Sarah Breedlove’s parents and all her siblings were slaves on a Louisiana plantation. She became an orphan at 6 years old when her parents both died. Her brother-in-law mistreated her so badly that she married a man when she was only 14, just so she could escape him. Shortly after she had a baby, her husband died. As a single mother, she earned about a dollar a day as a washer woman.
Oh yeah — and she was the first female self-made millionaire in America.
The woman who became known as Madame C. J. Walker was handed not a single advantage in this world, other than her stunning business acumen and relentless work ethic. (It also helped that she was seemingly afraid of nothing.)
Born in 1867 in Louisiana, Walker was the first of six children born into freedom, just four years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. When she became a single mother at 20, after the death of her husband, she moved to St. Louis, Missouri where three of her brothers lived. She took work washing clothing for next to nothing. It might have been tiring work, but she was determined to get her daughter a formal education.
Living in poverty took its toll on her health. She began losing her hair at a young age due to a lack of plumbing, heat, electricity and a poor diet. Furthermore, most relaxers and shampoos tailored to African Americans at the time contained lye: the same substance used to decompose bodies.
Instead of hiding her lack of locks under a wig, Walker took one single action that battled her state of poverty and the chemicals that were attributing to her hair loss; she got herself a job selling lye-free hair care products.
At first, Walker started selling hair-care products made by another African American female entrepreneur, Annie Turnbo Malone, a remarkable woman in her own right. But it was not in Walker’s nature to remain content wherever she was in life. So she moved to Denver, Colorado to develop her own line of hair care products (which are still sold today), using the knowledge she had gained during her years with Malone.
It was in Denver that she met Charles Joseph Walker. With a background in newspaper advertising, he became not only Sarah Breedlove’s husband, but her business partner. And in turn, she took his name and became “Madame C.J. Walker.”
With her business savvy and his promotional skills, the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company expanded. Evidence of her generous nature made its way into her corporate practices. The women who sold her products were not simply means to an end; she trained them to become “Beauty Culturists” and taught them how to become better businesswomen themselves.
She organized her Beauty Culturists into clubs, and would give out prizes, not just to the women who sold the most, but to those women gave the most money to charity; philanthropy was as important to Walker as the vitality of her own business.
When her company expanded to overseas, she taught other African American women how to start their own businesses. Teaching other women how to become more independent continued to be a life-long passion.
In 1917, she created the first convention for women in American history that focused solely on entrepreneurship. She joined forces with the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement. And while she taught her daughter A’Leilia the ins-and-outs of business, her will bequeathed the majority of the company’s profits to charity.
While there’s no denying Madam C.J. Walkers business genius, she herself knew what lie at the heart of her extraordinary achievements.
“There is no royal flower-strewn path to success.” she said. “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.”
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