Though Martha Matilda Harper lived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, her path from servant girl at age seven to the creator of modern retail franchising and a pioneer in social entrepreneurship provides powerful lessons for all of us today, especially our young generations. As a grandma with three pre-kindergarten grandchildren, I think a lot about the future they will encounter. Will they feel all career choices are open to them or will they feel stuck based on their gender? Why is it that in a recent study six-year-old boys think men are “really, really smart” 65% of the time, but similarly aged girls only think that women are “really, really smart, 48% of the time? What steps can we take to open up perceptions and ambitions for all?
Children, like adults, are influenced by their environment and values that surround them. I can imagine the loneliness, grief, and panic that Martha experienced as a little girl, separated from her family and bound into a life of servitude. Yet, she survived, determined to find a way out to change her destiny. Twenty-five years later, after immigrating from Canada, Martha opened the first public beauty parlor for women in Rochester, NY with the support of other suffragists, society ladies, and good-hearted people. Her shop featured the world’s first reclining shampoo chair, which we still enjoy today. That was the beginnings of her business success, but the ultimate achievement came when Bertha Palmer convinced her to expand elsewhere and Martha used her Christian Science’s operation as her expansion model. What evolved was a strong headquarters in Rochester with five training schools that taught and enforced the Harper Method, along with proprietary organic products manufactured at Harper facilities. Martha did not call her model franchising (which comes from the French word meaning “to free from servitude”), but that is exactly what she did. She put poor women into ownership for the first 100 shops. Ultimately, there were 500 shops worldwide serving men and women, royalty, U.S. presidents and their families, and ordinary folk. Martha demonstrated that business could positively change poor people’s lives and benefit others at the same time. That was and remains a powerful win-win strategy, and poor women proved they could be successful entrepreneurs, too!
Martha’s story is one that can inspire the poorest of children to dare to dream about their futures. it encourages them to think about how they might create a business that helps both others and themselves. That is why I have written Martha’s Magical Hair, a picture book for young children to relish. I hope this vibrant, small book opens up possibilities for all children, regardless of gender. I invite you to share a copy with the special children in your lives