Throughout history, millions of women have started businesses in the same place: their kitchen tables.
More than half a century before the COVID-19 pandemic normalized working from home, Lillian Vernon (1927-2015) launched what would eventually become a multi-million-dollar catalog business from the kitchen table of her modest home in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Her accomplishments as a pathbreaking entrepreneur were recently recognized with the installation of an exhibit: “Lillian Vernon, Kitchen Table Millionaire,” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
The exhibit centers on the bright yellow Formica kitchen table, where she famously launched her fledgling business in 1951. And while we celebrate Vernon’s 1987 achievement of having the first business founded by a woman to be publicly listed on the American Stock Exchange, the late date of this milestone piques a familiar chagrin for those focused on hastening the slow advance of women’s representation in leadership roles in business and beyond.
Vernon noted that only one woman was at the helm of a Fortune 500 company when she published her 1996 book, An Eye for Winners: How I Built One of America’s Greatest Direct-Mail Businesses. Almost 30 years later, just 41 companies, or 8 percent of those on the S&P 500, have women CEOs—only two of whom are Black women.
The exhibit’s opening panel, “Women’s Business: From Kitchen Table to C-Suite,” was convened on Oct. 17 by Anthea Hartig, herself the first woman director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and moderated by Symone Sanders-Townsend of MSNBC. The panel featured Lilo Allen and Tiffany Miller of the Bronzeville Collective in Milwaukee, Wis., and Della Stump of Designs by Della of Harden, Mont., in a conversation highlighting intersectional challenges and opportunities, particularly as shared by Black and Indigenous women in business.
The panel configuration was a nod to Vernon’s fellow honoree, “Byron Lewis, Ad King Extraordinaire,” whose French provincial desk and chair were also newly showcased in the “Consumer Era” (1940s–1970s) section of the Smithsonian’s American Enterprise exhibition. From that desk, Lewis ran his pioneering ad agency, UniWorld Group, founded in 1969, which “advanced the interests of Black consumers and promoted the work of Black artists, filmmakers, activists and politicians.”
Lewis’ desk was also an artifact of too-recent history when the idea that African Americans should be considered equal citizens, as well as equal consumers, was still contested by some. In making this point, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, who spoke before the panel, referenced the now well-established fact that historically underrepresented groups in the workforce at all levels build long-term economic competitiveness.
“Get to the numbers,” said moderator Sanders-Townsend. “It makes financial sense.”
The table is an evocative piece of material culture that speaks to female entrepreneurship and the ‘second shift,’ or running a business while simultaneously running a household.Kathleen Franz, project director for the “American Enterprise” exhibition
Diversity of representation brings in critical skills, ideas and perspectives that would otherwise be absent and provide key elements of winning financial strategies, as evidenced by Lewis’ and Vernon’s demonstrated market savvy and successes throughout their careers. Both created thriving enterprises credited to their own “persistence, creativity and drive” when women and Black-owned businesses were rare and faced substantial challenges, some of which are still palpable today.
Lilo Allen reported that they had all agreed backstage that their businesses had started at a kitchen table. Tiffany Miller joked that she had recently upgraded to a dining room table as her business, Fly Blooms, scaled up “from a side hustle to a business to a company” after she expanded to make masks during the pandemic.
Allen and Miller founded the Bronzeville Collective, which recently celebrated five years in business, to promote Black-owned businesses and create a space for them to thrive in Milwaukee, which Allen identified as one of the most segregated cities in the United States. By creating a resource for sharing business expenses, retail space and ideas, Allen and Miller enabled some otherwise threatened businesses to survive the pandemic with a prognosis for continued success.
It is important, Allen said, to “know your why” in business. For her, it is about a collective enterprise that “gives others opportunities” and a community that “takes care.”
“I have a collaborative versus a competitive mindset,” Miller said. “There is enough for all.”
Della Bighair-Stump of the Crow Tribe, whose work has been shown at Paris Fashion Week and displayed at the Smithsonian Museum, spoke of the connection between her art and entrepreneurship and the pride she felt in keeping alive traditions that she learned by watching her grandparents and mother bead and make headdresses at their kitchen table when she was a child. In developing her business, she quipped that her mother had been her “right-hand man.”
Collaboration and some form of social support can be essential for those from historically excluded groups who have faced persisting, systemic barriers to their inclusion in the market economy, among other historic hardships. Lillian Vernon fled Germany with her family in 1933 when Hitler became chancellor, eventually landing in New York City. Her father, whose successful business ventures throughout his lifetime were variously disrupted by Nazi takeover, a duplicitous business partner and the more everyday vicissitudes of business, was buoyed at times by the support of extended family.
Women’s labor force participation stood at 34 percent in 1950 (when it was 86 percent for men; now 58 and 68 percent, respectively), the year before Vernon determined to start her own business when she was newly married and pregnant with her first child. As she describes in An Eye for Winners, part autobiography, part how-to guide for other aspiring entrepreneurs, Vernon said she sought to augment the family income and fulfill an ambition that she initially kept hidden, even from herself.
Vernon’s eldest son, Fred Hochberg, who spoke at the reception in the American History Museum’s Presidential Reception Suite following the panel and was interviewed for this article, characterized his mother at that time as a “closet worker”—someone who could not openly be herself for fear of social shame—since a woman working was thought to signal that her husband couldn’t provide for her and was therefore taboo.
