Mary Kay Ash: The Technology Leader

Mary Kay Ash was known as an outstanding leader in the beauty industry and a founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics. She managed to change the position of women in the business of the 20th century and became a real role model for many of them. In addition, she successfully implemented her values among her employees and inspired many of them to appreciate family more than career. Her statements became famous all over the world and particularly highlighted the importance of women’s work. This paper illustrates her qualities of a leader and describes how she reached success in male’s business. Her unusual life and career path are described in the biographical part of the paper. Besides, her leadership abilities are demonstrated in various cases and analyzed regarding the type of leadership.

Mary Kay Ash (1918-2001), originally Mary Kathlyn Wagner, was born in Texas, USA (The Mark of a Leader, 2011). She is known as the founder of the beauty brand Mary Kay Cosmetics which grew into a worldwide company with thousands of employees. It is special not only because of the direct selling organization but also due to its women-centered policy. This extraordinary company and Mary Kay’s approach to managing the business made her famous as a leader. She was a pioneer of her era: she was the first to give such a great work opportunity to women who were disrespected as employees in the men’s world. As a result, nowadays her story is considered to be one of the most inspirational and outstanding in business, and her achievements have been acknowledged all over the world.

Biography. Key Events

Personal History

Mary Kay Ash had to adjust to the tough reality from her early age. While her mother was working 14 hours a day, the little girl had to take care of her ill father and run the household on her own (Shook, 2013). The only way of communication of Mary Kay with mother was the telephone. Her mother believed in daughter’s responsibility and perseverance. “No matter what challenge she faced, her mother would tell her “You can do it!” (The Mark of a Leader, 2011, n.p.). Such attitude had a significant effect on Mary Kay.

When other girls only started experiencing adult life after graduation from school, Mary Kay got married at the age of 17 and very soon became a mother of three children. Unfortunately, her husband demanded a divorce right after the war, and the young woman had to struggle with circumstances on her own. As she recalled those days later, she had been entirely morally destroyed (Shook, 2013). Another tragedy happened with her second marriage. Her husband died very soon after launching Mary Kay Cosmetics (O’Connor, 2010, p. 454). Such circumstances can throw anyone off his stride. However, there was no time for regret. Life made first grounds for the future leader.

As a person, Mary Kay was known as the heart and soul of every company and could charm any audience (Shook, 2013). Her team valued Ash for being open-minded, inventive and enthusiastic, and it affected the whole climate in the company, which was warm and supportive. Shook (2013) mentioned that Mary Kay Cosmetics was a solid team thanks to their boss, who managed to clearly share her ideas and goals with others. Ash was a talented speaker, and this feature combined with personal determination and powerful spirit made her management successful.

Key Moments in Career

According to Biggart (2014), “Mary Kay urges women to recognize that social realities such as divorce and the husbands’ early death can leave women financially and socially on their own” (p.95). Therefore, Mary Kay Ash moved to Dallas and began a career in sales. Otherwise, she would not be able to pay the bills and take care of children. Direct sales gave her an opportunity to combine work and motherhood. After a while, her determination and interpersonal skills paved her way to the top. She reached the position of the National Sales Director in a giftware company (The Mark of a Leader, 2011). Despite having little time she even started training other people in sales (Shook, 2013). Nevertheless, she didn’t feel satisfied with her job. Men’s dictatorship at the market of the 20th century was too remarkable, and Mary Kay constantly felt this disrespect from management. Gender discrimination impacted on her salary and almost no one ever appreciated her efforts and abilities at work. Hence, she quit the job in 1963 (O’Connor, 2010, p. 454).

Luckily for Mary Kay, her fate prepared her for future obstacles and step by step made her ready for managing a huge business. After putting a career on hold, she was eager to write a book which would help women to adapt in a male world. She wanted to remember the most challenging moments of her career and share her way of solving problems with other women. Although she was not planning to write a business plan, the first notes made her realize that she had a very good idea for building her own company. “A business in which working women could determine their own levels of advancement and compensation, be their own bosses, and set their own work schedules to leave time for their children” (The Mark of a Leader, 2011, n.p.).

Today, Mary Kay Cosmetics is an international business with a 2 billion dollar profit a year. According to O’Connor (2010), it started with only 5000 dollars of savings that Mary Kay courageously invested in her company at the beginning (p. 452). Now the company is not only a member of the beauty industry but also an employer brand. Though her corporate culture was extraordinary at the time, it changed the perception of women in the industry and improved their social statuses worldwide. Ash successfully managed the fast-growing company herself and remained in the position of the chairman till 1987. Besides, she made another contribution to the society a few years later. Thanks to the company, the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation was found in 1996, and until now it helps women to fight with cancer and encourages them to protest against violence (Mary Kay Foundation, n.d.).

Mary Kay Ash as a Leader

Leadership Philosophy

One might say that success is a matter of luck. In case of the founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, it is a result of will power and confidence that the world needs changes. Uneasy life journey turned Ash into inspiration for thousands of women, and her ideals and philosophy have completely changed the position of females in business and particularly in sales industry. The whole process of Ash’s growth as a leader is specified in “Heart & Soul: five American companies that are making the world a better place” by Robert Shook. The author focused on the story, standing behind the success, and the objective that Mary Kay Ash was pursuing throughout years. Also, he described how this woman leader managed to share and implement her core values in the minds of millions.

First of all, Ash always promoted the idea that God and family are more valuable than career. It turned into her motto, which was motivating the company’s employees for making the right choices for years. Charismatic Ash was convinced that financial state does not bring you as much happiness as being with your child, so she was actively spreading this idea among her sales managers (Biggart, 2014, p.78). Besides, she encouraged women working for her to get the approval from their partners, so that lives of their families were balanced (Biggart, 2014, p.78). Such attitude was admired by her people. Thus, they were carefully listening to every word of their management and were loyal and devoted members of their company’s community.

