2006 Horatio Alger Award Winner
"To be successful, you must feel that what you are doing helps others."
The third of three daughters in her family, Doris Kelley Christopher was born in 1945 on the outskirts of Chicago in Oak Lawn. Her father was a car mechanic who worked all his life in a small gas station. He had only an eighth grade education because as a youth he was needed on his family's farm, but he was a hard worker and loving father. During World War II, Christopher's mother worked at night in a factory. Later, after Christopher started school, she worked as a typist for an insurance company in Chicago.
Christopher's family home was small and simple, but her parents taught her to feel blessed by their good fortune to have it. Even though her parents put in long hours in their jobs, they made sure that when they were home, they focused attention on their children. Their world revolved around their family.
Christopher attended a Lutheran school, which required a 10-mile commute each day. During the week, the family had little time for frivolity. They all left home early in the morning to get to school or work. At the end of the day, Christopher's mother quickly got dinner on the table for herself and the girls, and then she would cook the next night's dinner after they ate. "My father didn't get home until later in the evening, so he didn't eat with us during the week," says Christopher. "I guess that's why weekends seemed so special to me, especially Sundays. We spent the entire day together as a family. We went to church, had dinner together, and watched Ed Sullivan on TV."
By the time she reached high school, Christopher discovered a love of cooking and sewing. She knew then that she would like to pursue home economics and become a teacher. In the meantime, she earned extra money at part-time jobs, first as a carhop in a drive-in restaurant and later as a salesgirl at Marshall Fields. During her sophomore year, she went out on her first date when Jay Christopher took her to Homecoming.
After graduating from the University of Illinois at Champaign in 1967, she taught high school home economics for one year and then went to work for the Illinois Cooperative Extension Service, where she taught her favorite subject to adults. She did this job for six years, until her first daughter was born. At that point, she became a stay-at-home mother.
Christopher began to think about a business she could operate from her home. People had always commented on her well-equipped kitchen and she starting thinking about ways in which she could bring good kitchen tools to others. At first, she thought she would give cooking lessons in her home and then sell kitchen tools afterwards. She discarded that idea when she realized her kitchen was too small and her neighborhood would not handle a lot of regular traffic moving in and out. By developing her idea into hosted home parties, she avoided having constant use of her own residence.
Christopher took out a $3,000 loan from a life insurance policy to buy her first products. She put up a few shelves in her basement, installed an extra phone, and came up with a business plan. In 1980, Christopher gave her first Kitchen Show, which resulted in four bookings for more Kitchen Shows. By the end of her first year, she had recruited 12 sales people, or "Kitchen Consultants," and Doris Christopher was on her way to establishing a major American business called The Pampered Chef®. The company didn't reach $1 million in sales until 1987, but it exploded in its second decade, going from a $20 million business to more than $500 million. The company branched out from only offering kitchen tools to include items for entertaining and some unique food products. Online ordering also expanded the business. In 1998, the Pampered Chef® was recognized with the Better Business Bureau Torch Award for Marketplace Ethics. Christopher says, "I think it is important to serve as a role model, not only as a corporation but also personally. When you do that, you are fanning the fires of purpose and passion."
In addition to the love and support of her family, Christopher credits her success to having the right idea at the right time. "In the decade between the 1980s and 1990s, we were experiencing social change," she says. "Women were struggling with whether or not they should work or stay home with their children. My business offered an opportunity for women to work without having to leave home full time or use day care. It also assisted working mothers by helping them to manage kitchen time efficiently. We were able to bridge a time period in a culture change in this country; I'm very proud of that."
Doris Christopher has never forgotten the joy and stability she received from her daily meals with her family. In her book, Come to the Table, published in 1999, she celebrates the tradition of the family mealtime and reinforces its power to positively impact family life.
For Christopher, finding a balance between the priorities in life is important. "My priorities," she says, "are faith, family, and helping others. I have had a lifelong, abiding faith that has served as a strong support system for me. It came from my family and is a big part of who I am today and how I live my life."
Christopher says she is humbled by her Horatio Alger Award. "This is a wonderful organization that recognizes effort against great odds. I am proud to be honored and to be among the others who are honored."