As you probably have heard by now, March is designated by Presidential Proclamation as “Women’s History Month” and is set aside to honor women’s contributions to American history. You all know how I like my honorary months.
I cannot think of many women more deserving of remembrance than Cosmetic Specialty Labs founder and my grandmother, Edna M. Hennessee. Born March 24, 1919, in Ryan, Oklahoma, Edna attended Union High School, where she was named Valedictorian for the Class of 1937. Edna had suffered from acne in high school, but after graduation, she was given a gift of Merle Norman products, which cleared her troubled skin. That gift planted a seed that would change the course of her life.
In 1939, Edna married and moved to Lawton, Oklahoma, where she saw an opportunity to open her own skincare studio, as none other existed. However, when she contacted the Merle Norman headquarters in Santa Monica, California, she was told she would be required to purchase $1,000 worth of merchandise to join the business. Unfortunately, she didn’t have $1,000, but she had a washing machine, so Edna started taking in laundry, and soon she had saved $300 towards her dream of starting a Merle Norman studio in Lawton, Oklahoma.
Edna again tried negotiating with Merle Norman for a studio in Lawton, but she wouldn’t budge. But Edna would not take no for an answer and continued to try to convince the company to give her a chance. And then, one day, she got in touch with Merle Norman’s nephew, and he gave her the opportunity she had been working for. If you are reading this, I am sure you are not surprised that Edna was able to talk the young man into giving her a shot. So, Edna traveled to California for her training and then returned to Lawton (ask me to tell you the story about her bus ride home sometime. It involves feet, foot cream and farmers.)
That Merle Norman skincare studio provided the springboard from which Edna launched her life-long career in the skin care industry, creating a network of successful businesses, including Hennessee Family Center, Big Rock Mountain Estates, Dream Valley Farms, and Cosmetic Specialty Labs.
Cosmetic Specialty Labs, incorporated in 1973, is a private-label manufacturing firm in Lawton, Oklahoma, and remains privately held today. This year we celebrate 50 years in business and continue the legacy started so long ago by our grandmother, providing our customers with quality products designed to improve lives.
During her lifetime, Edna Hennessee’s successes were recognized through her many accolades, including U.S. Small Business Administration-Oklahoma Small Business Exporter of the Year, Regional Woman in Business-Woman Business Owner of the Year, Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women-Comanche County Woman of the Year, the first woman to be inducted into the Oklahoma Commerce and Industry Hall of Honor, and Oklahoma Women’s Hall of Fame to name a few.
Awards and accolades aside, Edna Hennessee was a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, and a friend to many. Her love for her family was strong, and she is greatly missed. Our family is proud to move the business she founded and nourished into the next generation.
Jennifer Krebs-Ellis is president & CEO of Cosmetic Specialty Labs, Inc, former Mayor of Medicine Park and serves as a commissioner on the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.