Another important goal for Ash was to serve the interests of her employees. It made her a role model in business back then. Corporate culture in 20th century was not focused on people, the one and only objective were profit and clients’ satisfaction. Nevertheless, as a true leader, Mary Kay could not put up with the trend and forced on her own approach. According to Biggart (2014), she was treating her people in a nurturing way and always cared about their health and personal situations (p.143). This approach was innovative and essential in the highly competitive sales industry, and support from the leader motivated people to achieve greater results. They highly appreciated such attitude and became real devotees of their boss.

According to Shook (2013), for the employees of Mary Kay Cosmetics “success is measured by the good they accomplish in the world.” In this case the good was in changing social statuses of women. Apparently, they successfully grasped the general values of their boss. The company made a huge impact on the perception of women at the market. Of course, men were allowed to work there, but women were warmly encouraged to join the team and become future professionals (O’Connor, 2010, p. 454). Such a change was necessary as it was the start of the long fight for gender equality at work. After years of mistreatment women deserved to be valued, to be highly praised by the society and to get equally paid for their work. Hence, they finally became valuable and started realizing the importance of their achievements.

The Leader’s Path

In the beginning, Ash managed to involve her son in business to help her with the administrative part (O’Connor, 2010, p. 454). Later, her other children also became her young partners. According to O’Connor (2010), the rapid growth of Mary Kay Cosmetics created a vast network of beauty consultants, working for Ash (p. 455). Her sterling principles contributed to the well-organized model of management, which eventually resulted in growing sales: “the company grew at an annual rate of 30 %, first appearing in the Fortune 500 in 1992” (O’Connor, 2010, p. 455).

However, Ash should not be considered as an ordinary lucky business-woman. She never minded a creative approach, so she suggested picking a color that would represent her brand in public and would always be associated with Mary Kay Cosmetics. As a result, pink became “the trademark” for her company (O’Connor, 2010, p. 455). The best employees could get a pink Cadillac as a reward for great service and high results in sales, so you could easily recognize them in the crowd.

Strengths and Vulnerabilities of Ash as a Leader

What was remarkable about Mary Kay was her ability to resist circumstances and dictate her own rules. The divorce, followed by the death of her second husband right after the foundation of Mary Kay Cosmetics didn’t stop her (O’Connor, 2010, p. 454). Instead, she put all her effort into future success of the company. Resilience against difficulties led her to the top. An average person might have put up with dreams and ambitions when facing a personal tragedy, but it was obviously not the case of Ash. She managed to become an example for others and inspire millions of her followers.

On the other hand, strong leadership can have a negative impact on the future of the company. According to Biggart (2014), enterprises which specialize in direct sales are very dependent on their leader (p. 143). It matters particularly if they are built on their founder’s charisma. The author explains that such organizations have to readjust their management in case of being left without an initial leader. These changes should be foreseen, and the following strategy is supposed to be prepared in advance.

Ash’s Type of Leadership

In terms of a kind of leadership Mary Kay Ash had, it seems to be more transformational than transactional. Charisma, innovative strategy and respect for the needs of her people made her the successful leader of a global company, and such a career is worth admiring. The nurturing way of treating employees, mentioned above, is somehow similar to parenthood. Avolio and Yammarino (2013) call it a factor of transformational type of leadership, with reference to other features like providing opportunities and supportive attitude (p. 245).

Besides, Ash was known as a leader, who managed to incorporate her values among employees in order to make a powerful team. According to O’Connor (2010), she started holding regular “seminars” for her people in 1964 (p. 455). The major goal of these events was to unite the employees and motivate them for better results with special rewards. For instance, her top sellers were driving pink Cadillacs (O’Connor, 2010, p. 455). It corresponds to the ideas expressed in the book of Avolio and Yammarino (2013), which referred such fosterage of team spirit to the typical transformational leader’s behavior (p. 91).

Cleavenger and Munyon (2013) also paid attention to the example of Mary Kay Ash (p. 354). They stressed her way of motivating every employee of the company by citing some of her statements that she used to inspire people. The primary concern for her was to let people understand and appreciate their significance, even if they were not from top-management. Ash believed that every person’s work is highly valuable for the company, and shared this position with her team. Moreover, the autonomy that she gave to the beauty consultants was another sign of estimation. Hence, Cleavenger and Munyon (2013) defined Ash’s type of leadership as transformational (p. 354).

To sum up, probably, Mary Kay Ash didn’t eliminate gender inequality in business completely. However, she was the one who began this process of recognition of females as decent members of society, who are capable of managing both leading roles at work and at home. Moreover, she proved that a traditionally male sales industry also has room for strong women with the pursuit of success. Such position led her company to the top, making it one of the most desirable employers at the market. Eventually, the example of Ash illustrates how successful the transformational type of leadership can be, and how one decisive woman can inspire millions.


Avolio, B. J., & Yammarino, F. J. (2013). Transformational and charismatic leadership: the road ahead. UK: Emerald group publishing.

Biggart, N. W. (2014). Charismatic capitalism: Direct selling organizations in America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Cleavenger, D. J., & Munyon, T. P. (2013). It’s how you frame it: transformational leadership and the meaning of work. Business Horizons, 56, 351-360.

O’Connor, K. (2010). Gender and women’s leadership: reference handbook., New York, NY: SAGE

Shook, R. (2013). Heart & Soul: five American companies that are making the world a better place. Dallas, TX: Ben Bella Books.

The Mark of a Leader. (2011). Mary Kay Ash –Praising women to success. Web.

Mary Kay Foundation. (n.d.). Our history. Web.

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