As she built her cosmetics empire, Mary Kay Ash made millions of dollars and became one of the most famous women in American business.

None of that, Ash would later say, was part of her plan.

"I wasn't that interested in the dollars-and-cents part of business," she said. "My interest in starting Mary Kay Inc. was to offer women opportunities that didn't exist anywhere else."

The cosmetics magnate, whose eponymous company made her name one of the most recognized in the country, died at her home in Dallas on Thursday. She was 83.

Ash died of natural causes after spending several years in fragile health, Mary Kay Inc. said in a news release.

"The world has lost one of its greatest champions of women and one of the most loving and inspirational business leaders," said Ash's son Richard Rogers, who is also co-founder, chairman and chief executive officer at Mary Kay.

The company grew from a sales force of 11 in 1963 to more than 850,000 in 37 countries as of last year, when wholesale revenue reached $1.3 billion.

Ash's fans said she enriched women's lives at a time when it was difficult for them to succeed in the corporate world. Each year the convention she held in Dallas attracted thousands of saleswomen who gathered to hear, cheer and revere their founder.

With hard work, the saleswomen -- and occasionally a salesman -- could move through the ranks of the company to earn the prized position of national sales director. The woman holding that position now makes more than $800,000 a year.

"I want you to become the highest-paid women in America," Ash said in her motivational speeches.

Mary Kay claims to have produced more wealthy women than any other company. Spokesman Randall Oxford said more than 150 women have made more than $1 million with the company.

Mary Kay also created an award system for employees that was specifically designed for women, offering mink coats, diamond rings and, most famously, pink Cadillacs.

Compacts and makeup boxes sold by the Mary Kay were also pink, and Ash once owned a 19,000-square-foot pink mansion with a gigantic pink marble bathtub.

Ash was born Mary Kathlyn Wagner in Houston on May 12, 1918. By age 6, she was caring for her seriously ill father while her mother worked 14 hours a day at a restaurant.

Ash said her mother encouraged her to excel in everything from school work to selling Girl Scout cookies, telling her almost daily, "You can do it."

Ash married at 17 and had three children but the marriage dissolved after her husband entered the Army.

Moving to Dallas, she took a part-time job for Stanley Home Products, selling household goods at parties in women's homes in 1938. She studied to become a doctor, but focused on sales full-time as her success grew. She used to write weekly sales goals in soap on her bathroom mirror.

She later joined another direct-sales company, World Gifts, as national sales director. According to a biography on her company's Web site, Ash quit in 1963 when a male colleague hired as her assistant was promoted over her at twice her salary.

"I couldn't believe God meant a woman's brain to bring 50 cents on the dollar," she told The Dallas Morning News in 1974. "Before I started my company in 1963, I had worked for 25 years in sales, and nothing would make me angrier than training some man only to have him become my superior."

Out of work, Ash began to collect her thoughts for a how-to career book for women. The musings turned into her idea for Mary Kay Cosmetics.

"I began asking myself, 'Why are you theorizing about a dream company? Why don't you just start one?"' Ash said.

Ash bought a formulation for a skin-care cream developed by an Arkansas tanner. She promoted it as a beauty product, recruiting friends to sell "Beauty by Mary Kay." Her sons worked for her.

Ash frequently told employees to put God first, family second and career third.

"We must figure out how to remain good wives and good mothers while triumphing in the workplace," she once wrote. "This is no easy task for the woman who works full-time."