essay by ROB BRINKLEY / photographs by MEI-CHUN JAU
Lipsticks the likes of Pink Shimmer, Pink Satin and Pink Chérie. Three billion dollars in global annual wholesale sales. A Dallas company that turns 50 this fall. From that opening day in 1963 — Beauty by Mary Kay, she called it, peddling cosmetics from a metal shelf in a little office space in a business park — to today’s 200-plus products sold in 35 countries, Mary Kathlyn Wagner from Hot Wells, Texas, kept her eye on the prize. (And not just her pink Cadillac, ordered for herself in 1968 as a rolling advertisement, which led to pink Cadillacs awarded to her five top performers in 1969.)
Mary Kay wanted — and got — it all. “Our company,” she once said, “was begun with only one objective: that of giving women the chance to succeed, an opportunity that simply did not exist in the early ’60s. I just couldn’t believe that a woman’s brain was worth fifty cents on the dollar.” And neither can the company’s 2.5 million sales consultants, led by a team that includes Mary Kay’s son (executive chairman Richard Rogers, who was at mom’s side on Day One), a Chief People Officer, a Supply Chain Officer and a Chief Scientific Officer, that last one packing a degree in nuclear medicine and a doctorate in radiation biology.
But their undying inspiration seems to be the woman herself, who, though she died in 2001, is forever immortalized. There is marykaytribute.com, with links to her awards, her charitable foundation and her quotes, divided into the subjects of attitude, business, faith, heritage, success and values. There is the Mary Kay Museum, in the lobby of the company’s 599,000-square-foot, glass-and-granite world headquarters in Addison. And there is Mary Kay’s office itself, there on the 13th floor — 13 was her lucky number — where they keep things exactly as they were when she ran her tight pink ship. Elsewhere in the building, the tasks of research, development and design almost never cease. Down the road, on Regal Row in Dallas, at the company’s gargantuan main manufacturing plant, foundations and creams are mixed in giant kettles, steel nozzles fill empty containers whizzing by on conveyor belts and, even though they are tightened by machine, perfume-bottle sprayers are gingerly placed by rubber-gloved human hand.
To the tune of $3 billion a year. For 50 years and counting. Not bad for a woman who blew her life savings — $5,000 — to sell five eye and lip colors, one blush, one mascara and an eyebrow-eyeliner pencil to other women who thought like she did. “Still,” she said, “there were many times when I failed, many times when I was disappointed. We didn’t set the world on fire from the first day: Disappointments, setbacks and work have created the company as it is today. I envisioned a company in which any woman could become just as successful as she wanted to be.” You go, girls.