The Pink Queen Bee (1963)
The color pink brings to mind Barbie, Disney Princesses, Hello Kitty, and pussycat hats. Another pink lady, one who rolled in the green, was Mary Kay Ash.
The high priestess of cosmetics was born Mary Kathlyn Wagner in Hot Wells, Texas. As her mother, Lulu, worked around the clock as a waitress, from age seven, Mary Kay served as the caregiver of her father, bedridden with tuberculosis. At seventeen, Mary Kay married Ben Rogers, who played with a local band, The Hawaiian Strummers. Her world shattered when Rogers returned from World War II and asked for a divorce. He had been strumming more than his guitar.
As a single mother of three, Mary Kay worked at Stanley Home Products; she quit after twenty-five years because she was ineligible to climb the company ladder as a woman in a suit-and-tie world. At age forty-five, Mary Kay purchased a skin care formula for five hundred dollars developed by an Arkansas tanner, J. W. Heath, whose hands remained wrinkle free when he used the product. She invested her life savings of $5,000 into her company, Beauty by Mary Kay, established in a five hundred square foot Dallas storefront with a sales force that consisted of nine women. The packaging of all her products was pink and embossed with the name Mary Kay. Borrowing the concept of house parties from her years at Stanley, associates, (the name for her saleswomen), invited friends to their homes where they pitched their wholesale products at retail prices. The business’s guiding principle: God first, family second, career third. In an era where females could not obtain a home loan on their own, Mary Kay offered financial autonomy and self-esteem. A midcentury alchemist, she turned pink into gold. Within five years, the number of Mary Kay employees had grown to three thousand.
Understanding that showmanship was an entrepreneurial essential, in 1964, Mary Kay organized her first convention—what she termed a seminar—in a warehouse festooned with balloons and crepe paper. The hostess prepared chicken, jalapenos, and Jell-O that she served on paper plates to her two hundred strong team where tears predominated. By her side was husband number three, Melville Jerome Ash. Despite the drab association of his surname, they remained married until his passing.
In Mary Kay’s bag of marketing tips were incentives for her top sellers—“Cinderella gifts”— in galas that rivaled a Las Vegas extravaganza. Thousands of her sales force met to hear, cheer, and revere their guru. The crème de la crème of trophies was a pink Cadillac Coupe de Ville, a rolling company billboard. After the cosmetic empire branched out to other countries, Mary Kay gifted pink Toyotas in Japan, pink Fords in Argentina, pink Volkswagens in China, and pink Mercedes in Germany.
The founder of a billion-dollar empire built on rewards, recognition, and religion celebrated her success with a five million dollar, thirty-room pink palace in Old Preston Hollow, an upscale Dallas neighborhood. The over-the-top behemoth held a Grecian swimming pool; one of the eleven bathrooms was a duplicate of her friend’s, Liberace, whose centerpiece was a gigantic, pink marble bathtub. The garage housed her pink Cadillac.
An apt metaphor for Mary Kay Ash was one of the prizes she gave out on Award Night: a diamond studded broach in the shape of a bee. She explained the symbolism, “Aerodynamically the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly but the bumble-bee doesn’t know that so it goes on flying anyways.” In the annals of female entrepreneurs, Mary Kay left her mark as the pink Queen Bee.