Madame C.J. Walker was a self-made businesswoman who created opportunities for herself and for other African American women at a time when both educational and career opportunities were limited. Walker was the first African-American woman to become a millionaire, and (according to the Guiness book of world records) the first woman to earn a million dollars through her own efforts. She was also a philanthropist and a tireless worker for several causes, including the end of lynching and equal rights for African American veterans.
Madame C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana, on December 23, 1867. Her parents had been slaves, and became sharecroppers after the Civil War. Both of them died when Walker was seven years old. She moved to Vicksburg with her older sister Louvenia a few years later, but Louvenia’s husband was abusive, and Walker ran away and married when she was only 14 years old.
Walker had one daughter, Lelia, who was born in 1885 when Walker was 18 years old. Her first husband died at the hands of a lynch mob, and Walker went on to marry twice more.
Walker was an entrepreneur and an inventor. She created hair care products, first as a solution to her own hair loss and then for sale to others. She began by selling her products door to door, added a mail order business, and then opened a “hair culture” college. Among the 3,000 people employed by Walker’s company were tutors who helped Walker to get the education she had not been able to achieve when she was young.
Walker’s third husband, C.J. Walker, and her daughter Lelia worked with her in her business. Lelia, later known as A’Lelia, managed the mail order side of the business while her parents traveled in the U.S., South America, and the Carribean promoting the Walker products. In 15 years, Walker built an empire of cosmetics and beauty products, including an improved permanent wave machine developed in 1928 by a Walker employee, Majorie Joyner.
Walker’s goal was not only to improve her own life, but also to provide better jobs for other African American women, who at that time had limited job opportunities. She described her career path in this way: “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.”
Walker employed (and the company still employs) independent agents to sell the products directly to their friends and neighbors. Agents buy their stock at a deep discount, sell it at retail prices, and keep the difference as their commission. The company also offered sales training for agents. This arrangement allowed women to go into business for themselves without education, experience, or investment. At a time when many African American women saw domestic service as their only job opportunity, and unskilled workers of any ethnicity could expect to make less than $50 a month, Walker Agents could make $1,000 a month. By 1910, there were more than 1,000 Walker Agents.
In 1916, Walker built a 34 room house on the Hudson River and in 1917 she led a march of women to Washington to protest the segregation of the military. Just as she had used her business to help provide economic opportunities for African Americans, she used her wealth to provide educational opportunities for African Americans. She donated money to colleges that accepted African American students, gave scholarships, and supported young writers and artists. In 1919, when she died, Walker was widely known as an example not only of business and marketing skill, but also of social activism.
Madam Walker was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, the National Cosmetology Hall of Fame and the National Direct Sales Hall of Fame. Her face was on a U.S. postage stamp, and she continues to be a source of inspiration.
“If I have accomplished anything in life, it is because I am willing to work hard,” said Walker. “Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”