As I reflect on the our world today and its incredible divisiveness, greed, and hatred, I find inspiration from those special people using business for social change, folks who are determined to apply good business thinking and practices in an effective way to make an economic difference in people’s lives. Surely Martha Matilda Harper was a path blazer in that effort.
Martha demonstrated that a lowly, destitute servant girl of 25 years could change her life and the lives of others by persistence, innovation, deep faith, and good fortune. As the creator of modern franchising, she purposely recruited other poor women like herself to both franchise owner positions, as well as employees. They were intensely loyal and followed her direction, thus assuring quality and delivery of great hair and skin care. Martha also enabled those ladies to have choice, whether to marry or not, to seek education for themselves and others, to purchase a necklace, to gift something.
However, she also teaches us that individual behavior and decision-making are powerful tools to transform lives. I spent six years combing through documents, interviewing Harperites, family and friends who had known her or benefitted from her touch. What was truly remarkable was how all spoke glowing of how kind and gentle she was. Her husband’s niece remembers how when she returned from town having purchasing a necklace with the dollar Martha had given to her, her mother told her it was a frivolous expenditure and took that necklace away from her. Martha instantly removed her necklace and placed it on her niece’s neck.
Once Martha started her business, she continued to protect her former employer from her alcoholic husband ; she even spent her first profits in bankrolling them, so that they did not lose their home.
As we pursue our dreams, our goals, perhaps we need to also take a lesson from Martha Mtilda Harper, that walking the talk, being kind and supportive is also part of being successful.