Mary Kay Ash
Founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics Inc.
Founded: 1963

"Pretend that every single person you meet has a sign around his or her neck that says 'Make Me Feel Important.' Not only will you succeed in business, you will succeed in life."-Mary Kay Ash

Innovative, charismatic and contagiously optimistic, perhaps no woman has played a more important role in the advancement of women entrepreneurs than Mary Kay Ash. After experiencing firsthand the "glass ceiling" that kept many women from reaching top positions in the male-dominated corporate world, Ash envisioned a dream company where working mothers could determine their own levels of advancement and compensation, be their own bosses, and set work schedules that would still leave time for their children. The result of this vision was Mary Kay Cosmetics, a unique multilevel, direct-sales cosmetic firm that would provide hundreds of thousands of women with the opportunities Ash herself had been denied.

Like many business pioneers, Ash stumbled upon her entrepreneurial talents quite by accident. It happened in the latter half of the 1930s, when a door-to-door encyclopedia saleswoman struck a deal with Ash: If Ash could sell 10 sets of encyclopedias, the saleswoman would give her a set free of charge. Ash agreed and sold 10 sets in just a day and a half. This was a rather remarkable feat, considering 10 sets was the three-month quota for the company's most accomplished salespeople.

Believing she'd found her forte, Ash continued peddling encyclopedias part time and was soon earning enough money to help support her young family. Unfortunately, she also earned the wrath of many of her friends who accused her of selling them a product they didn't really need. Taking her customers' disdain to heart, Ash searched for a more useful product to sell. She turned to Stanley Home Products, a direct-sales company offering housewares and cleaning supplies.

Shortly after joining the company, Ash attended a convention at which Stanley's most successful saleswoman was crowned "Queen of Sales." Ever the competitor, Ash vowed that the next year she would be queen. To achieve her goal, she persuaded the reigning queen to hold a demonstration party, during which Ash transcribed her presentation word for word. True to her vow, the very next year Ash did indeed win the title.

A major turning point in Ash's life came when her husband returned home from World War II and ran off with another woman. With three children to support, Ash was forced to make Stanley Home Products her full-time career. But even though she quickly became a top sales producer, she watched in frustration as men who had less talent and knowledge were promoted ahead of her.

Fed up with being passed over, Ash joined the direct-sales firm World Gift Co. in 1952. Within 10 years, she had extended World Gift's distribution into 43 states and earned a position on the company's board of directors. But her suggestions were often dismissed by male members of the board with the comment, "Oh, Mary Kay, you're thinking just like woman"-a remark that never failed to enrage her. She finally quit in 1962, after a man she had trained was named her supervisor and given twice her salary.

Deciding to take an early retirement, Ash set out to write a guide to help other women avoid the pitfalls she'd faced in the male-dominated corporate world. She composed two lists. The first outlined her negative experiences. The second detailed the qualities she thought would constitute an ideal business-a "dream company" for working women with families that would 1) treat everyone equally, 2) base promotions on merit and 3) choose products based on their sales performance and marketability, rather than profitability. Looking over the second list, Ash realized she'd created a workable direct-sales company and thought, "Why am I theorizing about a dream company? Why don't I just start one?" And that's exactly what she did.

First she needed to find a product. It had to be something women could believe in, that they could recommend with all their hearts, and, most important, a product that could be used up and re-ordered over and over. But where would she find such a product? Ironically, it was already sitting atop her bedroom dresser.

For nearly 10 years, Ash had been buying a skin softener from the daughter of a local hide tanner who had concocted the cream from tanning solutions. With her $5,000 life savings, Ash bought the recipe for the skin softener, furnished a small storefront in Dallas, and hired a local manufacturer to create a line of skin-care products based on the hide tanner's formula.

While her second husband dealt with the legal and financial matters, Ash recruited a sales force of nine of her friends. But one month before the company was scheduled to open, disaster struck. Ash's husband died of a heart attack. Convinced that she could not succeed without her husband's help, Ash's lawyer and accountant urged her to abandon her plans. But like most great entrepreneurs, Ash, who was then in her mid-40s, ignored the advice of "the experts," and Mary Kay Cosmetics opened its doors September 13, 1963.

From its inception, it was unique among direct-sales businesses. Instead of using high-pressure sales pitches, Ash instructed her salespeople (whom she christened "consultants") to show women how they could use Mary Kay products to improve their appearance. Once women saw the results, the products would sell themselves. It was a technique Ash claims no company had ever tried before.

Within three and a half months, sales of Mary Kay products totaled $34,000, and by the end of the first year, that figure had risen to an amazing $198,000. A year later, sales had quadrupled to $800,000. By that time, Mary Kay Cosmetics' sales force had grown to more than 3,000 consultants.

Keenly aware that customers became suspicious when she touted her own wares, Ash gave up direct selling and concentrated on motivating her consultants. She instilled her own infectious enthusiasm in her workers through a litany of maxims such as:

"I created this company for you."
"At Mary Kay you are in business for yourself, but not by yourself."
"God didn't have time to make a nobody. As a result, you can have, or be, anything you want."
"Fake it till you make it."

She also began rewarding her top beauty consultants with diamond jewelry, five-star vacations and, of course, the pink Cadillacs. It was a powerful success strategy that made Mary Kay Ash a millionaire when she took the company public in 1968.

By 1983, Mary Kay's sales had risen to $324 million. But as the company grew, shareholders began to question the necessity of rewarding consultants with "those frivolous pink cars." Knowing "those frivolous pink cars" were the backbone of her motivational scheme and a national symbol for her company, Ash decided she didn't need public money enough to jeopardize the very foundation of her business. Although "the experts" warned against it, Ash rebuffed their advice once again and took the company private in 1985. It proved to be a smart move: In 1993, the firm broke the $1 billion mark and became the largest direct seller of skin-care products in the United States.

At present, there are more than 500,000 Mary Kay independent beauty consultants in 29 countries, generating more than $2 billion in sales per year. Even though Ash's son Richard Rogers now runs the company as chairman of the board, it is unlikely that Ash will ever retire from business completely. Today she serves as chair emeritus and is a nearly constant presence at the corporate headquarters.

When asked to name her greatest achievement, Mary Kay Ash proudly replies, "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."



Pretty In Pink.And White And Red
When you mention Mary Kay Cosmetics Inc., the first thing most people think of is the pink Cadillacs Mary Kay Ash rewards her top consultants with. First awarded more than 30 years ago in 1969, today there are approximately 9,000 women driving pink Mary Kay Cadillacs and other Mary Kay career cars (including white GMC Jimmys, pink Grand Prixs and red Grand Ams). Valued at more than $140 million, the Mary Kay fleet is the largest commercial fleet of General Motors passenger cars in the world.

More Than Skin Deep

  • In 1989, Mary Kay Cosmetics Inc. became one of the first in the cosmetics industry to cease animal testing.
  • Mary Kay is the only company to be featured three times in Fortune magazine's "The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America."
  • Mary Kay Ash is the only woman business leader profiled in the book Forbes Greatest Business Stories of All Time.