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Avon Founder David H. McConnell offered women a rarity in 19th century America: a chance at financial independence. In 1886, it was practically unheard of for a woman to run her own business. Only about 5 million women in the United States were working outside the home, let alone climbing the ranks of any corporate ladder. That number accounted for just 20% of all women.
On the heels of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, women were mainly confined to jobs in agriculture, domestic service and manufacturing, not exactly glamorous lines of work; the manufacturing sector, in particular, was notorious for its dangerous working conditions. On top of that, women’s wages across the board were a fraction of men’s.
For many women, McConnell would radically alter that scenario. The man behind the company for women was the son of Irish immigrants and grew up on a farm. Yet, it was this young man from rural New York, a visionary leader decades ahead of his time, who would become a pioneer in empowering women. McConnell, a bookseller-turned-perfume entrepreneur, would offer women the opportunity to create and manage their own businesses through what later became known as direct selling.
Origins of an Idea
In his travels as a book salesman, McConnell made two important discoveries. First, he quickly noticed that his female customers were far more interested in the free perfume samples he offered than they were in his books. He made these fragrances himself to serve as “door openers” when he traveled from home to home. Second, McConnell saw women struggling to make ends meet and recognized in many of them natural salespeople who would easily relate to other women and passionately market the products his new company would first sell — perfumes.
McConnell’s First Sales Representative
McConnell’s first recruit for Avon, then known as the California Perfume Company, was Mrs. P.F.E. Albee of New Hampshire. Not only did he provide Mrs. Albee and other early Representatives with an earnings opportunity when employment options for women were extremely limited, he fostered a supportive environment with a familial feel. (The company newsletter was even called the “Family Album.”) In one of his regular letters to Representatives, he wrote: “All success lies in one’s self and not in external conditions. … Misfortunes are only a discipline, and there are possibilities which often are awakened by them which suggest to us the power and strength we possess, that perhaps otherwise would never have been recognized.” No wonder the Representative ranks rose to 5,000 in just 13 short years.
Power of the Product and the People
To McConnell, the product and the people were everything to the company, and he dedicated himself to ensuring that both would be successful. In addition to inspiring the Representatives, McConnell also wanted to encourage the company’s employees with the same positive spirit. A century before it would become de rigueur for companies to institute employee incentive programs and hire hordes of consultants to make sure employees were happy, motivated and productive, McConnell knew just how to rally the troops. The motivational leader created a set of guiding principles that are still the heart and spirit of Avon today. They include:
- Providing an earnings opportunity so individuals can achieve financial independence and enjoy all that comes with such an accomplishment.
- Recognizing everyone’s unique contributions.
- Giving back to the communities Avon serves.
- Offering the highest-quality products with a guarantee of satisfaction.
- Maintaining and cherishing the “friendly spirit of Avon.”
McConnell believed strongly in the potential of people, and that in that potential lay the power of possibility and, eventually, success:
“If we stop and look over the past and then into the future, we can see that the possibilities are growing greater and greater every day; that we have scarcely begun to reach the proper results from the field we have before us.”
– David H. McConnell, Avon’s Founder