Mary Kay Ash: The Face Behind the Empire

“Aerodynamically, the bumble bee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumble bee doesn’t know it so it goes on flying anyway.” 

Mary Kay Ash was the founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, Inc. in 1963 and The Mary Kay Foundation in 1996. Today, Mary Kay Cosmetics has over 3 million independent sales agents across 35 countries and is valued at around $2.6 billion. Mary Kay Ash is now recognized as America’s greatest woman entrepreneur, so what led her to say, “Aerodynamically, the bumble bee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumble bee doesn’t know it so it goes on flying anyway”?

You Can Do It

Well, Mary Kay Ash grew up with the responsibility of caring for her father who had tuberculosis. Her mother worked long hours to support the family and it fell on Mary Kay’s shoulders to look after her father at home. The tasks Mary Kay faced as a young girl were often daunting, but her mother would guide and encourage her by saying, “You can do it, Mary Kay. You can do it.”

She dreamed of becoming a doctor and her “you can do it” attitude saw her graduate from high school, but her parents couldn’t afford to send her to college. Mary Kay married at the age of 17 and had three children before her husband left to serve in World War II. During the war years’ she supported her family by selling books door-to-door, and then she and her husband divorced on his return in 1945.

A Man’s World

Mary Kay was hugely successful as a door-to-door salesperson and after her divorce she took a job with a direct sales firm. Her success soon found her head-hunted by another company and her marketing skills quickly put her into the role of national training director. But, after 25 years of hard work in the direct sales business, her success had yet to be acknowledged by her supervisors and Mary Kay left the company when one of the men she’d trained was promoted above her and given double her salary.

This was the 1960s and Mary Kay believed that she was living in a man’s world. After quitting her job, it became her intention to write a book that would help women to succeed in the workplace. She sat down to write out a list of everything she felt the companies she’d worked for got right and another that highlighted the areas where she felt there was room for improvement. However, it soon became clear that she’d inadvertently created a business plan for her dream company.

Beauty by Mary Kay

in 1963, at the age of 45, Mary Kay put her $5,000 of savings into turning her plan into her business – a business designed to help women achieve unlimited opportunities for personal and financial success. With the help of her son, she opened her first Beauty by Mary Kay store in Dallas and her dream began. In the male-dominated business world of the ‘60s, she was the bumble bee that shouldn’t be able to fly – but she went ahead and flew anyway.

With dedication, determination and hard work, Mary Kay turned her small business with a sales force of nine into one of America’s largest direct selling cosmetics companies with an independent sales force of millions. She did it with the “you can do it” attitude passed on to her by her mother and she said, “Sometimes I wonder if my mother was aware of the seeds she was planting in my life as a child and where they would take not only me, but thousands of other women. What she sent into my life I sent into others’. And they in turn have sent what they have into many lives as well.”

The Power of Praise

Mary Kay Ash built her business on her philosophy of “praising people to success” and her steadfast commitment to empowering women, inspiring them to believe that they too can “fly”. She believed that any company’s greatest asset is its people and that “a company is only as good as the people it keeps.” In our hectic business lives, we may sometimes forget the importance of praising hard work and effort and we’d all do well to remember her visionary approach: “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 sales, you will succeed in life.”  



Sam Walton: An American Dream

“If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.”

Sam Walton was an American businessman, entrepreneur, and the famous founder of WalMart and Sam’s Club. He opened his first WalMart store in 1962 and by the 1980s he was opening new stores at a rate of around 100 per year. In 1992, the year of his death, Sam Walton had a net worth of $25 billion and his outstanding achievements earned him the Medal of Freedom, presented by President George H. W. Bush. His approach to business mirrored his approach to life, and his story is testament to his belief that, “If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.”

Most Versatile Boy

Sam Walton grew up in the Great Depression and worked hard to help his family make ends meet. As a schoolboy, he milked the family cow and delivered the bottled milk to customers before delivering newspapers on a paper route. He was also a good student and high school athlete, being voted “Most Versatile Boy” at his graduation.

He went on to gain a bachelor’s degree in economics, but during his college years he continued to work hard doing a variety of odd jobs and waiting tables in exchange for food. On graduating from college, Sam stepped into a trainee management position at a J.C. Penney store where his boss became exasperated by his messy bookkeeping, questioning his suitability for retail work. However, the reason Sam fell behind with paperwork was that he never liked to keep a customer waiting – an early indication of his commitment to customer service and his salesmanship skills earned him an extra $25 per month on top of his $75 monthly pay.

In Business

At the age of 26 after World War II military service, Sam became the manager of his first store. With the money he’d saved and a loan from his father-in law, he bought a Ben Franklin franchise variety store and quickly became the leading store in a region spanning six states. His success caught the eye of his landlord who wanted to buy the business for his son, and when Sam refused to sell, the landlord simply chose not to renew his lease.

Some may have given up at this point, but Sam learned from the experience and moved on to look for new premises, this time with a 99 year lease. In 1950, he opened Walton’s Five & Dime in Bentonville, soon achieving the same level of success as his previous store, and by 1960, he owned a total of 15 stores.

New Strategy

Sam was working hard but the returns were failing to match his efforts so he chose to adopt a new strategy of discounting. At the time, discount stores were only found in larger cities so he chose to bring big stores with discounted prices across the range to small towns.

This was a big gamble and involved mortgaging his home, but Sam believed in himself and his belief allowed him to accomplish an amazing thing – the opening of his first Wal-Mart store in 1962.

High Expectations

Just as he had back in J.C. Penney as a trainee manager, Sam strived to keep exceptional customer service at the heart of his business. He worked hard, and he expected his employees to work hard, but he also knew that motivated, happy associates would lead to happy customers, saying, “Individual’s don’t win, teams do.”

He became one of the first in business to offer a profit-sharing plan with his employees, and he did so to demonstrate his respect for each of them at every level, and also to motivate and encourage them in their efforts to better themselves and the business. In his memoirs, he said, “It’s the single best thing we ever did,” adding weight to his belief that, “Outstanding leaders go out of their way to boost the self-esteem of their personnel. If people believe in themselves, it’s amazing what they can accomplish.”

The Bottom Line

For Sam Walton, the bottom line on his success was his continued appreciation of his workers. He said, “Nothing else can quite substitute for a few well-chosen, well-timed, sincere words of praise” – something everyone in business at every level would do well to remember.