Written by Stephanie Proft Tuesday, August 21 2012
Mary Kay Cosmetics is arguably the most iconic brand created by a woman. Now synonymous with the classic pink Cadillacs the company's top saleswomen are rewarded with, Mary Kay Ash's namesake entrepreneurial endeavor is the culmination of her brazen spirit and business savvy.
Though Ash passed away over a decade ago in 2001, there are many nuggets of wisdom – for both your personal and professional life – to be gained from one of the original women entrepreneurs.
Born Mary Kathlyn Wagner in Hot Wells, Texas, Ash rose from modest means to become referred to as “the high priestess of pink.” Her father was left unable to care for himself after his battle with tuberculosis, and her mother worked as the manager of a restaurant, leaving Ash to manage the household at the ripe old age of 7.
Her husband, who she married when she was 17 and had three children with, was drafted for World War I and upon his return asked for a divorce. While Ash considered this moment as the lowest point of her life, it certainly gave her a sense of urgency when it came to providing for her family.
''I've been asked a number of times, 'How did you succeed so quickly?' The answer is I was middle-aged, had varicose veins, and I didn't have time to fool around,” she said. “Have you heard the definition of a woman's needs? From 14 to 40, she needs good looks, from 40 to 60, she needs personality, and I'm here to tell you that after 60, she needs cash.''
And Mary Kay Cosmetics certainly turned out to provide Ash with dough. The company grew to be the one of the largest direct sellers of skin care and beauty products in the world, with its merchandise being sold in over 35 markets by over 2 million sales people. Its 2011 earnings were reportedly $2.5 billion.
What makes Ash's success even sweeter is the journey that led her to become one of the most recognizable names among women entrepreneurs.
A serendipitous encounter with a Houston-area door-to-door encyclopedia saleswoman turned out, at least in part, to be a catalyst for Ash's career. When Ash conceded that she could not afford to buy a set, the saleswoman offered her a compromise: If she could sell 10 sets of encyclopedias, which was the company's 3-month goal for seasoned employees, she would give her one for free. Ash was able to get all 10 off her hands in less than two days.
After selling encyclopedias to contribute to the household income, Ash joined the direct sales force of Stanley Home Products selling housewares and cleaning supplies. After seeing the crowning ceremony of the “Queen of Sales” at the annual company convention, Ash set out to claim the title for herself the following year – a feat she accomplished.
With her new status as a divorcee, Ash took up selling for Stanley Home Products full-time. In order to increase her income substantially, Ash supplemented her commissions by recruiting other sales women and letting them in on her sales secrets. The company was structured so recruiters received a share of the sales from people they brought on board. Not only was Ash well-connected, but she also had a knack for teaching sales skills, so her sales army grew to 150 successful women – all of whom were giving a portion of their commissions to Ash.
The head honchos at Stanley Home products recognized Ash's ability to forge business connections and determined that she would be more useful to the company if she moved to Dallas to develop the market there. For whatever reason, they also decided that Ash was no longer entitled to receive a portion of her Houston recruitees' commissions. Ash moved to Dallas and successfully cultivated a sales force. However, this policy coupled with being repeatedly passed over for promotions by men who were far less experienced than her led Ash to grow continuously frustrated with Stanley Home Products. She left the company in 1952 for World Gift Co., another direct sales firm.
Ash contributed to the success of World Gift Co. for 10 years, during which she helped the brand expand to 43 states and earned a seat on the company board of directors. Male members often failed to recognize her brilliance, reportedly dismissing her input by saying, “Oh, Mary. You're thinking just like a woman.” And, as history has a way of repeating itself, Ash was once again passed up for a promotion for someone with less experience – only this time she herself had trained the man in question. So, Ash bid adieu to World Gift Co. to in 1962 for an early retirement.
Not one for being idle, Ash quickly grew bored without employment and decided to write a guide to thriving in the corporate world as a woman. In doing so, she spent a lot of time considering an ideal business model to allow women to succeed. Instead of completing her manifesto, she decided to create the company she wished she had worked for.
Mary Kay Cosmetics was founded with $5,000, a recipe for skin softener and a sales force of nine women. Ash's second husband, who was dealing with the legal and financial aspects, tragically died a month before the company's official opening. Despite being advised to abandon the plan by her lawyer and accountant because the business was surely going to fail without the help of her husband, Ash stuck to her guns and Mary Kay Cosmetics opened on Sept. 12 of 1963.
Ash believed that Mary Kay products would essentially sell themselves as long as consultants were able to show women how well they worked, which is how the Mary Kay party was born. Aside from providing a quality product, Mary Kay Cosmetics also represents Ash's efforts to create a company that would honor its employees in the way she wished she had been recognized during her time in sales.
Mary Kay Cosmetics was founded on the idea that you should treat others as you want to be treated. Ash's catchphrases included, “At Mary Kay you are in business for yourself, but not by yourself” and “I created this company for you.” She believed that with support and encouragement, anyone could succeed. She also believed in rewarding good work. Achieving the status of “top performer” is incentivized with prizes of jewelry, luxury travel and, of course, the pink Cadillacs.
Unable to truly shine in the boys' club of corporate America, Ash built her own business empire that gave women the opportunity she had been looking for.
"I think the biggest legacy we are going to leave is a whole community of children who believe they can do anything in this world because they watched their mamas do it," said Ash.
Read about more women who are proving business is not just a man's world:
Dermalogica founder Jane Wurwand realized the value of having the support of fellow women when she started the skincare line 25 years ago. Now she's lending a hand to other entrepreneurial women across the globe.
Ever wonder how the work experience would be different if your firm were comprised of mostly women? Here we feature three woman-owned and operated companies in the advertising, legal and medical industries to examine just that.
After facing repeated discrimination, Julie Savitt and her husband decided to start their own trucking company. Despite various setbacks, both personal and professional, Savitt built a business that is fair and ethical.
Stephanie Proft is the assistant editor at Womenetics and a recent graduate of Georgia State University, majoring in print journalism and minoring in anthropology. She was born in Lichtenfels, Germany to a native mother and an American soldier. She has since lived happily in a variety of settings, including the Northwest and the Southeast. She is generally fascinated by culture and the way it shapes our experiences.