She is the brains behind Tupperware parties and a pioneer of female entrepreneurship. Born in rural Georgia in 1913, Brownie Mae Humphrey was charming and goal-oriented with dreams of becoming a writer. She left school after eighth grade to work alongside her mother in the hat maker’s union.
In 1936 she met and married Robert Wise. They moved to Detroit, and she gave birth to a son. At home with a young child, Wise contributed fictional stories about her life to a local column under the pen name “Hibiscus.” IRL, her husband was a violent alcoholic. They divorced in 1942, and Wise got back to work, first in a clothing shop, then as a secretary while selling home-cleaning products on the side. She discovered Tupperware products in stores, realized that the double-seal lid needed demonstration, and saw dollar signs.
In 1950 she moved her mother and son to Florida and started a business called Patio Parties. Wise had Brooklyn bartender-level flourish at events, tossing bowls of juice to partygoers to prove the Tupperware’s grip. She used her love of storytelling to sell the fantasy and recruit other women seeking economic freedom after World War II. Eventually, Wise and her Patio Parties outsold the stores.
This caught the attention of struggling founder Earl Tupper, who asked Wise to be vice president. She took over sales and marketing in 1951, and the brand’s “home party plan” was born. Wise also created the Jubilee, a four-day conference with contests and entertainment for Tupperware’s diverse, all-women dealer force. A natural public speaker and motivator, she showered them with praise and rewarded top earners with luxury gifts. By 1954, Tupperware sales hit $25 million (over $250 million today).
Tupper hated the spotlight, and Wise was happy to be the face of the brand — she became the first woman to cover BusinessWeek — but they argued about strategies, and Tupper resented that people thought Wise was the reason for his success. He wanted to sell the company and ultimately decided it would be easier to unload without an outspoken woman in the mix. Wise was abruptly fired in 1958, with no contract or stock. She sued and was paid one year’s salary, worth $280,000 today. Tupper sold, divorced his wife, and moved to Costa Rica to avoid paying taxes. Classic!
After the Tupperware party ended, Wise co-founded multiple direct sales companies but never achieved the same success. She spent the rest of her life in Kissimmee, FL, as a clay and textile artist and died in 1992. Her time at the helm of a huge corporation was brief but game-changing, and she leaves a legacy of party plan-based brands adopting her formula to this day. Wise prevailed as an executive despite the odds against her as a divorced, single mother with little education. She paved the way by giving women the opportunity to find financial independence and a much-needed sense of community. Behind every great brand is a wise woman, and Brownie proved it.
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