Why you should care
Because billion-dollar empires don’t happen every day, particularly those started by a 45-year old Texas widow in 1963.
Even if you’ve never been invited to a “party,” you probably know the basics of the Mary Kay Way: the direct sale of cosmetics for women, by women, in living rooms and church basements across the country.
The job is easy enough: You buy the inventory “wholesale” from Mary Kay, try to sell it retail, set your own hours, enlist your friends, take a slice of their action, earn endless rewards, celebrate yourself at the annual Vegas gala and, if you’re good, receive a pink Cadillac just like the one once driven by the founder.
This is Scientology with better makeup.
She built a beauty empire on rewards, recognition and…pink.
As the company founded by Mary Kay celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, it has never been more celebrated or castigated. Some call it a pink pyramid scheme (most Pink Ladies throw in the towel and the $1,800 worth of startup inventory early on), but for millions of women across the globe, it’s a ladder of opportunity. But either way, there’s a certain amount of genius behind it: 50 years before women were allowed in combat, Mary Kay Ash of Hot Wells, Texas, put a battalion of them on the front lines.
A longtime Army wife, until her husband left her, the woman who would later become the “high priestess of pink” got her start in direct sales. For 25 years, she pawned books and housewares across Houston while raising three children. But by the late 1950s, she had smacked into the glass ceiling at the World Gift Corporation, and when she was passed over for further promotion in favor of a male colleague she had trained, she resigned in protest.
“I’ve been asked a number of times, ’How did you succeed so quickly?’” Mary Kay once remarked. “The answer is, I was middle-aged, had varicose veins and I didn’t have time to fool around.” Stranded, in her mid-40s, with only $5,000 in the bank and her 20-year old son, Richard, to help her, she launched Mary Kay Cosmetics in Dallas in 1963. When her second husband died one month before the launch, she persevered, and within two years, the company’s sales eclipsed $1 million.
Mary Kay Ash died in 2001, but her legacy lives on today, for good or for ill, in the lives of millions of women. Her company has revenues of $3 billion per year, and its sales force includes more than 2 million consultants in 34 countries.
Success for the future Fortune 500 company also followed a number of shrewd sales tactics. Mary Kay ditched fixed sales territories in favor of hijacking old-fashioned social networks, built nested sales levels that combined the carrot of would-be riches with the stick of prepurchased inventory, and inculcated loyalty through regular recognition and making reps feel part of something larger than themselves.
Individual success was actually an advertisement for the brand: in 1969, she began awarding the famed pink Cadillacs to her best sales directors, a practice that — tens of thousands of cars later — continues to this day. Similarly, the annual Mary Kay Seminar, which began in 1964 with Mary Kay herself catering chicken and Jell-O salad for 200 people in a Dallas warehouse, has blossomed into a Vegas pageant attended by everyone from housewives to Harvard Business School professors.
So, what do you think? Doesn’t your skin feel amazing?