A Fresh Face in the World: Mary Kay Ash is Born

“Most people live and die with their music still unplayed,” Mary Kay Ash once said. “They never dare to try.” Ash was not one of those people. Raised in a time when few women were in business, let alone successful in business, Ash broke down barriers on her rise up to creating a multi-billion dollar operation. Today, Mary Kay Cosmetics Inc. continues to be a leader in the industry, with outlets in over 30 countries that are staffed by 1.6 million employees.

Born on May 12, 1918 in Hot Wells, Texas, Mary Kay Ash’s carefree childhood was short lived. Her parents operated a hotel and restaurant so popular that people would often come from Houston – over 25 miles away – to visit. However, when Ash was just seven years old, her father became seriously ill with tuberculosis and was forced to move into a sanatorium. Ash’s mother sold the hotel and restaurant and moved her family to Houston, where she opened a small café. Here, Ash was kept busy with the cleaning and cooking.

Ash was a fiercely competitive girl in school, attributing it to a rivalry with a girl who lived next door who, “had everything I wanted to have and did everything I wanted do to,” said Ash. Soon, Ash was bringing home straight A’s, winning typing contests and ranking in the top three at state improvisational speaking contests. “My mother’s words became the theme of my childhood,” said Ash. “They have stayed with me all my life: ‘You can do it.’”

After graduating from Houston’s Reagan High School, Ash had wanted to enroll in Rice Institute. However, for financial reasons, Ash was forced to give up on her dream of going to college. She soon married Ben Rogers, a musician with whom she would come to have three children. After eleven years of marriage, Rogers was drafted during World War II and would file for divorce from Ash while away on duty. “It was the lowest point in my life,” she later recalled. “I felt like a complete failure as a woman.”

Ash was now left to take care of her three children on her own. She began taking premed courses at the University of Houston, while also working part time as a secretary at the Tabernacle Baptist Church and as a sales representative for Stanley Home Products (SHP). SHP used home demonstrations and independent contractors to sell its merchandise. Soon, Ash made the decision to work for SHP full time, but success would come slowly to her.

With no sales experience, Ash’s profits were initially barely enough to support her family. However, a regional sales convention in Dallas would change everything. Here, in addition to learning more about sales techniques, Ash became fascinated with the convention’s annual crowning of a ‘sales queen’. Ash wanted to be the next sales queen. When she returned to Houston, Ash told the company’s president about her goal. “He took my hand in both of his, looked me square in the eye and after a moment said, ‘Somehow I think you will’,” Ash recalled. “Those five words changed my life.”

At the next year’s Dallas convention, Ash was indeed crowned ‘sales queen’. Nevertheless, it was precisely Ash’s success that would soon lead to her undoing.

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