Ed Gardner: Pioneer and Chicago Legend

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Ed Gardner is known across the nation as the creator and founder of Soft Sheen hair care products, but in Chicago, he’s much more than that.

Ed Gardner is known across the nation as the creator and founder of Soft Sheen hair care products, but in Chicago, he’s much more than that.

Gardner, now 85 years old, is a revered businessman and community leader and activist—one of his key achievements being helping in the campaign to get Harold Washington into the mayor’s seat in 1983.

His role as a businessman started in 1964 when, after selling hair products on the side to make some extra money, he decided that he could make similar products himself.

“At that time, I was in the school system as a teacher and assistant principal,” he said. “We had four children and needed more money, so I started working as a hair product salesman for a beauty supply company. Soon I found that I could make some of the products I was selling. I kept fooling around in my basement and I got a product that was pretty good. I took it to the beauticians all over the city—it was a hair and scalp conditioner—and they liked it. It eventually got to the point where I was making more money selling my hair care products than I was in the school system.”

Gardner said that developing the recipes for the products was fairly easy and because he received such a huge response from the beauticians he sold to, he was eventually able to sell in retail stores like Walgreens. His children and wife were right along with him, helping in various capacities to expand the business. “My wife took care of the books and paid the bills and so forth, and my children at that time were teenagers, and they would go work with me and screw tops on the jars and do things like that. We all were very much involved in different aspects of the business. It was a family business.”

As the company and its name grew to become a nationwide brand, so did its product line, to include items like shampoos and conditioners, relaxers and gels like Care Free Curl, Let’s Jam, Frizz Free, Sportin’ Waves, Wave Nouveau and Optimum Care. Soft Sheen quickly became a staple in African American hair care.

Into the 1980s and 1990s, the company endured some changes in leadership, which eventually led to the selling of Soft Sheen to L’OrΘal USA. The brand, now known as SoftSheen-Carson, is still one of the most recognized hair care lines in the country today.

Aside from his successes as an entrepreneur, though, Gardner was an advocate for the African American community. “We were not only a hair care company—we were also concerned with the needs of the Afro American community, as far as producing jobs. Our plant on 87th Street hired many people. We’ve had some of the finest people you could find and they are out to build the company.”

Besides providing jobs, Gardner said he felt that as owner of a responsible black manufacturing company, he had to give back to the community, which prompted him to help fight crime in the city with his Black on Black Love initiative, an organization that is still active today. That was also when he became involved in the political campaign to elect Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago.

“There was a need at that time,” he explained. “We had to have the black community feel as though they were apart of the business, as well as improve the quality of life of the Afro American person. When you consider that there were very few major manufacturing companies owned by blacks throughout the nation, those that were successful had a responsibility to give back as much as possible. We enjoyed doing that part of the job. That to us was just as important as increasing sales within the company.”

Gardner said that in these days, though, he wishes that more politicians would focus on the drug and violence problems facing the youth in Chicago. “I’m very proud of the many successes we do have today,” he said. “We’re still producing great people. But how many are we losing that would be great? There’s the issue of drugs perforating throughout the community, destroying lives, families and killing people. It’s one of the biggest problems we have to stop.”

While he’s still an advocate for the advancement of African Americans in Chicago, Gardner said that these days, he spends most of his time frequenting Bulls basketball games and spending time with his children and grandchildren. He said that he and his family are, “enjoying our lives today.”

Copyright 2011 Chicago Defender

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