Women Who Mean Business – Now and Then
by Rebecca Now
Since the Women’s Journal encourages and supports women entrepreneurs, I thought it would be fun to examine two St. Louis women entrepreneurs from history, one in the 19th century and one in the 20th century, who both made a fortune and became philanthropists.
They were honored in 2014 as part of the 250-year celebration of St. Louis’s founding in 1754. Then, I will share about a local start-up business that celebrates women’s history with collectible trading cards.
First, Eliza Haycraft, a penniless and illiterate 20-year-old woman who was cast out of her home for allegedly being seduced, took a canoe and paddled into St. Louis in 1840. One can image her pulling up to the landing dock between all the paddlewheel steamboats. She had no connections and no education. Haycraft surveyed her possible employment opportunities for a woman in the early 19th century and decided, rather than become a domestic servant, she would work in a brothel. She later opened her own brothel and was a very successful Madame, and then she became the owner of five brothels. She invested her money in real estate, and became one of the richest women in St. Louis. She was a philanthropist and helped the poor and destitute. When she died in 1871, the local newspaper reported over 1,000 people, black and white, joined her funeral procession, many the recipients of her charity. She is buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery with the elites of the city, albeit in an unmarked grave.
Our second entrepreneur, Annie Malone, was born in 1869 in Metropolis, Illinois, the daughter of two former slaves. Her parents died young, and as an orphan, she moved to Peoria, Illinois, and lived with relatives. There she developed a fascination with hair care and styling, and became a self-taught chemist.
Malone became a multimillionaire African-American business woman by developing her own formulations for hair care and a unique sales system. Starting her business from scratch in 1900, by 1920 she was worth $14 million. She paid the most taxes of anyone in the state of Missouri and was the first African American to own a Rolls Royce. Her product line was called Poro, based on the West African word that means physical and spiritual growth. She was also a force behind community development, building Poro College in 1917, where she did agent training and manufactured her products. Poro agents sold the personal care products door to door. At one time, Malone had 75,000 agents selling Poro products worldwide. She gave money to all of the black colleges and gave the start up money for the St. Louis Colored Orphan’s Home, later named the Annie Malone Children’s Home.
Both St. Louis women, in two different centuries, made their mark despite a lack of education, connections, and opportunities. They both created their own opportunities, and then distinguished themselves by giving back to the needy and to the community.
I just became aware of a new business called Persistent Sisters. The company produces trading card decks that “celebrate women who have stood firm in the face of opposition, overcome obstacles and have gone on to make significant contributions to our shared history,” according to the company description. The trading cards recognize women from the early Greeks to the modern era including artists, activists, explorers, mathematicians, scientists, and writers. The business is a collaboration between Ellen Schaeffer, artist and Tamara Hoffbauer, designer. In addition to the cards, there are mugs and other items in development. According to Schaeffer, “I am hoping that, in addition to just developing a product, I can develop a community of women and girls that can share knowledge about women's history. I really want to find a way to connect girls both to their history, and to each other. The idea for the project was inspired by my son, an avid collector of sports trading cards. I thought about how great it would be if my twelve-year-old daughter had a similar community of collectors, but on the topic of women's history.”
Learn more at persistentsisters.com. This company also gives back to women’s organizations worldwide.
Can a company producing materials that celebrate women’s history be successful? Remember Women’s Equality Day is coming up August 26. Buy several decks today at www.persistentsisters.com and gift the women and young girls in your life with the stories of women’s triumphs.
Let’s Celebrate Our History!