It may surprise you, though it shouldn’t, that the â€śfatherâ€ť of the $50 billion franchise business model was a woman. In addition, to perfecting the modern-day franchise, Martha Harper was also one of the worldâ€™s first social entrepreneurs, helping thousands of middle-class women create their own businesses and thus control their destinies.
Martha was born into an impoverished household in Ontario, Canada. Her parents rented her out as a domestic servant when she was seven years old, launching her career as a maid, which she pursued for the next 24-years.
One of her domestic duties was washing and cutting the hair of the affluent ladies of the household. An inquisitive child, Martha had the good fortune of working in the home of a kind-hearted physician. Although she had little formal education, the doctor indulged her curiosity, opened his library to her and taught her basic chemistry.
In 1888, at the age of 31, Martha abandoned her life as a maid and risked her life savings of $360 ($9,330, in 2018 dollars) to launch her revolutionary venture, a hair salon. Her Rochester, New York landlord initially refused to rent her a storefront, insisting that a man sign the lease. At that time, only 17% of the women in American had salaried jobs outside of the home and the number of female entrepreneurs was de minimis. Undeterred, Martha sued the landlord and won, opening â€śThe Harper Hair Parlor.â€ť
Although it sounds pedestrian today, a public hair salon in the late 1800â€™s was a scandalous affair. Affluent ladies didnâ€™t have their hair â€śdoneâ€ť in public and working-class women cut and styled their own hair. Not surprisingly, Marthaâ€™s innovative business initially floundered.
Fortuitously, her salon was adjacent to a music teacher. Even more fortunately, Rochester winters are bitter cold. Momâ€™s would drop off their children and then wait outside, until the lesson was completed. Seeing an opportunity, Martha invited the women in, initially just to sit, chat and warm up.
At first, the women were reticent to partake in Marthaâ€™s salon services, but over time, they became comfortable with Martha and agreed to have their hair washed and styled, in public! Martha quickly realized that a key aspect of her value proposition was providing a safe and comfortable space for women to gather and share their thoughts, outside the company of men. The genesis of the hair salon as the community hub for gossip and fellowship was born.