Turning Change into Dollar$

Martha Matilda Harper touched many people’s lives, including mine. While she and I were both entrepreneurs, she created a business that incorporated social change by purposely creating franchising and putting poor women into ownership roles. For me, my social change activities were separate from my business. As a result of discovering Harper and her innovative approach to business, I have become a passionate supporter of what today is being called capital social entrepreneurship, the combination of using business for social change objectives. The ultimate goal is win-win results, money and societal improvement.

This blog will spotlight for profit businesses and/or practices that have or could successfully launch this duality of purpose. I will report on their goals and achievements, along with programs designed to encourage such pursuit. Entrepreneurs, would-be entrepreneurs, students, nurses, musicians, doctors , lawyers, inventors, everyone is welcome to ponder how you might apply such practices. Guest blogs are welcome to encourage pursuit of these goals.

The Harper Method Jane R. Plitt 2011
Since Harper created modern retail franchising without naming it franchising, so, too she pioneered capital social entrepreneurship, but for her, it was simply the Harper way of doing business. Her story should motivate us all to dare to dream and dare to make those dreams come true.

Here is what she did.

Photo courtesy of Jane Plitt.

1. Determined To Change Her Destiny As A Servant
A servant from the time she was seven, until she was 31, Martha Matilda Harper worked for nearly 25 years and saved $360. With her lifetime savings, in 1888 she opened the first healthy hair and skincare salon in Rochester, NY. That same year, George Eastman, with $1 million in venture capital, launched the KODAK name and camera.

2. Hired Only Former Servant Girls to Staff Her Shop

Bertha Farquar was her first assistant.

Photo courtesy of Jane Plitt.

3. Created Franchising As A Means to Enrich Poor Women & Herself

In 1891, Harper decided on the franchising model as a way to expand her shops worldwide and to expand the economic options available to the poor women with whom she identified. In 1893, she sent Bertha Farquar, her trusted assistant, to Chicago to open a shop there. Bertha later wrote that she had never been two feet outside of the Rochester area, but she dutifully went off to Chicago because Martha sent her, and Martha had changed her life. Ultimately, at its peak, the Harper Method had 500 shops around the world and world famous customers including British royalty, US presidents, George Bernard Shaw, the Kennedy clan, Danny Kaye, Helen Hayes and, of course, thousands of others.

Photo courtesy of Jane Plitt.

According to The Toronto in 1914, “Desire for monopoly s entirely foreign to (Martha’s) character. It is a great happiness to her to have furnished so many women with a good employment, a good business into which they can put their own savings, and the profit of which is theirs…Truly, Miss Harper is a remarkable woman; and she add to modern business a grace, justice and freedom of her own.”

4. Changed the Options Available to Women As Business Owners Despite Social Mores.

Forbes magazine in 1935 did a three-part series on whether women were ready for the executive chair, and declared, No, women lacked the ability to run an industrial operation in competition with men. Specifically, it wrote, “Elizabeth Arden, [Helena Rubinstein], and her kind [Martha Matilda Harper], in other words are not professional women. They are women by professions. (They are) women engaged not in general business in competition with men but women engaged in the business exploitation of femininity—theirs or another’s.” Most telling Fortune would spotlight Colgate-Palmolive and Revlon, but the difference was men ran them.

Photo courtesy of Jane Plitt.

Harper ignored such bias and instead focused on her business — bringing the inner beauty out in all people through her organic products and “scientific” methods of massage and blood flow. As Harperites (Harper workers and owners) detailed what the Harper Method had enabled (i.e. a trip to Alaska, longed-for music lessons, a tour of Europe, a string of pink pearls), Harper in 1926 summed up what the impact of the Harper Method had been.

“The great Achievement of the Harper Method does consist of the large number of our shops – though the sun never sets on them. It is not counted by the daily dollars our cash registers’ records. It does not rest on the scientific perfection of our treatments and our formulae, or wholly in the service we give. The Great Achievement of the Harper Method is the women it has made.”

Quite the model for all of us to follow today!

Photos and text from the Harper biography Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream…How One Woman Changed the Face of Modern Business.

Share your comments and guest blogs! E-mail: marthamatildaharper@hotmail.com


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3 Comments on “Turning Change into Dollar$”

  1. Marge Says:

    Fabulous stuff here, Jane! Can’t wait to receive my book from Amazon. Sounds fascinating!


  2. Marg. Holderle Says:

    I understand she is buried in Rochester, NY. I think it is in Mt. Hope Cemetery where my mother is buried. Please let me know if that is the case.


    • Jane Plitt Says:

      Martha is actually buried in the Riverside Cemetery on Lake Ave., in Rochester, NY. She is listed as Mrs. Robert MacBain, unless the cemetery has updated their records. She died August, 1950!


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