In those days, as Vernon herself told it in her book, “having a baby” was treated “like having a disease,” and there were no role models for women who wanted or needed to work. Vernon said that to the limited extent that they existed at all, businesswomen were considered “unfeminine” and seen as “intruders in a man’s world.”
Despite pushback from her husband and mother and being subjected to “a discouraging amount of condescension and patronizing behavior” from “entitled men,” Vernon persevered. Becoming an entrepreneur was a “plain case of common sense,” said Vernon. “I needed cash, and I had figured out a way to make money that fit my circumstances.”
With some wedding gift money and using her father’s leather goods business as a supplier for the monogrammed belts and bags she designed for her initial product line, she placed an ad in Seventeen Magazine. She saw her business take off from there.
In an era when women could not easily distinguish themselves outside of their homemaking roles, she intuited the appeal of gold monograms that could be worn as a mark of identity—first on the belt and matching handbag and eventually on a slew of affordable products: a “coffee cup, a garment bag, a doormat, a potholder, a purse“—even toothpicks. Personalized products were a signature trademark featured in the extensive catalog collection of her $300-million business.
At one point, one in four U.S. households received the Lillian Vernon catalog. Around 1990, her business success was securely established, and eventually thrice-married Vernon legally changed her name to that of her eponymous company, identifying herself fully with her brand. She chose the surname of the town where she founded her business—Mt. Vernon, N.Y.—and not the name of her father or husband.
Vernon’s catalog business was germinating at the same time as early credit cards—Diner’s Club and American Express first appeared in the 1950s—and, just as women were excluded from most avenues of commerce, it wasn’t until 1974 that women were allowed to apply for and own a credit card in their name, when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) was passed.
“For years, no one would extend me credit: I had to pay cash,” Vernon said of her early days in business, since bankers viewed women as poor risks and business was considered a man’s domain.
She understood the challenges women had about trying to earn a living or earn some extra cash, when they still had all the household chores and duties that men didn’t pick up.Lillian Vernon’s eldest son, Fred Hochberg
As discussed on the Smithsonian panel of current entrepreneurs, research shows that “significant barriers to funding” continue to exist for women, especially women of color,” exacerbated by negative bias, a lack of access to networks and a “history of social and racial inequalities—which organizations like the Bronzeville Collective and Women’s Entrepreneurial Opportunity Project are expressly designed to address.
Vernon pursued her path as a business entrepreneur with unquenchable drive despite the obstacles of her day. “Being an immigrant is what shaped me—striving to succeed and get ahead,” she said. Tied to her home by social strictures, she innovated an operation that freed her entrepreneurial spirit, employing other women.
“Work from home is how the company got founded,” Hochberg recalled. Before the days of online data entry, the Lillian Vernon company had a large crew of women who would “drop their kids off at school, come to the office, pick up orders in batches of 50, go home and use those electric typewriters. … to type the orders on optical character recognition sheets, drop them off at 3 o’clock, and then go pick up the kids at school and do the same thing each day.”
Vernon, said Hochberg, “understood the challenges women had about trying to earn a living or earn some extra cash, when they still had all the household chores and duties that men didn’t pick up.”
Lillian understood women both as part of the labor force and as consumers. In her product line, she knew that as women were newly entering the workforce, they would appreciate the convenience and time-saving aspect of catalog shopping, just as they benefitted from flexible work hours. In addition to these insights, Vernon proudly talked about being guided by her “golden gut”—her innate sense for a winning product or a good deal.
In the preamble to her business success story, Vernon said, “I want to repay what I consider to be my debt to a country that has rewarded me so generously.”
She was a devoted philanthropist who donated to over 500 charities, recognized with medals of honor from Ellis Island and the NAACP and a National Heroes Award from Big Brothers/Big Sisters. Her son Fred related that she gave to Meals on Wheels because she appreciated the pleasures of eating out, and established a Creative Writers House, graduate fellowship and distinguished writer-in-residence professorship at NYU due to her affinity for the written word, the university, and Fred’s partner, Tom Healy, who is a writer. In recognition of her broad philanthropic reach, the Women’s Enterprise Center created the Lillian Vernon Award to annually honor “a woman entrepreneur who has performed exceptional community service.“
Also, a generous campaign contributor, Vernon’s political clout and that of her co-honoree Byron Lewis were evident when House Speaker emerita Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) made appearances at the reception following the Smithsonian exhibit opening, each posing for pictures with the panelists—representing a new era of entrepreneurship for which Vernon and Lewis paved the way.
Vernon’s outsize financial success and renown as “catalogue queen” translated to affiliation with actual and metaphorical royalty—an invitation to Buckingham Palace, dinner with the queen, and the White House, where she slept in the Lincoln Bedroom. Vernon also served as the National Women’s Business Council chair during the Clinton administration.
Hochberg said his mother would surely have felt enormous pride being officially entered into the American historical record with the Smithsonian exhibit. Vernon, he said, felt gratitude for having been fully accepted as an American, despite her refugee roots, an acceptance the family believed no other country would have afforded them.
“The American dream does exist,” said Hochberg, who, after serving as long-time president and chief operating officer of the Lillian Vernon Corporation, went on to be chairman and president of the Export-Import Bank of the United States (EXIM), as well as acting administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration. “The challenge we have today is we want to make sure more people have access to it.”
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