March is Women’s History Month, so we’re taking a look back at some of the many female icons who have shared our journey to success, and Madam C.J. Walker is at the top of our list. Not only does she hold the Guinness World Record for becoming the first self-made female millionaire, but she did it largely outside of the normal commercial system and as an African American woman barely separated from the abolition of slavery.
Born the daughter of sharecroppers who were previously enslaved, she rose out of poverty and built a beauty empire based on peer-to-peer selling that has been mimicked by companies still in existence like Avon and Mary K. Her life’s work left behind not only a business, but a legacy of uplifting African American women and encouraging them to be proud, and financially independent. And diving into the story of her life, two lessons stand out that are just as important for tech entrepreneurs today as they were back when she built her haircare empire: that it’s better to change the industry than fight a system that’s against you, and that success built one person at a time. Here’s how she did it.
THE TRAGIC START TO AN INCREDIBLE STORY
Madam C.J. Walker was born as Sarah Breedlove in 1867. She was raised in Delta, Louisiana, where her entire family had been slaves and was the first of her five siblings to be born free after the Emancipation Proclamation. But that luck ran out early because both her parents died when she was just seven years old, and she became an orphan.
At the age of 10, she began working, and in her whole life was only able to spend three months in school. She moved to Mississippi with her sister and brother-in-law and became a domestic servant, but her brother-in-law was abusive, and she wanted to escape. And as a girl in those days, her only option was to get married—so she did she was only 14 years old. This was no more of a solid family situation than with her parents because by the time she was 20, her husband had died, and she was left a young widow and single mother to her daughter A’Lelia.
After losing her husband, she moved to St. Louis, Missouri to reunite with 3 of her brothers, who helped her find a job as a laundress. There she made an insufficient $1 per day, which was not enough to survive well and raise her daughter. What’s worse, the chemicals she used to clean the laundry also damaged her skin and she began to experience what many other African American Laundry women had during that time: she began to have dandruff and then to lose her hair entirely. Something so common, many people accepted it as the norm. She would not.
Don’t sit down and wait for opportunities to come. Get up and make them.” -Madam C.J. Walker
SETTING OUT ON HER OWN
Eventually, Walker found a product that helped to regrow her hair, and she saw potential in this. She realized that this product could help other African American women, and wanted to market a product to help them specifically. So while living in St. Louis, Sarah used her brother’s professions as professional barbers, to begin to learn about hair care. Then in 1904, she visited the World’s Fair in St. Louis, and met a woman named Annie Malone who founded a hair care brand called The Poro Company. Their product had helped to heal Sarah’s scalp and got her hair to grow back, so she signed on to be a salesperson with a dream of helping other women like herself.
However, this business relationship wouldn’t last. After disagreements, at 37 years old, Walker felt that she could do a better job of selling the product herself than Malone could. So Walker tapped into her entrepreneurial spirit and took the tin of hair care product to a scientist to figure out what the formula was. The answer came back: precipitated sulfur, copper sulfate, beeswax, petrolatum jelly, coconut oil and violet perfume. So with that recipe, Sarah created her own product and re-branded it as Madam C. J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, in 1906. And at the same time she rebranded herself, changing her name from Sarah Breedlove, to Madam C.J. Walker, which she adopted from her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker.
At the time there was a stereotype that African-American women’s hair was unruly and nothing could be done with it. But Walker disagreed, and wanted to spread the message that black people could have hair society then considered beautiful, too. She included a photograph of herself on the front of the tin, to show how the product had helped her, and traveled to churches and community centers around the country to meet people in person and encourage them to feel beautiful.
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.” -Madam C.J. Walker
At first, it was very much a family business. Her husband C.J. had a career in sales, so he helped with advertising and promotion. Sarah’s daughter A’Lelia handled the mail-orders, while Sarah went door-to-door selling the product. To years after launching, in 1908, the Walkers moved to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, and opened both a beauty parlor and the A’Lelia College to train black women to become hairdressers using Madam C.J.’s methods — known as the “Walker System”. This was a multistep process. First, they shampooed the hair and applied a pomade to help heal the scalp and encourage the hair to grow. They brushed it with a heated iron comb, to make the hair softer and straighter, as was the style at the time. Over time, the company would expand their products from that single hair pomade to 23 new skin and hair products for African American men and women.
While traveling, Walker came to like Indianapolis, and the company relocated there in 1910, which is where their building still stands today. This is where Walker’s business grew to full size, as they opened a factory, a beauty school, a laboratory, and a salon. Lacking essentially all formal education, Walker found a way to get the knowledge she needed without going back to school: she hired it. She brought in lawyers, accountants, and experts in various fields who would handle the things she did not know—and as a bright, driven woman, she learned much of it herself along the way.
SUCCEEDING OUTSIDE THE SYSTEM
But all the brilliance of Walker’s products couldn’t change one thing: that white-owned department stores refused to stock her products on their shelves. So instead, Walker devised her own plan: she would create an army of sales agents to go door to door selling the products personally to black families. Over time, she hired more than 50,000 people, who became passionate advocates for her company, because part of the company culture was encouraging these women to have pride in themselves. They were made to feel beautiful and to help encourage other women to feel beautiful as well.
But unlike multilevel marketing companies today that lure people in with promises of profits, and leave many bilked out of their money, Walker believed in the success of her employees, and wanted to help them achieve it. She wanted women to be independent and make their own money, so employees were given classes on budgeting and finance, so that they could learn how to be independent. At the time, the only jobs that were available to black women were domestic jobs like cleaning, farm work, and childcare. But Walker wanted to make sure that all black women could get the training to have a different kind of career.
Eventually, Madam C.J. Walker was making an average of $1000 a day after the remainder of the income went back into the business. Which is incredible, considering that the average income for a black family at the time was just $12 a week. But Walker didn’t keep all this money to herself. She became one of the first black philanthropists to give money to various charities.
There is no royal flower strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it, for whatever success I have attained has been the result of much hard work and many sleepless nights.” -Madam C.J. Walker
BUILDING A LASTING LEGACY
In 1916, when she was 49 years old, Sarah purchased land in Irvington New York and built a huge mansion called Villa Lewaro. It was so magnificent, it rivaled the Rockefellers. This was a triumph not just for her but for the African-American community, which served as an inspiration to generations that would come after that it was possible for black people to have a life of luxury.
Madam C.J. Walker died at just 52 years old. When she passed away, she left in her last will and testament the 2/3 of the company profits must always go to charity, and the leadership positions must always be a woman. Her daughter A’Lelia inherited the vast majority of her fortune, and with her inheritance, A’Lelia built The Walker Building in Indianapolis. At the time, businesses were segregated, meaning that black people had little to no options for shopping and entertainment. At the businesses that did allow African Americans to enter, they had to pay an extra “black tax” to enter.
The Walker Building became an entirely African American shopping mall. The building housed various stores, barbershops, doctors, lawyers, restaurants, grocery stores, a cafe, tailors, and even a community center. There was also a beautiful ballroom where they held dances and weddings. Suddenly, black businesses could blossom, and the entire community thrived because of it. Today, the building has been renamed the Madam Walker Legacy Center.