With Thanks to Martha!

December 20, 2019

business history

As another holiday season approaches, I find myself reflecting on the chance clipping I found  that first introduced me to Martha Matilda Harper.  That clipping said Harper was the first woman member of the Rochester Chamber of Commerce, but when I called the Chamber, they had no clue who she was, but said, “Let us know when you find out about her.”  That, of course, annoyed me.  How could they not know about the first woman member, but then I looked at all the white haired male portraits on their walls.  They were not going to help me, but I was a businesswoman who wanted to be proud of the first female member of the Chamber where I headed its Small Business Council.

It took six years of determined effort, luck and the loyalty of Harper’s former employees, shop owners, and family members to piece her story together.  Harper had been famous.  She was recognized as the creator of modern retail franchising, the inventor of the reclining shampoo chair, and the pioneer of social entrepreneurship because she allowed only the first 100 of her 500 Harper shops to go to poor women.  Harper changed peoples’ lives and she delighted British royalty, George Bernard Shaw, U.S. Presidents and their families, luminaries like Danny Kaye and Helen Hayes, and  thousand of others as customers.

It has been twenty-five years since I first pursued her story.  Since then. I have written three books about her for all ages, (Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream: How One Woman Changed the Face of Modern Business  (an adult biography, Martha the Hairpreneur (co-written with Sally Valentine for young adults, and Martha’s Magical Hair (a young child’s board book), because I want to be sure everyone is inspired by this remarkable servant turned business empress who rescued herself and others,  That why I pursued her successful induction into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the American Business Hall of Fame, and gotten her recognized  by the International Franchise Association.

In this season of reflection and gratitude, I was recently asked why did I devote so much of my life to her and still do.  The answer is simple and complex.  Martha was a path blazer for businesswomen, for poor women, and she succeeded in spite of her horrible childhood, her 25 years of servitude .  Rochester, NY  was a game changer for her,  where Susan B. Anthony.  the suffrage movement,  and the extraordinary Rochester community leadership  all embraced her.  It was there she met Bertha Palmer, Chicago socialite and path blazer in her own right, who propelled Harper  to expand her shops and modern retail franchising was born.

Harper’s success should have made my success  as a woman and as a female entrepreneur easier, but it didn’t because Harper’s  achievements were buried history.  I and thousand of others had to break down walls of structural and legal discrimination in order to pursue our talents in school, in government, and in business and we still do.

Yet, I remain grateful to this petite, but determined lady who changed business, poor women’s lives, advocated for organic hair and skincare products and believed that health was beauty and each us simply needed her methods to bring  out our inner beauty .  Thank you, Martha.  May we never forget your lessons.and may your story inspire men and women, young and old, alike, to dare to dream, persevere, do good.


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