The story of Madam CJ Walker, America's first self-made millionaire whose legacy continues to empower women years after her death
'Boss: The Black Experience' from PBS tells the untold story of African American entrepreneurship and how the financially repressed community in America overcame overwhelming odds through nothing but skill, industriousness, and ingenuity to establish themselves in the market.
While it features the stories of several of the community's greatest businessmen and businesswomen, it's the name of Madam C.J. Walker that serves to inspire like few others. The founder of Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company — the products of which can still be found in shops today, albeit under a different umbrella — Walker was the country's first-ever self-made woman millionaire.
And if you, like many others possibly did not register the impressiveness of that feat, it's not first African-American self-made woman millionaire; just first self-made woman millionaire. At a time when Black businesses were often met with contempt from the White majority — it was almost a cardinal sin to purchase products from Black business owners — the fact that she managed to build a company from the ground up into one worth millions of dollars is nearly unthinkable. It's little wonder then that several experts consider her to be the greatest entrepreneur of all-time.
But despite her undeniable success in business, calling her just an entrepreneur would still be doing her an injustice. She was much more than that. Walker was also a philanthropist and a political and social activist who wanted nothing more than to see the African-American community succeed. It was a dream forged out of her own humble beginnings in Delta, Louisiana.
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, Walker was one of six children, and as fate would have it, the first in the family born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. But beyond that small stroke of luck, her childhood was fraught with tragedy. Orphaned at the age of just seven, Walker, despite being born free, had to start working as a child as a domestic servant and received just three months of formal education.
Then, at the age of 14, she married so she could escape abuse from her brother-in-law. It was the birth of her daughter in 1885 which spurred her into greater things, convincing her she had to do better if she wanted to provide her child with the formal education she never got to have.
Her million-dollar idea would come in the form of self-care products, a market that was desperately in need of filling because of racial disparities at the time, and a general consensus amongst the ruling Whites that there was no profit to be made by investing in products for the Black community.
Walker, like many other black women of the era, suffered severe dandruff and other scalp ailments, including baldness, due to skin disorders and the application of harsh products such as lye that were included in soaps to cleanse hair and wash clothes.
Realizing there was potential, she began learning about hair care from her brothers, who were barbers in St. Louis, eventually taking up a job as a commission agent selling products for the Poro Company. She took this knowledge and developed her own product line which went on to have its own national network of licensed sales agents.
In 1910, she established the headquarters for the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, also building a factory, hair salon, and beauty school to train her sales agents, and adding a laboratory to help with research. Between 1911 and 1919, the company employed several thousand women as sales agents for its products, all of whom were instantly recognizable via their characteristic uniform of white shirts and black skirts, and black satchels.
The Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company made Walker the wealthiest African-American businesswoman and wealthiest self-made woman in America and she would use this wealth and the power that accompanied it to become more vocal about her views.
She began donating funds to Black causes and scholarships and delivering lectures on political, economic, and social issues at conventions sponsored by powerful black institutions. In 1917 she joined the executive committee of New York chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a year after that, she made a large contribution to help preserve the Anacostia house of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Her life was tragically cut short in 1919 when kidney failure and a complication of hypertension proved fatal. She was just 51-years-old. But her legacy undoubtedly lived on, paving the way for other Black entrepreneurs to make their mark and inspiring an entire generation of Black women to become self-dependent and self-sufficient.