Madam CJ Walker: America's first millionairess

This post is the first in an ongoing series featuring inspiring, passionate, amazing women throughout history.

How is it that many schoolchildren are familiar with John D. Rockefeller, but few have heard of America’s first self-made millionairess*, Madam C.J. Walker? Let’s change this by sharing her amazingly inspiring story.

Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana plantation over 100 years ago, in 1867. Her parents, Owen and Minerva, spent much of their lives enslaved prior to the Civil War. Sarah was their first free-born child; her four older siblings were born into slavery. Sadly, her parents passed away when she was only seven years old.

In her early years, Walker worked household and domestic jobs, and faced mistreatment and abuse. She married at age 14, gave birth to her daughter A’Leila shortly thereafter, and endured the passing of her husband only two years later.

Imagine experiencing all of this in your teens! Despite these external challenges, Walker was focused on creating a better life for her daughter (and herself). She sent A’Leila to public school in St. Louis while simultaneously working and furthering her own education. During this period, she met her future husband, Charles J. Walker.

In her early twenties, Walker began to lose her hair. She was suffering from a scalp disorder, fairly common at the time, when regular bathing was still a luxury. Walker turned to both homemade and store-bought solutions, and began to develop her own remedies. As she became more familiar with the beauty market, Walker relocated to Denver to serve as a sales professional for another entrepreneur in black haircare, Annie Malone.

At that time, Walker began marketing Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, one of her first products. Walker is credited as saying, “I got my start by giving myself a start,” and her business-savvy is undeniable. By 1907, she was traveling throughout the southeastern United States to demonstrate her “Walker Method.” She revealed unbelievable hustle during this time: selling door to door, conducting live demonstrations, and partnering with churches promote her product. She was passionate about her creation and serving her customers - traits common in today's entrepreneurs.

Importantly, Walker also provided a path to financial stability for her (largely female) customers. She would offer commissions to those that sold on her behalf as “Walker Agents” - far before Mary Kay and Tupperware popularized this business model. She would convene her agents at events, celebrating both their business results and their community impact. This hand up and into financial dignity mirrors what I hear when I speak with female entrepreneurs today, who are motivated to serve their customers and provide employment opportunities to other women.

Following her whirlwind promotional tour, Walker invested in a factory, school, and salon in Indianapolis. She said, “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations….I have built my own factory on my own ground.” By 1913, she was traveling to the Caribbean and Central America to conduct business internationally, while her daughter was launching Walker Salon in Harlem.

Like many passionate entrepreneurs, Walker had strong social views. She moved to Harlem in 1916, and was heavily involved in the NAACP. In 1917, a white mob murdered more than three dozen black citizens in East St. Louis. Walker joined a group of leaders who visited the White House to support anti-lynching legislation.

The wonderful Madam C.J. Walker died at age 51. At the time of her passing she had accumulated a personal fortune worth approximately $600,000, with her business valued at over a million dollars. Her products and legacy live on, and her story is a powerful inspiration. The Madam CJ Walker Beauty Culture site shares: Tenacity and perseverance, faith in herself and in God, quality products and “honest business dealings” were the elements and strategies she prescribed for aspiring entrepreneurs who requested the secret to her rags-to-riches ascent. “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” she once commented. “And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.”

What a life she led! What is your element of Madam C.J. Walker’s inspirational journey resonates with you? And, who would you like to see profiled the future posts? #WomenAndMoney #WomenLeaders

xoxo, Ms. Financier

*I drafted this post in Google Docs, which read millionairess as a typo, and suggested millionaire. The patriarchy! And, Merriam-Webster, I prefer definition #1, TYVM. *kiss*

Learn more about Madam C.J. Walker:

Prologue to “On Her Own Ground: The LIfe and Times of Madam C.J. Walker,” by A’Leila Bundles (Walker’s great-great-granddaughter) via the New York Times Profile

Madam Walker, the First Black American Woman to Be a Self-Made Millionaire, by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. via PBS

The Legacy of Madam C.J. Walker via Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture

Wikipedia Page

Madam Walker Theater