Snippet of History's Women: 1st Women: Mary Kay Ash - Entrepreneur of Beauty

History's Women: Social Reformer: Mary Kay Ash - Entrepreneur of BeautyMary Kay Ash
Entrepreneur of Beauty
1918–2001 A.D.

Years ago when a woman worked in the business world she often encountered some unexplained but seemingly inevitable factors. One of these was that a woman usually made less money than men in the same occupation. Also, despite how skilled she became at her job, only rarely could she be sure of a promotion. In fact what usually happened was that a male employee—who our career woman might have trained—was promoted over his instructor. Such characteristics were just “accepted.”

Except for a Texas woman who after such an experience went on to establish her own firm that became worth millions. And in the process Mary Kay Ash helped her saleswomen to not only profit but enabled their customers to enjoy popular beauty products.

Mary Kathlyn Wagner was born near Houston, Texas in 1918, the daughter of a nurse and later restaurant manager. Mary attended local schools, graduated from high school in 1934 and then at age 17 married Ben Rogers and had three children.

Mary Kay—as she was known—early demonstrated a gift for sales when she sold books door to door when her husband served in World War II. However, in 1945 they were divorced.

She began her experience in home sales when before the war Mary Kay worked for Stanley Home Products, a company that sold their household supplies at home parties. She proved so successful there that in 1952 she was approached by another firm, World Gifts, to work for them.

Then after more than 10 years with this company she was a victim of the previously mentioned discrimination against women in business. For when she learned that a man she had trained, was to be promoted over her and receive a much higher salary, Mary Kay resigned in protest.

However, she had a change of focus when she decided to write a book to assist other women in business and created on paper her ideal company. She apparently then became so intrigued with this that she decided to apply her ideals to reality—with a beauty company. So in the summer of 1963 Mary Kay and her new husband George Hallenbeck began to make their plans.

Tragically though Mary Kay’s plan took off George was not there to participate since he died in September 1963. Mary Kay was just 45.

Then as she continued on her own, she heard of a local tanner who had his own formulas for softeners he applied to the hides he processed. These creams seemed promising as beauty products so after she purchased the formulas she developed them for female skin care. Then with funds from her older son, she began Mary Kay Cosmetics. Her younger son Richard served as manager, instead of her late husband as may have been a previous plan.

Known then as “Beauty by Mary Kay” the new firm operated from a 500 square feet storefront location, as they hired nine saleswomen. They used the “house party” procedure also utilized by other companies such as Stanley and Tupperware. A woman wanting to market Mary Kay’s products, would invite friends and neighbors over to her home for free facials, and take that chance to tell them about other beauty products. Then in a friendly setting—customers could order cosmetics, surrounded by friends—including the salesperson.

Also, Mary Kay Cosmetics offered incentive programs for her “consultants” as they were called. She did not have sales territories. The consultants purchased the products at wholesale prices, then sold them at a retail price to the customers. They could also earn commissions from new consultants they signed up.

To Mary Kay, the company theme was the Golden Rule—telling her associates to “treat others as you want to be treated.” Her motto was God first, family second and career third. According to her website, “For Mary Kay Ash, it was always mission possible. After experiencing inequality in the workplace, she knew she had to make a change, not only for herself but for all women. ……a groundbreaking businesswomen, Mary Kay Ash dedicated her life to empowering women and putting them in control of their own futures.”

Mary Kay’s company went public in 1968 and in 1985 became private again. Ms. Ash herself remained involved in the company, until she suffered a stroke in 2001. Her son Richard was named CEO in 2001. Mary Kay published her autobiography in 1994, and other books Miracles Happen and You Can Have it All in 1995. Her first book Mary Kay on People Management was published in 1984.

One source described her. “Mary Kay was a very visible, very active, and almost ridiculously feminine-looking role model: a God-fearing, hard-working, immaculately groomed mother of three who was doing everything within her power to see other women get ahead and who loved mentoring them so much that she referred to her saleswomen as her “daughters.”

Mary Kay Ash died in November, 2001, and at that time the company had 800,000 consultants in 37 countries with an annual sales of more than $200 million.


Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.

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