From its first pink palette to today’s sophisticated skincare, Mary Kay is an iconic American brand. Ryan Rogers, CEO and grandson of Mary Kay Ash, celebrates the ongoing legacy of the company’s trailblazing founder and casts his vision for the next 60 years.
In the 1960s and beyond, seeing a Coupe de Ville the color of lipstick—which General Motors later named Mary Kay Pink Pearl—was like spotting a symbol of financial freedom and entrepreneurship in the wild. These eye-catching cars have become an American icon, much like the founder of Mary Kay Inc. herself.
Mary Kay Ash, along with her children Ben, Marilyn and Richard, founded her namesake company in 1963 with the goal of designing an opportunity that could change the future for women. Since then, the company has undergone a number of pivots and innovations, but has steadfastly held to the original vision Mary Kay laid out when she built the family company with her own life savings.
The Early Years
Beauty by Mary Kay, as it was originally named, was a scrappy, no-frills operation that required long hours and a family effort to get the business off the ground. And while every startup has challenges, growing a startup in the 1960s had its own set of peculiar barriers—particularly if you were a woman.
“As a woman, it was difficult for her to raise capital,” said Ryan Rogers, Mary Kay Chief Executive Officer and the grandson of Mary Kay Ash. “Even after she found success, when she was ready to buy her first luxury car, she was told to bring her husband back to close the deal.”
That car dealership experience was a defining moment for Mary Kay. She left and decided on Cadillac, in part because they agreed to paint her car to match her makeup compact, but also because the new car dealership treated her with respect. It was an experience that would shape the company’s approach to customer service—and a guidepost to follow when the company went public five years after launch.
“Mary Kay did not like making business decisions based on quarterly earnings reports and the whims of investors,” Rogers said. “She always said that P & L should stand for ‘people and love and not profit and loss.’”
A leveraged buyout in 1985 allowed her to buy the shares back and return the company to private, family ownership—a decision that remains in effect today.
Mary Kay was operating in an era of business dominated by men, but she pushed against the limitations that society wanted to place on her. She leaned into becoming a good listener and motivator for her team and developed new ways to empower sales leaders. At her annual recognition events, which she called Seminars, she presented women with luxury rewards that honored their efforts in tangible ways. Incentive trips and glamorous prizes are now commonplace among direct selling companies, but half a century ago, recognition of that type wasn’t the norm. She was a trailblazer, forging a path that other women business leaders could follow and revolutionizing the recognition structure of the industry.
“When Mary Kay herself first became a direct seller for an encyclopedia company, her first sales prize was a fishing pole and that solidified the importance of recognition in business,” Rogers said. “It’s not uncommon to see successful women in sales, business or entrepreneurship today. However when Mary Kay Ash was starting her business, it was extraordinarily unique.”
The pink car was a symbol: Mary Kay Ash was breaking through the glass ceiling on her own terms. And she wanted to empower women entrepreneurs to drive their path to success.
Taking Mary Kay Global
That first pink palette, with five eye and lip colors, blush, mascara and an eyebrow and eyeliner pencil, evolved to include a wide array of cosmetics and skin care. Along the way, the company expanded internationally into markets in Latin America, Europe and Asia-Pacific, embracing global growth to present its products and business opportunities to new customers around the world. Each audience required a personalized model, and Mary Kay Inc. focused on manufacturing its own products to ensure the quality was consistent for each market.
“We have thrived by using a customized approach to creating and selling what women want in various parts of the world,” Rogers said. “Our hyperfocus on technology and the development of apps and sales tools that make it easier for our sales force to manage their businesses has also been critical. Every day, we build on the solid foundation Mary Kay provided and focus diligently on our sales force and customer experience to ensure it is always classy and excellent—a true representation of our founder.”
The Next 60
Like Mary Kay Ash, the Mary Kay brand is a pioneer in its own right. The company implemented an eight-story completely automated storage and retrieval facility, earned a Guinness World Record title for “Largest Makeup Painting” and was one of the first companies on the New York Stock Exchange to be chaired by a woman. At the turn of the millennium, the brand leaned into online business building tools and education and has continued to pursue cutting-edge technology to advance the communities and opportunities within Mary Kay.
“I want Mary Kay to be a company that remains loyal to my grandmother’s values while maintaining excellence in our product offering, speed to market, technology and availability in more markets around the world,” Rogers said. “As glorious as the last 60 years have been, I believe our brightest days are ahead.”
The Mary Kay way is to put people first—or, as Mary Kay Ash was known to say—“Pretend every person you meet has a sign around their neck that says, ‘Make me feel important.’” It’s a quote that runs through Rogers’ mind often as he leads his grandmother’s legacy into the future. He, like the countless number of independent sales consultants, customers and employees that Mary Kay Ash impacted in her lifetime, has experienced firsthand the lasting effect of her kind and warmhearted style of leadership.
“One of my fondest memories is of the inscription she wrote to me in one of her books,” Rogers said. “She said that someday I would run her company. And here I am. I plan to make her proud.”
An Enduring Legacy
We asked several female leaders of direct selling companies to share how Mary Kay Ash inspired and empowered them to build their companies.
“I have so much gratitude and respect for her vision, passion and belief system. She is the ultimate testament that when your intentions are built on an authentic desire to transform lives, the impact you’re capable of having is beyond measure.” —Ashlee Headlee / Awakend Founder & Chief Program Officer
“Mary Kay Ash has been one of my greatest inspirations, especially as a former top-earning field leader who has transitioned into an ownership role. Her powerful legacy is still impacting the direct selling industry and lives on through those of us proud and honored to follow in her footsteps.” —Danelle Meoli / Awakend Founder & Chief Sales Officer
“Mary Kay Ash was an industry trailblazer, audaciously breaking barriers in a world dominated by male CEOs. Her relentless commitment to female empowerment and her forward-thinking profoundly impacted our landscape, paving the path for companies like BELLAME and female CEOs like me.” —Melissa Thompson / BELLAME Founder & CEO
“Mary Kay Ash was not only a trailblazer for female financial empowerment, but for building women’s confidence through beauty and how we treat each other. At LimeLife we borrowed her concept of the ‘invisible sign’ around everyone’s neck that says ‘make me feel important.’” —Madison Mallardi / CEO LimeLife by Alcone
“Mary Kay Ash blazed a trail for women to be entrepreneurs long before this was a well-accepted idea. She certainly put direct sales on the map as a viable option for women around the world, and she did it with her own unique style and flair that will not be forgotten!” —Amber Olson Rourke / Neora Co-Founder & Chief Sales & Marketing Officer
“Olbali strives to be as iconic, elegant and legendary as Mary Kay. Mary Kay has shown me that I do not have to compromise my brand in order to be successful. Thanks to Mary Kay, I have the courage to make Olbali bold and beautiful.” —Courtney Adeleye / Olbali Founder & CEO
“Mary Kay Ash founded her company because she was passed over for a promotion in favor of a man. From that moment, she knew that she wanted to empower other women and did it in a unique way. Qyral’s consultants are doing something new and different, like Mary Kay consultants did decades ago.” —Hanieh Sigari / Qyral Founder & CEO
From the September 2023 issue of Direct Selling News magazine.