Even if you don’t know a lot about Dolly Parton, you know her music. This singer-songwriter has sold over 170 million records and is most famous for songs like Jolene, 9 to 5, Coat of Many Colors and I Will Always Love You.
In addition to her prolific music career, Dolly is an actress, theme park owner, and passionate philanthropist. At 73 years old, Dolly Parton is at the height of her career and busier than ever. She recently launched a Netflix series called Heartstrings inspired by her songs. She was also interviewed by Jad Abumrad in a popular podcast called Dolly Parton’s America. Oh, and she was responsible for starting that Facebook, Linkedin, Instagram, Tinder meme – did you play the #dollypartonchallenge?
How has this short, spunky country Barbie bombshell continued to grow her career for over five decades?
There are a lot of valuable business lessons to be learned from this living legend. For your inspiration, here’s five to live by:
Lesson #1: Honor your roots and stay humble.
Dolly grew up with 12 siblings in a one-room cabin in the smoky mountains of east Tennessee. She describes her upbringing as dirt poor and still owns the actual cabin where she was born. She also had the cabin recreated in her Dollywood theme park which has over 4 million visitors a year. The whole park is both an homage and celebration of to her humble beginnings. Maybe the reason Dolly and her songs like My Tennessee Mountain Home are so popular is because we are all a bit nostalgic about our childhood and long for those simpler times.
Imagination Library, her philanthropic organization, was inspired by her father. Despite being illiterate, Dolly says he was the smartest man she has ever known. The organization has delivered over 120 million books to children in need since its inception in 1995. Being known as the “book lady” is what made her Daddy most proud.
If you met Dolly today, you wouldn’t guess that she is worth over $500 Million. Or, that she is one of the few people to have ever received nominations from the Academy Awards, Grammy Awards, Tony Awards and Emmy Awards. Her accolades are many including ten Grammys, two Academy Award nominations, ten Country Music Association Awards, seven Academy of Country Music Awards and three American Music Awards.
Her rags to rhinestones American dream is an inspiration to many. Some even call her a saint. Although she is widely worshipped, Dolly remains incredibly down to earth. For instance, she plays over 20 instruments and humbly says most of them are just to create mountain sounds.
Lesson #2: Stay true to your brand.
Dolly went from the coat of many colors that her mama made to closets filled with sparkly outfits and sequined dresses. She never leaves the house without a big blonde wig and red acrylic nails. She created her “tacky” over the top look from women in her small town who she thought were beautiful even though she knew they were “working women.”
Many popular female performers have followed in her loud and proud fashion footsteps. Look at Lady Gaga and Cardi B with their outrageous style as well as talent and business savvy.
Nielsen Research confirms Dolly’s brand power. Her Q Score ranking (public appeal and branding affinity) lists her in the top 10 highest ranked celebrities across any type of entertainment.
She has always stayed true to her roots which clearly works for her. When asked about her style, Dolly just laughs and says, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.”
Lesson #3: Follow your heart and do the right thing.
Dolly’s biggest hit, I Will Always Love You, was actually written about her decision to go solo after a long successful partnership with Porter Wagner of Grand Ole Opry fame. While he gave her an amazing start, he was not supportive of her solo career. In fact, he sued her when she left and spoke very badly about her publicly. Years later, when he fell on hard times, Dolly bought his company and gave it back to him. She simply called it the right thing to do. She forgave him and they remained friends until he passed.
Dolly is beloved as she loves everyone. Her concerts are known to be incredibly diverse. Younger audiences know her from her reoccurring role as Aunt Dolly on Hannah Montana. She has conservative religious fans as well as being very popular in the LGBTQ community. Dolly started singing in her pastor's grandfather’s church as a girl and talks openly about her faith. Dolly has been known to show up and participate in drag queen contests. She is often called the great unifier. Dolly simply explains that she lives in both worlds and loves and accepts them both.
Dolly is also famous for her acting role in 9 to 5 and that theme song has become synonymous with women’s rights. However, she does not call herself a feminist. She says that the way she conducts herself in life and business should speak for itself without needing a label.
Forgiveness. Unconditional love. Doing the right thing no matter what. This is why she is often called the Dollymama.
Lesson #4: Stand firm on your business terms.
Dolly defines blonde ambition. As a smart driven businesswoman, she has always had big dreams, hardcore work ethic, and savvy business instincts.
She has written thousands of songs and has had her own music publishing company since 1965. Controlling your own revenue is a truly powerful business lesson. When Elvis Presley wanted to do a recording of I Will Always Love You after she had made it a hit, Dolly was thrilled. Upon learning that this would require her to give him half the publishing rights, she declined the deal. It was clearly a very wise decision as years later Whitney Houston sang a rendition in the film, The Bodyguard. This version remains one of the biggest singles of all time and one of Dolly’s biggest moneymakers.
Lesson #5: Have the first and the last laugh.
Having a positive attitude and a playful sense of humor are other keys to Dolly’s popularity and success. She is well aware of the jokes made about her persona and most specifically about her boobs. In the beginning, she just told the boob jokes herself as she knew everyone was already thinking them. She calls it part of the show and she wants to put on a good one.
This incredible icon is a true BossBabe and she always gets the last laugh.
“I'm not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I'm not dumb, and I know I’m not blonde either.”
The best way to summarize these business lessons from Dolly Parton is with another one of her famous quotes:
“Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”