now reading Meet Martha Matilda Harper, The Woman Who Pioneered International Franchising Back In 1891

Meet Martha Matilda Harper, The Woman Who Pioneered International Franchising Back In 1891

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How a poor Canadian house servant created an international franchise network, while her social entrepreneurial ethos paved the way for marginalized groups to succeed.

Today’s surge of women and immigrants entering the franchising world has its roots in the original creation of modern day retail franchising. Martha Matilda Harper, a poor Canadian servant woman bound into servitude for 25 years, dared to leave Canada for Rochester, NY, where she would go on to create a franchise network in 1891.

Ultimately, she would grow her concept into a 500-plus world network of Harper Method shops catering to healthy hair and skin care for men and women. British royalty and even George Bernard Shaw were part of her loyal clientele.

Several revealing factors link Harper’s efforts and success to today’s emergence of female and immigrant franchising ownership. They include :

• Limited options and financial resources
• The desire to break loose and prove one’s worth
• A structured system to succeed and compete
• Ability to delight customers
• Determination
• Loyalty

Unfortunately, Harper’s lessons had to be relearned because her success was buried until recently. All of us, especially women and immigrants, can learn from her strategic innovations.

Harper had few options when she launched her first hair parlor for women in 1888: she could remain a servant or she could empower herself – and ultimately others – by entering the business world. No attractive options existed. Running a boarding house, taking in washing, and working in a factory were no better than being a maid. Having overcome a horrid childhood of servitude from the time she was seven, Harper was well aware of the limited legal, social and educational options available to her as a poor woman. Instead, she pioneered a new option. She capitalized on her Rapunzel-like floor-length hair, the proprietary hair tonic formula she had been bequeathed, and her well-honed ability to please.

Her concept was a public hair parlor for women, which was a concept not heard of in the Victorian Age. To succeed, Harper realized she needed innovative an vision and creative marketing. She is credited with inventing the first reclining shampoo chair with a cutout sink that allowed customer’s necks to more comfortably rest. As a result, Harper assured her new customers a pleasurable experience. Instead of soap in their eyes, her customers were treated to a relaxing and memorable experience. Brilliantly, her efforts created buzz and attracted others to try the Harper concept.

When out-of-town women experienced the Harper Method, they wanted Harper shops in their communities. Bertha Palmer of the Palmer House fame was particularly demanding, insisting Harper locate a Harper shop in Chicago in time for the Columbian World Exposition there. That was when Harper was forced to come up with a doable business expansion model. Bank financing was out of the question, as was venture capital. Instead, Harper conceived franchising and simultaneously pioneered social entrepreneurship since she would only allow fellow poor women to own Harper franchises.

Having overcome a horrid childhood of servitude from the time she was seven, Harper was well aware of the limited legal, social and educational options available to her as a poor woman”

This assured Harper of both a positive way to change these women’s lives, which had been as miserable as hers, but also a way to assure their loyalty. In a time when there were no computers, Zoom meetings, faxes, or any form of instant communications, Harper created a world workforce that, once trained, would carry out her Method consistently. This thereby assured customers the high Harper standards would be maintained throughout the world. It also meant her franchisees – known as Harperites – would willingly go to wherever Harper assigned them.

Harper’s influence on franchising

Today, women and immigrants often find themselves seeking a career where they can financially succeed and not endure current pay disparities because of their gender or background. They may have family obligations and want a more flexible work environment. They have creative ideas and energy that are being ignored or stifled. Like Harper, they seek an entrepreneurial outlet.

Franchising, with its proven model of success, established branding, supportive environment, and even the possibility of building a business legacy is attracting immigrants and women in significant numbers. 41 per cent of new franchisees in the last two years are women. They account for nearly 30 per cent of franchise ownership with between nine-to-17 per cent co-owned by a woman. This is a big jump from the general business world when in 2007, 20 per cent were female-owned.

Looking at top leadership in the Fortune 500; 95 per cent of CEOs are men. Sue and Gemma Tumelty’s story of choosing a logo for The HR Depot, a new franchise, speaks to the fundamental belief in women’s potential. “It was the colors of the suffragettes, women’s equality and liberation,” says Gemma. “That’s very much the ethos that I’ve been brought up with: women can do anything men can do.”

Foreign-born citizens are creating businesses in record numbers. They make up about 14 per cent of the U.S. population, but 49 per cent of fastest-growing businesses have an immigrant co-founder/ owner. Often immigrants speak multiple languages, encouraging their brains to think creatively for multiple solutions. The success of EuroCarParts, which was launched by Ugandan refugee Sukhpal Singh Ahluwalia and sold for £280m in 2011, reflects the fundamentals of why women and immigrants are succeeding in franchising. Ahluwalia said: “When you’ve fled for your life across the world to be safe, I think you feel like you have a lot less to lose later in life, and maybe you don’t fear things in the same way as others. I learned from my mother and father that resilience and decision-making that it takes to survive in life-threatening situations gave me the tenacity, appetite and drive to make something of myself.”


Jane R. Plitt is a prize-winning businesswoman, and currently a visiting scholar/lecturer at the University of Rochester and biographer of Martha Matilda Harper. Her books include Martha Matilda Harper and the American Dream: How One Woman Changed the Face of Modern Business, Martha the Hairpreneur, and Martha’s Magical Hair.

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