Born in Hot Wells, Texas, in 1918, Mary Kay Ash was the youngest of four children. She was only two when her father developed tuberculosis, and the family moved to Houston. By the age of seven, Ash knew all about adult responsibility. Every day she hurried home from school to make dinner for her invalid father while her mother, an expert cook, ran a local restaurant to support the family. Ash also did the household chores while her mother worked. A competitive student, Ash chose to marry soon after high school. The marriage ended, however, after 11 years and three children.
Looking for a way to earn a living while remaining home with her children, she became a dealer for Stanley Products, a direct-sales party planning firm. After one year with the company, she was crowned Queen of Sales. In the 1950s, she became national training director for World Gift, another direct-sales firm.
In 1963, she retired from direct sales. She was happily remarried and looking forward to a more relaxed life. Before long, however, Ash realized that she did not enjoy being idle and developed a marketing plan for a new business.
Ash, who had been buying skin-care products from a local woman, thought that if they were marketed correctly, the products could be very successful. She invested her $5,000 savings in a direct-sales cosmetics company, buying formulas and having products professionally bottled and packaged. Her husband was to be in charge of administration, and she would head sales. A month before the business was to open, however, her husband died of a heart attack. "It was the darkest day of my life," Ash said. At the urging of her children, Ash continued with her business plan. Her 20-year-old son, Richard Rogers, was in charge of administration.
Mary Kay, Inc. has been listed among The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America several times. Of her success, Ash once said, "I believe that most successful people are ordinary people with extraordinary determination." She advised young people "to live a balanced life. Your priorities should be God first, family second, and career third."
Ash wrote three bestsellers; the last one, titled You Can Have It All, was published in 1995. After suffering a stroke in 1996, Ash could no longer continue as a motivational speaker to her 500,000-member sales force. She did, however, send written messages and attended all five divisional sales meetings in 1997. The Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation is devoted to funding research for cancers affecting women.
Of her Horatio Alger Award, Ash said, "It will always and forever be one of the achievements I am proudest of. To continue the dream in this way is a cause that I am proud to be associated with."