Who was Josephine Cochran (1839-1913) & What Does it Take to Become an Entrepreneur?
Lessons from a Famous Female Entrepreneur. The seven keys to success.
By Samantha Pillay
Josephine Cochran invented the dishwasher in her woodshed, filing a patent for her “Dish Washing Machine” in 1885, one month before Carl Benz applied for his patent for a gas engine vehicle, (the car). This was a time when women’s educational opportunities were limited, and they generally didn’t work once married. Remember, women in the US weren’t granted the right to vote until 1920.
More than 135 years later, few inventions are still as relevant and far-reaching as the dishwasher. Located in 68% of US homes, this number could increase over time; dishwashers don’t look like they are going away anytime soon.
Josephine’s journey highlights many of the entrepreneurial qualities I have described in the children’s picture book When I’m an Entrepreneur:
1. Entrepreneurs Have Big Ideas and Solve People's Problems
Josephine lived a privileged life as a socialite in her early married years. After her servants chipped her 17th Century fine china after a dinner party, she insisted on washing these heirlooms herself, despite hating the job. She vowed to invent a machine to do the work for her. When her husband started drinking heavily and then died in 1883, leaving her with considerable debt, her dream became a possible solution to her financial problems.
2. Entrepreneurs Do Things Differently and Do What Others Say Can’t be Done
Josephine brought her product to market with little money at a time when investors would not invest in a company managed by a woman. Progress was slow. She had little technical knowledge but believed in herself and was driven to achieve her goal. She struggled to find engineers and mechanics who would listen to her ideas and work with a woman.
3. Entrepreneurs Learn from their Mistakes and Never Give Up
She built her prototype in the woodshed in her garden. When Josephine displayed her invention in Machinery Hall in 1893 with other American inventions, including the telegraph and phonograph, it was the only invention by a woman. I chuckled when I read the advertising slogan; “It is simple and easy to run. A man can learn how to use it in an hour.”
4. Entrepreneurs Surround Themselves with Great People
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants -Josephine grew up with an inventor and entrepreneurial mindset. The daughter of an engineer, her grandfather invented the first US patented steamboat.
5. Entrepreneurs are Courageous
Despite the barriers and lack of investors in a female-owned business, she owned and controlled her business. When women of her class didn’t leave home without the company of a man, she described crossing the vast lobby of the Sherman House hotel unaccompanied, to meet with a potential customer, as harder than inventing the dishwashing machine.
6. Entrepreneurs Work Very Hard
Josephine initially thought she could sell her machine in households, but she found that women did not value their “time and comfort as worth money.” Her sales were mainly to hotels and larger organizations, saving on labour costs and breakages. She faced countless obstacles. At the time of her death, age 74 years, described as from ‘nervous exhaustion', she was still personally selling her machines.
7. Entrepreneurs Inspire Others and Leave the World a Better Place
Her story still inspires us today and her invention continues to benefit many daily.
As someone who has been building a business for almost twenty years my favourite quote of hers is; “if I knew all I know today ….I never would have had the courage to start. But then I would have missed a very wonderful experience.”