn’t see women like us in campaigns, and you didn’t see products for us. It felt like I was an outsider, but I am up for a challenge, so I interviewed with L’Oréal, and I got the job. And it was the best beauty training ground for me. It’s a very intense culture. I did well, I was promoted twice in a couple of years, and when I left L’Oréal I was in charge of the hair care division.
Wanga: What did unfulfillment mean to you during the height of your career then?
Sabin: At the moment, I felt bored. I felt like I wasn’t making an impact. I was disinterested. It just felt like a job. And I remember my manager at the time had an executive coach, and I was talking to him, and he said, “You just need to find something that you love, and then you’ll excel and it’ll be amazing.” And, I just felt like, What do you love? Because coming from my family, what I love is cooking. What I love is music.
Wanga: Stuff they’re not going to pay you to do.
Sabin: Right. I couldn’t even fathom that you could dream and get paid to do what you love until SheaMoisture—but we’ll get back to that. In the moment, I just felt unsatisfied, like I needed to change. I took a break. From there, I went to work for a private equity company. And then I got a call from Estée Lauder Corporation. It was an incredible opportunity leading global marketing for Clinique makeup and fragrance. But then that feeling started to come again.
Wanga: The one that told you you needed a break?
Sabin: Exactly. I was feeling restless.. I’m not feeling seen.
Wanga: If it had been going the way you wanted it to, how would it have been?
Sabin: There was this seed of wanting to make an impact on people’s lives. I needed to find an outlet where I could be of service to other people. I started a group for Black women in the beauty industry with a former colleague. And shortly after, I got a call asking me if I would be interested in interviewing for the CEO of SheaMoisture role.
Wanga: When you get the call, what’s your first thought?
Sabin: I’m not used to being seen.
Wanga: You’re taking over something that changed what beauty meant as a business. How heavy was that?
Sabin: Oh, my gosh. Beyond heavy. Because it was so multilayered. It was being the steward of a legacy.
Wanga: Let me tell you what I hate the most about this job: How public you are without permission. When it’s positive, it’s wonderfully fulfilling. When it’s bad, it’s bad.
Sabin: Before I took the SheaMoisture job, I decided to make my Instagram profile public. I felt like now I belong to this community.
Wanga: What advice would you give readers looking for the chief in themselves?
Sabin: If you’re someone who is ambitious and you’re trying to achieve certain goals, you may be so laser-focused on striving that you lose sight of the fact that along the journey there’s also work to be done. For me, unlocking the sense of fulfillment came when I shifted from I’m not getting to where I want to be, so I want to help other people get to where they want to be. There was fulfillment in that.