Tuesday, 05 March 2019
Female entrepreneurship might be on the rise – but it's no new phenomenon. The women taking the 21st-century business world by storm follow in the footsteps of pioneers past who made their names in enterprise despite the odds – and whose lessons for career women are as valuable today as they were during their lifetimes.
BROWNIE WISE (1913-1992): THE SINGLE MOTHER WHO TURNED “HOUSEWORK” ON ITS HEAD.
In the 1950s, Tupperware inventor Earl Tupper had a problem on his hands. He knew that his patent solved a huge problem for the millions of American housewives who covered plates of leftover food with shower caps. But he had no idea how to market his product to them effectively.
Step forward Brownie Wise, a divorced, single mother and “dazzling, intelligent and outgoing woman”, who believed that Tupperware could be more effectively sold at home parties than they could in department stores, allowing women to socialise, while receiving product demonstrations.
Her idea would create a source of income for thousands of stay-at-home mothers and housewives, for whom her business model doubled as a means to their liberation from “women’s work”.
“She was one of the most important businesswomen of the 20th century, the prototype for all these Facebook and Google women who are leaning in.”
Bob Kealing, Brownie Wise’s Biographer and Author of Tupperware Unsealed
When her “party plan” marketing system began to outsell stores, Earl Tupper employed Wise as Vice President, with an annual salary of $30,000 for running the sales division of Tupperware Home Parties, Inc.
Though she secretly lived in fear that her violent ex-husband would return to her life, Wise forged ahead fearlessly in her role, her charm, easy saleswomanship and likability making her, in 1954, the first woman to grace the cover of Business Week.The feature described her as “the key” to Tupper’s success and his organisation’s estimated $100million sales. Four years later, Wise was unceremoniously fired from her position with a severance package of one year’s salary.
The reason for the sacking was never clarified, but the press speculated that Tupper had become jealous of Wise’s popularity and no longer wanted her to be synonymous with his brand.
Her name was immediately removed from all company literature, and, soon after, Tupper sold his company for $16 million.
Its new owners continue to use the “social networking” model devised by Wise - as do many modern enterprises, including Avon and Ann Summers – with the company reporting in 2011 that a Tupperware party is held somewhere in the world every 1.7 seconds (up 0.6 seconds from a few years earlier).
As well as being a pioneer for new ways of selling and marketing, Wise was an early ambassador of inclusion:
"Brownie made it clear, if you're divorced, married, single, disabled, Asian, Hispanic, Jewish, Christian, it doesn't matter. Tupperware is an opportunity for you".
Documentary maker, Laurie Kahn, who directed the 2004 PBS short film Tupperware!
LYDIA PINKHAM (1819:1883): THE HERBALIST WHO WENT THE EXTRA MILE FOR HER CUSTOMERS
With no business experience to her name and a husband suffering ill-health following bankruptcy, it fell, in 1875, to Lydia Pinkham to support her family.
Up until then, frustrated with the lack of care and education surrounding women’s health, Pinkham had concocted herbal compounds for the relieving of menstrual pain and other feminine ailments, using knowledge distilled from her bible, The American Dispensary.
She shared her brews with grateful friends and neighbours. Until, her hand forced by her families’ ailing finances, she began to stockpile her tonics and sell them in the wider community for $1 a bottle and with would-be-famous slogans like “Only a woman can understand another woman’s ills”.
Before long, her production unit moved from kitchen stove to a large factory, from which Lydia E. Pinkham Medicine Company supplied women all over America with Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound - later one of the best-known patent medicines of the 19th century, grossing around $300,000 a year.
Lydia’s face and name are still stamped on the pills and liquids sold by Pinkham’s today, but her product wasn’t the only reason she won the hearts of women whose needs weren’t being met by the health profession.
On her bottles she encouraged letters from anyone who needed specific advice about their ailments – answering them all personally and at no cost, until they became – at around 100 per day - too many too manage alone.
It was then that she built Pinkham’s so-called Department of Advice, manned by a team of helpers, and whose letters eventually became the contents of a free book distributed to customers far and wide.This team, made up mostly of family members, continued to write back to confused and desperate women for many decades after Pinkham’s own death, and have been praised for their frank and forthright advice on subjects like menstruation and birth control, generally deemed taboo at that time.
ANNIE MALONE (1869-1957): THE BUSINESS BRAIN WHO NEVER STOPPED GROWING HER BRAND
Referred to as “The Oprah Winfrey of her day”, Malone, the daughter of slaves, came from humble beginnings and first experienced the working world as an apprentice hairdresser.
Inspired by the trend for black women to style their hair straight, but frustrated by the poor quality of products that enabled this, she set about designing a range that would give black women the look they aspired to, while caring for their hair and scalp.
Malone started by pushing her buggy of products around the streets of Illinois, knocking on doors. Before long she was training others to do that in her place, effectively establishing a franchise business which enabled upwards of 75,000 marginalised black women around the world to make a living.
She didn’t stop there, establishing beauty colleges and factories, patenting her product range, and effectively building the “Poro” brand into a multi-million dollar enterprise, with salons based in all major US cities, as well as in Canada, South America, Africa, the Caribbean and the Philippines.
Malone is recorded as the first black female millionaire in the United States, based on reports of $14 million in assets held in 1920 from her beauty and cosmetic enterprises.