In the mid-twentieth century, women were expected to play a behind-the-scenes role in most areas of life. Women were often overlooked for leadership positions and were expected not to make waves in the workforce. The opportunity for a woman to come to the forefront of American business was rare, and becoming a member of the Fortune 500 club was unheard of until Olive Ann Beech became one of the first women to break through the glass ceiling.
Olive Ann Beech is an inspiring entrepreneur whose tenacity and determination allowed her to rise at Beech Aircraft Corporation and lead her company as the first woman-led Fortune 500 company. Beech began her journey after graduating from the American Secretarial College in Wichita, Kansas. According to the editors at Britannica, Beech began as a bookkeeper for an electrical company in Augusta, Kansas. After gaining some experience from her first employment, Beech moved on to work for Travel Air Manufacturing Company in 1924. The company's founders, Lloyd Stearman, Clyde Cessna, and Walter Beech, quickly realized Beech's potential after witnessing her hard work as a secretary and bookkeeper. Her hard work earned her more responsibility within the company, and she was soon the head of business operations. From her humble beginnings, Beech always knew her worth. Imelda Rabang of Bold Business Insights quotes Beech, "I made him (Walter Beech) pay me a salary or I would not work. I wasn't willing to give my life's blood and not have it properly evaluated." Unlike the stereotypical woman of the time, Beech worked with confidence and boldness. She knew from the start that she brought revolutionary ideas and good knowledge to the company.
As time passed, Walter Beech fell in love with the tenacious Olive Ann, and they later agreed to marry. After the wedding, Walter Beech was named president of Travel Air. Walter deeply valued his wife's business propositions, and she became an active advisor for Travel Air. Soon after being named president, Walter Beech decided to sell his company to a larger corporation, the Curtis-Wright Company. Olive Ann and her family moved several times before returning to Kansas to pursue a new business endeavor, founding the Beech Aircraft Corporation. Their new company became an instant success (Olive Ann Beech).
During the first years of Beech Aircraft Corporation, Olive Ann worked as the company's secretary-treasurer. Olive continued to work hard and provide her husband with sound advice. Beech was soon voted onto the board of directors, where she made one of her many groundbreaking decisions. Beech suggested having a female aviator race one of her company's streamlined airplanes in the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race, knowing that this decision would make headlines. Beech's prediction was correct, and Louise Thaden won the race, bringing publicity to the young company. Her ambitious ideas secured her place as a corporate powerhouse. She became an icon for the aviation industry and women. Beech was even declared the "Most distinguished woman in America" by the New York Times (Rabang). Beech continued to push Beech Aircraft to the forefront of the aviation industry during World War II. Several models were converted for military use due to Beech's propositions. Olive Ann led the charge to obtain financing for a significant expansion allowing Beech Aircraft to become a military subcontractor.
Unfortunately, heartache struck Beech's life amid her success in 1949 when Walter became very ill. Beech took on his responsibilities as president temporarily while he fought encephalitis. Sadly, Walter Beech passed away in 1950. After her husband's passing, Beech was chosen by her fellow board members to continue as the company's new president. She took on the new role of president with graceful ambition. Beech was even voted "Woman of the Year" in 1951 by the Women's National Aeronautical Association. She took a massive risk by avoiding the jet engine industry because she wanted her company to stay unique and argued that there was still a market for propeller engines. Beech conquered the world of aviation, dipping her toe into commercial flight, military aviation, and even aerospace development. According to the Kansas Historical Society, Beech even supplied NASA's Apollo, Gemini, and Space Shuttle programs. Beech became lovingly referred to as the "First Lady of Aviation" (Olive Ann Beech).
Additionally, Beech's contributions expanded beyond the world of aviation. She was also a renowned philanthropist and supporter of the arts (Rabang). Her legacy continues to live on as an extraordinarily ambitious woman.
In short, Olive Ann Beech was a beacon of hope for women in the workforce. Beech used her confident spirit to earn her way to the aviation industry's top. She was set apart by her unique and ambitious ideas to expand her company. Beech continues to be recognized today as one of the most renowned businesswomen of the twentieth century. In 1980, Beech became one of three women to receive the National Aeronautic Association's Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy. As a young woman, I find Olive Ann Beech particularly inspirational because she exemplifies the balance of being strong and confident while still being graceful. She broke the glass ceiling by earning respect in a male-dominated industry. I aspire to grow to be confident like Olive Ann Beech. Her assertiveness earned her a place among the great business leaders of America. In the words of the iconic Olive Ann Beech, "And therein lies the secret. As long as there is a shortage of thinkers and a demand for do-ers, women executives will be at work helping build a better nation in a better world.
Olive Ann Beech: Business Woman Takes Flight
Hayden Catholic High School, Grade 12