In the chauvinistic 1950s, when most women didn't work or were relegated to menial jobs, Brownie Wise built Tupperware into a multimillion-dollar business. In Tupperware!, a documentary that will appear on PBS this spring, Laurie Kahn-Leavitt assesses Wise's marketing genius -- and her shocking 1958 ouster. The filmmaker recently spoke to Inc. staff writer Nadine Heintz.
What was the secret to Wise's success?
Putting together a female sales force. Tupperware's inventor, Earl Silas Tupper, wasn't selling much until Brownie joined him and recruited the Tupperware salesladies, who felt like Brownie really cared about them. She had an amazing way of painting the possibilities for them and giving them confidence. As a result, some of them were selling millions of dollars worth of Tupperware every year.
But, as your film points out, Brownie Wise didn't want other women on the executive team. Why not?
Brownie's not a flawless amazing feminine hero. She's a complicated character. I think she liked being the queen bee surrounded by men. And she was also pragmatic. She knew bankers weren't going to loan to women, so she surrounded herself with guys.
Then, in 1958, Earl fired Brownie. Why?
I've heard about 40 explanations of why the relationship imploded. One of the big ones is that Brownie was in the press all the time. She was featured in Time, Life, and all the women's magazines. And she was the first woman on the cover of Business Week. In the beginning it was heady, fun. The company was growing by leaps and bounds. But eventually I think it really got under Earl's skin.
Did she keep some of the wealth she created?
No. Back then, things that are basic for women now weren't obvious. I don't think it occurred to her to ask for stock, for example. She had a generous salary, but her house, her car, and almost everything she owned was actually company property. So when Earl fired her, she didn't have anything.
Is there a happy ending to this story?
Well, it's a sad story for Brownie. She started four more house-party companies, but none of them took off, and she became very reclusive at the end of her life. But it's a triumphant story for the foot soldiers, the women who had dead-end lives, working in factories or on hardscrabble farms. Many who stuck with Tupperware went on to earn millions of dollars.