In mid-January, Mary Barra became the CEO of General Motors. Educated as an engineer, Barra becomes the first female CEO of an automobile manufacturing company. In many ways, her new role has been made possible by the efforts of historical women who started companies, turned around companies, took companies out of bankruptcy, developed new business models and created new product lines. Let's take a little road trip through history.
Rebecca Webb Lukens took over a financially failing Pennsylvania iron mill in 1825 and turned around the finances and the business. Lukens was probably the first woman active in any heavy industry. Her legacy, Lukens Steel, continued in existence until 1997.
We move now from steel to business models. The concept of franchising was developed in 1891 by Martha Matilda Harper, an inductee into the National Women's Hall of Fame. Harper developed a haircare and skincare salon and then franchised her products and services to others who were trained in the Harper method. Harper was able to serve as her own advertising model with her floor-length hair. At one point, over 500 Harper salons existed in the U.S. and attracted a clientele with names familiar to the American public today.
Many of women's early businesses revolved around the products and services that they knew best including cosmetics, haircare and clothing. Lena Bryant was no exception. In 1904, Lena Bryant's name was misspelled on her bank loan application. She wanted to open a retail clothing store to sell her innovation -- commercial maternity clothes. At this time in our history, pregnant women didn't appear in public and maternity clothes were not commercially available. She tried to place advertisements in newspapers; but the advertisements were considered lewd. So, she started a mail order catalog business that by the 1950s was the sixth-largest mail order catalog business in the U.S. She also pioneered in fashion for full-figured women. She measured thousands of women who came into her store and determined the styles and sizes that would work for that demographic. Today, her legacy is still in existence -- Lane Bryant.
Like Martha Matilda Harper, Madam C.J. Walker achieved her business success with haircare and skincare. In the early 1900s, she was identified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the first female self-made millionaire in the U.S. She achieved this feat through the sales of her haircare products and cosmetics for African-American women. Walker had found the existing products too harsh for her skin and hair and developed her own. Then, she utilized a sales force of African-American women to sell the products. Her goal was helping her sales force achieve economic self-sufficiency at a time when job opportunities were limited for these women. Walker has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
The theme of achieving economic self-sufficiency is also one of the keys to the business established half a century later by Mary Kay Ash. Ash sat down at her kitchen table and put together the characteristics of a workplace where she would like to be employed. She realized that she had put together a business plan. With her son, in 1963, she founded Mary Kay. Today, Mary Kay products are sold all over the world and members of the Mary Kay sales force aspire to earn a pink Cadillac -- yes, a car, for sure, but more importantly, a symbol of economic success.
We moved from haircare and skincare to clothing and now to furniture. Rose Blumkin started a small furniture business in Omaha, Nebraska in 1937 with $500. Her business concept developed into buying in bulk and selling at a discount. Her motto, "Sell cheap and tell the truth," helped Nebraska Furniture Mart grow into a retail phenomenon. Warren Buffett bought Nebraska Furniture Mart in 1983 for $60 million, on a handshake deal with Rose Blumkin, without doing any due diligence. He knew "Mrs. B" and her children and believed in her business acumen.
Women continued to achieve firsts in a wide variety of businesses, even as late as 2014. Many women who provided a business road map are presented in the book Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America along with women whose achievements span every area of endeavor. I am proud to stand on the shoulders of all of these amazing and accomplished women.
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