Edward G. Gardner, a trailblazing businessman in the beauty industry as the co-founder of Soft Sheen Products, has passed away, reports the Chicago Sun-Times. He was 98.
Gardner’s passing was confirmed by his children in a statement.
“He was born with the inner vision to see the world differently, but more importantly, to see and make a difference to what he saw,” his son, Gary Gardner said."He was my father, my hero, and my teacher. He taught me how to engage people with humanity and humility."
Born on February 25, 1925, in Chicago, Gardner graduated from Fenger High School before leaving for the Army during World War II. Using his GI Bill, he received a bachelor’s degree at Chicago Teachers College, now Chicago State University, and went on to earn a master’s in education from the University of Chicago.
Upon graduating, he became an administrator in the Chicago Public Schools. While keeping his job in the school district, he began delivering hair care products out of the trunk of his car to beauty salons on the South Side of Chicago at night.
Terri Gardner, his daughter, recalled how her father used the family’s cookware to conduct his experiments.
“He melted wax in one of the pans,” she said. “We never got the wax out of the pan. It had to go out in the alley. ... My mother let him know that the pans were off limits because we needed to eat.”
After several experiments done at home and listening to Black women share their hair care needs, Garner resigned from his position in the school district and launched Soft Sheen in 1964 along with his wife Bettiann. With products such as Care Free Curl and Ultra Sheen, Soft Sheen became a multi-million dollar empire that employed over 400 people. By the 1980s, the company was the biggest Black-owned corporation in America and was named “Company of the Year” by Black Enterprise magazine in 1989.
After over 30 years in business, Soft Sheen Products was acquired by L'Oréal's New York-based U.S. subsidiary, Cosmair Inc, for over $160 million in 1998.
In addition to his contributions to the beauty industry, Gardner was a generous patron of the arts. He and Bettiann led the development of the New Regal Theater, a revamped version of the Regal Theater, one of Chicago’s most heralded venues, which hosted some of the most renowned acts across the county.
As an activist, he helped to raise over $300,000 and staff to mount a campaign that registered more than 200,000 which led to Harold Washington becoming Chicago's first Black mayor in 1983.
In 2012, Gardner led over 1,000 demonstrators in a mass protest at a major construction site in the city's South Side for the lack of Black workers at the company. He also established Black On Black Love, a non-profit that addressed violence in Chicago.
Gardner was also a co-owner of the Chicago Bulls and served as a board member of Chicago United and the Chicago Urban League.
We at EBONY extend our prayers and deepest condolences to the family and friends of Edward. G Gardner