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L’Oreal’s Oops Moment: Harvard MBA Student Tilts at Cosmetics Giant

Harvard Business School MBA student Jessica Assaf with beauty products

Harvard Business School MBA student Jessica Assaf with beauty products

Pssst! Hey, MBA student – want an internship at a major international corporation? It’s an “amazing” opportunity, and a chance to violate all you hold dear.

Cosmetics giant L’Oreal probably wouldn’t have known they were inviting the fox into the henhouse when they sent an internship posting to Harvard Business School candidate Jessica Assaf on Nov. 3. But the truth was soon revealed to company talent director Shadan Deleveaux, after he emailed Assaf what was probably one of hundreds of notices to MBA candidates at elite schools, in which he cited his own “amazing experience” during a L’Oreal internship.

“I guess you didn’t get a chance to review my resume before sending this email,” Assaf wrote back. “If you had you would have realized that I am definitely not the right candidate for an internship at L’Oreal.”

Assaf has crusaded against hazardous chemicals since she was 15, “committed specifically to spreading awareness about the unregulated cosmetic industry and the unnecessary chemicals in our beauty products,” she wrote to Deleveaux.

THE MBA CANDIDATE AND THE ROCK STAR

Since June, she and Alexis Krauss – singer for pop-rock duo Sleigh Bells – have run a blog dedicated to exposing dangerous ingredients in cosmetic products. Assaf, after receiving the L’Oreal internship letter, took to their BeautyLiesTruth blog and wrote a post titled, “L’Oreal Tried to Recruit the Wrong Girl“. The post, containing the letter, her response, and now a counter-response from Deleveaux, has gone semi-viral, and prompted coverage on the feminist website Jezebel and on the front page of The Harbus, the HBS student newspaper.

Of course, if Assaf had applied for the internship, the company would have had reason to look into her background and realized she would not be a good fit.

However, Assaf’s tilt against L’Oreal illustrates the value many elite B-schools place on admitting to their henhouses the occasional fox. In fact, soon-to-be-published research by Poets&Quants reveals that top schools are increasingly targeting prospective students from non-traditional backgrounds, mostly because such candidates broaden debate in classrooms and throw curve balls into traditional business ideologies and perspectives.

‘I CAME HERE TO CAUSE A STIR’

And that, in a nutshell, is Assaf’s goal at HBS.

“I came here to cause a stir,” says the 24-year-old from Marin County, California, where she was a founding member, at 15, of sustainability-focused youth group Teens Turning Green. “You can be like this crazy activist that doesn’t fit into any boxes and still have something to contribute.

“I came to HBS with the sole mission to . . . improve public health and spread awareness.”

Assaf describes her GMAT score as “definitely on the lower end,” but notes that she had a 3.93 GPA at New York University, where she received a BA in public health, documentary film, and social activism.

Three months into her first year as an MBA candidate, Assaf has found strong confirmation that her work to inform consumers about the health risks of industrial chemicals is the correct way forward. “It’s not like I’m anti-business. I want to be part of a business that provides a solution to the L’Oreals of the world,” Assaf says. “I came here to get that corporate mindset, to kind of tweak it, twist it. What I’ve learned from every (HBS class) case is that consumers control the market.”

On the day earlier this month on which Assaf received the invitation from L’Oreal, she had just finished a class with professor Joshua Margolis – who specializes in leadership and ethics – and noted down a quote from him: “Change requires creativity and courage.”