Texas make-up tycoon Mary Kay (Wagner) Ash (born ca. 1916) parlayed her early training in direct sales into a multi-million-dollar, Dallas-based cosmetics firm.
Although her choice of a cosmetics career was not unique, Mary Kay Ash proved incomparable at combining the skills she had acquired selling books door-to-door with her understanding of marketing to women. Successful beauty product entrepreneurs before her had proved this a lucrative field for women. A few, such as Madame C.J. Walker, Elizabeth Arden, and Helena Rubenstein, had "invented" a specialized product line and established highly effective sales networks. It was Mary Kay's reliance on women as in-home salespersons, her use of a signature color—pink—as part of the corporate identity, and her shrewd incorporation of premiums and incentives (such as pink Cadillacs and diamond jewelry) into company sales plans that brought her such astonishing financial success.
Clinging to the rather time-worn convention that "a lady never reveals her age," Ash withheld the exact year in which her May 12th birth occurred; it is estimated by those who have known her to be 1916. She was born to Edward and Lula Wagner in rural Hotwells, Texas, and proved to be an eager and dependable student throughout her school years. She was, as well, a mainstay of her family; after her mother left each day for work, Ash prepared her physically challenged father's meals. Her capabilities and intellect were not sufficient, however, to lift her out of the domestic sphere. Due to her family's limited resources Ash was unable to go to college, and at age 17 she married and would go on to have three children.
During an era when it was uncommon for married women with a family to work outside the home, Ash became an employee of Stanley Home Products, often conducting several demonstration "parties" each day at which she sold company products, mostly to homemakers much like herself. As did many parents, Ash sought to provide the best for her children, and she believed that the quickest way to do so was for her to excel at a job. Energetic and a quick learner, Ash found that direct sales suited her well. She rose at Stanley to unit manager, a post that she held from 1938 to 1952. Although she spent a year studying at the University of Houston, she gave up on academics to return to the stimulation of sales challenges.
Following a divorce from her husband soon after the close of World War II, Ash moved in 1952 from her job at Stanley Home Products to a similar sales slot at World Gift Company, where she remained for another 11 years. Throughout this time she was refining her theory of marketing and sales: provide a quality product, target that product at a specified market, and offer sales incentives not only to the sales force but to the customer as well. During her years at Stanley, Ash had developed effective techniques and strategies, and it was her belief that other women were able to do the same in selling. However, she had hit glass ceilings at both companies, and eventually quit, hoping to write a book about her techniques.
Instead, in 1963 she founded her own company, originally named "Beauty by Mary Kay," a venture based primarily on a special skin care cream to which she had purchased the manufacturing rights. Since Ash had endured several decades of gender discrimination in the predominately male world of commerce and industry, she was determined in her own firm to offer career opportunities to any woman who was willing to devote the energy and creativity required to sell Mary Kay cosmetics. Before long she had built an effective force of female sales representatives who—like their doggedly positive chief executive officer— were eager to prove they were capable of any job.
Ash's second husband had died in 1963, only weeks after her company was established. She relied heavily on her oldest son to guide and advise her throughout the startup phase of her cosmetics company; three years later she married Melville J. Ash and assumed the name that is so well-known today.
A relentless optimist with evangelical leanings, Ash published a carefully laundered autobiography in 1981; in 1984 she wrote Mary Kay on People Management, a volume that expanded on the now-familiar God-and-family theory of business success for women; and in 1995, she released another text on working women, Mary Kay— You Can Have It All. Among the tenets that she held as basic to her success was her idea that women needed to place "God first, family second, and career third."
Despite her conservative views, conventional approach to combining family and job responsibilities, and ultrafeminine appearance, Mary Kay Ash was a tough business person with a veteran's knowledge of marketing and sales. After her "semi-retirement" she served for a time at the Hastings Center, a think tank in Briarcliff Manor, New York.
Her predilection for flashy pink Cadillacs, gold-plated dinnerware, and layers of make-up aside, Ash helped innumerable women to careers and to the financial security that derives from earning one's own money. Though her personal views may not be typical of other women who have strived for their civil rights, Mary Kay nevertheless encouraged and empowered legions of women. Through her belief in women's abilities and her willingness to give them a chance, she made the dream of self-sufficiency a reality for hundreds of thousands of women worldwide.
Mary Kay Cosmetics now employs over 475,000 beauty consultants in over 25 countries throughout the world. Mary Kay Ash became involved in cancer research through fund raising after her husband, Mel, died of cancer in 1980. In 1993, she was honored with the dedication of the Mary Kay Ash Center for Cancer Immunotherapy Research at St. Paul Medical Center in Dallas. In 1996 a new foundation was started to research cancers which have historically affected women, the foundation was named the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation.
To date, her autobiography Mary Kay has sold over one million copies. In 1987 Ash became the chairman emeritus of Mary Kay Inc.
Further Reading on Mary Kay Wagner Ash
Mary Kay Ash published an autobiography, Mary Kay (1981), providing an overview of her personal life and career as a cosmetics entrepreneur. She followed this in 1984 with Mary Kay on People Management and in 1995 with Mary Kay— You Can Have It All. See also Contemporary Authors, Volume 112 (Detroit: Gale, 1985). She also has been profiled in magazines, including portraits, in People (July 29, 1985) and Fortune (September 20, 1993). Additional information can be obtained from the Mary Kay Inc. web site at http://www.marykay.com