This Q&A is with Cheryl Vitali, Kiehl’s Worldwide General Manager and Autism Speaks board member.
How did this wonderful partnership with Matthew McConaughey come to be? We’d love to know the inside scoop.
Truthfully, it was a two year undertaking to find a major celebrity with global recognition who would openly associate with autism. Many celebrities who are directly affected by autism are still not willing to be public about it. This was as big learning and a surprise for me. Further, at Kiehl’s we don’t pay celebrities to partner with us on philanthropic issues — there needs to be an authentic connection of philanthropy for the partnership to work. In Matthew’s case, even though he doesn’t specifically have autism in his family, he has a long track record of being personally philanthropic and of giving back to his community through his “Just Keep Livin” foundation. Once he realized that a part of the community his foundation serves includes teens and children with autism, he was willing to help Kiehl’s advocate and drive awareness for autism globally. So, I must say it wasn’t easy and it didn’t happen immediately, but it was worth the very long pursuit it took!
What was it like working with Matthew McConaughey?
Can you tell us about the design of the label?
Matthew truly has been one of our most generous and cooperative philanthropic partners. He was very personally hands on in the design of the limited edition label, the basis for which actually came from a painting his son Levi made. We really appreciated this because it resonates his own authentic belief in the cause. He also gave us time in his unbelievably busy schedule to create original content with us for social media and retail. And he’s smart, professional, and quite charming- so it was a very enjoyable experience, and we’re just thrilled with the outcome of the association.
What do you hope to accomplish with this campaign, and as a board member of Autism Speaks?
As a new board member to Autism Speaks, I was able to amplify and demonstrate the need to create strong partnerships between Autism Speaks and other celebrities, companies, and even communities to generate awareness and engagement with autism. The number of people on the spectrum is absolutely staggering— 70 million, globally— and there is an enormous amount that needs to be done to help change the lives of this population. My mission for our global philanthropic program is to drive awareness of autism and get people to understand the situation, and then to support the autism community as best they can. Autism has redefined my life and that of my family, so I am driven to drive change and support for autism and believe that these partnerships are critical.
How did you come to be on the Board of Autism Speaks?
I’ve been parent member of Autism Speaks since its inception 10 years ago. More recently, as my son who has autism has matured, I’ve realized there are fewer and fewer options and resources as one ages with autism. I felt a need to join forces with a philanthropic organization where I could really start to work towards making a broad change. At the same time, as the global head of Kiehl’s, I wanted to create a global philanthropic initiative since autism is indeed a global issue. As we worked on what a partnership could look like, I got to better understand the newer mission of Autism Speaks which really speaks to me personally, and from a perspective of a parent who is trying to navigate these waters. So, after meeting with several board members from Autism Speaks, I saw an opportunity where I could really make some contributions to both Autism Speaks and the autism community.
Have you learned anything by having a child with autism you’d like to share with others?
Yes, absolutely. I’m asked about this frequently from other parents who share the concern of having a child diagnosed with autism. The most important thing that I’ve learned is that you really must self-define your situation and maintain high expectations for your child. You must have the courage and the tenacity to find the resources and help find ways to improve their life. There’s no easy answer. There’s no one-stop shopping. No two people with autism are alike, so because of the uniqueness of the situation, you have to be willing to really push forth and try different things until you find a solution that will help your child become their very best self. Your main job as a parent to an autistic child is that you have to be an advocate, and frequently a forceful one. Sometimes, the assistance you need doesn’t come easily, but on the other hand, if you don’t do it and you don’t push forth, you can be sure it won’t happen. For that reason, I think of myself as a parent advocate and champion for my son.
In addition to becoming a board member, I realized that I’ve become a resource and perhaps even a support opportunity for a lot of people who are grappling with the issue of autism, particularly in the beauty industry. In fact, the first time I publically discussed my son’s autism was when I received a CEW Award and in front of 1000 people here in New York. I shared the fact that the most meaningful and important part of my life is actually being parent, working through the issues associated with autism and how proud I am of that. That really got a lot of emotional responses and great follow ups from many people, even from competitive companies. The realization that autism was still an issue that people were reluctant to discuss was an important moment for me. Since I am open about my personal situation, I’ve found that people on my own team at Kiehl’s and at L’Oreal will reach out to me looking for insight or guidance, or even just someone to talk to. It’s certainly a powerful process and very personal when you realize that you’re dealing with autism with someone that you love. I’m very proud of this role, and I’m happy to provide that access to people to make them feel that they’re not so alone in this cause.