How Martha Matilda Harper seized opportunity

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June is graduation month and this year it coincides with a post-COVID-vaccination period offering us a sense of fresh opportunities. For many, it is becoming a time to reflect, and possibly reposition how to succeed in life and work.

A former Rochester business pioneer, Martha Matilda Harper, provides a contemporary framework for propelling one forward even though she lived years ago. Harper had been destined for poverty; she was a poor Canadian girl bound into servitude from the time she was seven for nearly 25 years. It was a time of severe limitations on women’s rights. 

Yet, while for many her opportunity to succeed would seem hopeless, she proved them wrong. She dreamed of an alternative life and then seized opportunity when her last Canadian employer bequeathed her the formula for his unique hair tonic. Fortunately for Rochester and herself, in 1882 she immigrated here, where she continued to work as a servant but simultaneously scoped out her plans to launch the community’s first beauty shop for women. Ultimately, with the help of former Congressman John Van Voorhis, Susan B. Anthony, and her employer, in 1888 she launched the Harper Method in the Powers Building. 

Harper facial

From this juncture, Harper succeeded by capitalizing on her assets. While everyone’s assets are different, Harper’s illustrate how they can be used to achieve one’s goals:

Expertise in pleasing. After 25 years of servitude, she was really good at pleasing folks. She turned that expertise into delighting the customer with her invention of the world’s first reclining shampoo chair. Since she was opening a new business concept, women’s beauty shops, she understood she had to ensure her customers did not get soap in their eyes or water over their precious clothes. To solve that need, she created a simple chair that went backward. It didn’t stop there; Harper had the sink cut out for the neck, so it was more comfortable. When she started her franchises, each franchise had to have the Harper “bowl” (the cutout sink) and reclining shampoo chair.

Martha Matilda Harper

Her long hair. Harper had beautiful hair and she cleverly used a photo of herself with her floor-length tresses to attract customers. She strategically placed that photo on the exterior of her shop door, intriguing folks to come in and discover her shop.

Chairs. To introduce Rochester to her new concept of women’s haircare, Harper invited the mothers bringing their children for music lessons next door to “rest their weary feet” in her shop while they waited. She offered them the chance to wait for the children sitting on her chairs, in her shop, which gave Harper an opportunity to introduce her services to them. Did it work!

Commitment. Bertha Palmer wanted Harper to open a shop in Chicago in time for the 1893 world’s fair. Harper insisted that Palmer obtain the written commitment of 25 of Palmer’s best friends to patronize the Harper shop. No market research was needed. Harper had her clientele assured.

Loyalty. As Harper was thinking through how she would expand her Harper shops, she decided to provide franchise opportunities only to poor women like herself. This was both a socially-conscious move, but also a brilliant move that ensured that her methods and policies would be adhered to. Her franchisees were so grateful to Harper that she could send them, as she did, around the world and they would promote her Harper shops to the letter. In a time of no computers, faxes or cellphones, it was a brilliant strategy.

Network. Rochester gave Harper key connections to Susan B. Anthony and other women’s suffrage supporters who delighted in Harper’s economic success. It also provided her with the Christian Science network, which spread the word of her success and her commitment to organic products.

Focus (niche marketing). Unlike others, Harper did not stray from her commitment to a belief that health was beauty. Her entire product line and patron approach was built around that principle. Organic products, healthy facials and hair stimulation all brought the inner beauty out of each patron.

Savvy. Having served wealthy people as a servant, Harper understood them and where they liked to shop. Her ability to choose sites for the Harper shops was impeccable.

Harper ended up with more than 500 shops worldwide, monied customers, and transformed former servants. Her story shows how it is possible to seize opportunity, identify and capitalize on one’s assets, and transform your life and the lives of others.

Jane Plitt is the author of a series of books about Martha Matilda Harper.

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