Annie Malone was a legend of her time. She was an innovator, a pioneer, entrepreneur and a philanthropist and the first female millionaire in the US in 1924, with net worth of $14 million. Annie built an empire of 75,000 sales agents globally and had established 32 beauty schools around the country. Most impressively, she did this during a time when women were only being grant the right to vote and African American women were not allowed to enter into the main distribution center. A visionary, Annie innovated products and built an empire based on a state of the art distribution and sales system, that would later inspire successful companies such as Mary Kay and Avon.
Born in 1869 in Metropolis, IL Annie was an orphan, who was raised by her sister, whose hair young Annie enjoyed styling and playing around with. Growing up, she could not finish high school due to frequent illness, despite that she was able to go on and turn her passion for hair to create one of the most successful companies. Seeing a market opportunity to produce hair products for African American women, who at the time did not have a product in the market that would straighten their hair without damage, Annie invented a product and a brush, both of which she patented to avoid imitations. She not only shaped the hair industry for African American women, but also to revolutionize sales and distribution strategy. At the time as an African American she was not allowed to enter into the traditional distribution system, to go around that she came up with a different idea to distribute her products that would driver her business to success. She and her associates sold product door-t0-door, often visiting churches and community centers to establish their brand and provide free instruction on how to use their products. Her success lied in not just going door-to-door but in the presentation and explanation of the products. The company’s success prompted Annie to establish her own beauty school, Poro University, which is a West African word for spiritual and physical growth. The university, took up a whole block in St. Luis, was a place which educated young women and offered them a chance for financial independence, during a time where few opportunities were available for women, and especially African American women who faced issues such as segregation.
Although Annie had a great success in her business, a documentary made about Annie’s mission emphasized that she wanted to make sure her community grew with her. Inherent to who she was her desire not only to better herself but better and develop others. A force for her community and at the time, she made sure that the roads were paved in her neighborhood, during a tornado Poro College was a rescue center for people that provided food, shelter and clothing, while working with the city to do so. Poro was not only her headquarters, rather it was a center for the social gathering for her community that had facilities such as a dining room, a chapel, a theatre, a roof garden, and a gym. It also housed classrooms, laboratories as well as the business center where all sales staff were taught. Although Annie was successful financially, she lived a simple life and gave away her wealth to others. She built an orphanage home, the St. Louis Colored YWCA, and served on its governing board and board of directors. She sponsored two African American students at every African American college in the country. She also donated money to establish a maternity ward for Barnes hospital, who at the time was segregated and did not have money for African American staff and patients. She gave the most generous gift to Howard University, at the time the largest gift donated by an African American, which built a medical school.
Her empire eventually came to a decline, but Annie’s legacy lives on inspiring others to dream big and most importantly give back to others. She is remembered in St. Luis for all of her contributions to the city, and most importantly she serves as a role model for aspiring entrepreneurs to give back to their community and share their wealth build communities for the great good of humanity!