While 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 –– a revered businessman, community leader and activist —helped 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.
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.
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’Oréal 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,” he told the Defender in a February 2011 interview.
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.
Copyright 2012 Chicago Defender