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Mary Kay Empowered Women Using a Bit of a Pyramid Scheme

I don’t know if you’ve seen the previews for the Melissa McCarthy movie The Boss yet, but there is a scene where she descends upon a golden phoenix to share her business secrets with a crowd of worshipful observers. I haven’t seen the movie yet — It might be fun! I like Melissa McCarthy! — but I can tell you the only person who pulled anything close to that off in real life is Mary Kay Ash. Just look at this picture of her with her giant head projected on a screen like Big Brother as she shares her wisdom with a theater full of presumably worshipful observers.


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The Texan trailblazer likely had a lot of wisdom to share. Like, for instance, knowing when to quit.

In 1939, when she was 20, Mary Kay began working for Stanley Home Products. Her job was to host parties that encouraged people to buy their items. She was fantastic at it — so good, in fact, that she was hired away by World Gifts in 1952. But, after 10 years working for them, Mary Kay noticed that, no matter how much she excelled at her job, men she had trained kept getting promoted to senior positions instead of her.

So she quit.

Image: Ron Bull/Getty Images

At the age of 45, she made a list of everything she thought companies she’d worked for had done well, and everything they’d done badly. She resolved to do everything on the first list, and nothing on the second.

And so, the idea for Mary Kay cosmetics was born. The notion was that women would buy cosmetics wholesale from the company, then set up parties where they’d encourage their friends to buy products or become representatives for the company themselves (if their friends became salespeople, the recruiter made a percentage off that friend’s sales.)

Colin McConnell/Getty

Image: Colin McConnell/Getty Images

By 1963 she’d invested $5,000 of her own money into purchasing the formula for various skin care lotions, and opened a small shop with nine employees. She claimed that, "Our company was begun with only one objective: that of giving women the chance to succeed, an opportunity that simply did not exist in the early '60s... I just couldn't believe that a woman's brain was worth 50 cents on the dollar. With all my heart I wanted to change that."

Does all this seem like a dilemma that we’re still facing in the modern world? Yes, of course it does. And not only did Mary Kay lean in, but she strove to create a company where all women could work comfortably. One appealing idea behind Mary Kay was that the women employed as salespeople could set their own hours, which made it ideal for working mothers who had children in schools. Selling a product designed for their female friends and accquaintances meant that they didn’t have to break into the old-boys club that existed in many professional environments in the 60’s. The notion was that it was a business by women, for women.

The idea that women’s hard work would be rewarded by the company in the form of prizes for high earners like pink Cadillacs and fur coats also resonated with many. At a time when women’s labor was often unappreciated, it must have been wonderful to feel that by working hard you’d be rewarded with something fun and glamorous.

The Mary Kay websites notes that Mary Kay Ash’s philosophy stemmed from the Golden Rule, and says, "She stressed the importance of recognizing the accomplishments of others. And she constantly encouraged both the corporate staff and the independent sales force to act as if each person they met was wearing a sign around his or her neck that read 'Make me feel important.'"

Image: Dick Loek/Getty Images

Being treated as though they were important is something that might have been lacking in the lives of the women Mary Kay appealed to.

All of this worked out magnificently for Mary Kay Ash. She went on to write numerous bestsellers, and live in a 30 room mansion largely decorated in pink. She befriended Liberace and they decorated their bathrooms identically. By the time she died in 1996 at 83, the Mary Kay company was valued at $1.6 billion.

Now did this idea work out perfectly for the people who actually work for Mary Kay?

Some of them, maybe! There remain, today, thousands of women who love the company and are dedicated to it. Some feel it has given them increased confidence, others a cool source of extra income. If Mary Kay Ash showed up, you can bet that she would still pack those stadiums.

However, plenty of other people today think that Mary Kay fits more on the second list of "things companies do wrong" than on that first list, despite the flexible hours.

Virginia Sole-Smith, the author of The Pink Pyramid Scheme: How Mary Kay cosmetics preys on desperate housewives, noted that some women have gone into massive debt trying to get their business running. She remarked in an interview, "Mary Kay wanted to say, 'Oh we offer tons of support for our women. We are there for them every step of the way. But if they're doing badly, it's not our fault. They're just independent business people.' And I don't think that works." Which sounds awful. At least, until you realize that we’re living in the age of the gig economy and companies like Uber will not even pretend that they’re there for their employees every step of the way.

Image: Colin McConnell/Getty Images

Oh, God, what a nightmare.

Still! I like to think that Mary Kay intended better when she began her enterprise. You can see her as a ruthless capitalist with hair like beautiful cotton candy, or you can see her as a woman who wanted to lay groundwork for other women to succeed. And you can always imagine her riding a giant golden phoenix on to a stage.

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