How Mary Kay (Yes, She’s a Real Person) Ended Up Running One of the Most Successful American Beauty Brands of All Time
Q: How did a woman who graduated high school smack in the midst of the Great Depression — and who was left the single mother of three after a painful divorce — end up founding and running one of the most successful American beauty brands of all time?
A: Like a boss.
Chances are, you’ve either attended or at least been invited to a Mary Kay party at some point in your life — and if you’re lucky, you’ve spotted one of the iconic Mary Kay pink Cadillacs on the highway. Many people simply know the brand as a beauty company with a sales strategy similar to Avon, but what isn’t as well known is that the real Mary Kay Ash was a gutsy trailblazer and a business visionary. Oh, and her hair. Her hair was amazing (she was from Texas, after all!).
The woman who would be known as the High Priestess of Pink wasn’t handed anything on a silver platter. At age seven, she started caring for her ailing father who suffered from tuberculosis, and just ten years later, at age 17, she married her first husband. His name was Ben and he was in a band called Hawaiian Strummers. Sadly, though, that awesome band name was pretty much all he had going for him, and after his return from World War II, the two divorced — an event she reportedly said was the lowest point in her life.
The newly single mom of three didn’t have time to wallow, though. Instead, she set off to work, getting direct marketing job after direct marketing job. In 1963, after 25 years in the business, she was yet again passed up for a promotion in favor of a guy she’d actually trained (note that Don denied Peggy a well-deserved promotion in Mad Men’s Season 3, which was set in the same year), she quit and decided to start her own company — the Mary Kay you know today.
With just $5,000, some help from her financial-advisor son, and a staff of nine sales consultants, she launched her company with the idea that women shouldn’t have to rely on their husband’s money, and that employees’ efforts should be justly rewarded and appreciated (eventually that led to the cars and other major incentives the company has become famous for). One year later, she hosted her first company seminar, making chicken and Jell-O salad for the 200 attendees herself.
I’m sure there were those at the time who gossiped behind her back, thought she was throwing away her savings, and generally thought it was foolish for a woman to try to start her own company — in fact, it’s reported that her lawyers were against the whole idea of her doing it on her own — but within two years of launch, Mary Kay had reached nearly $1 million in wholesale sales. The woman behind it all passed away in 2001, but her namesake company lives on, and has more recently been valued at over $1 billion.