Madam C.J. Walker – First Female Self-Made Millionaire
Background – Madam C.J. Walker was born on December 23, 1867 as Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Mississippi. Her parents had been slaves until the end of the American Civil War. She was the youngest of six children and the only one born into freedom. Still she worked beside them in the cotton fields as a young child. In 1872, her mother died possibly of cholera and her father followed soon after. Sarah was only seven years old. She moved in with her older sister and her husband. By the time she was fourteen years old, Sarah married Moses McWilliams some say to escape her abusive brother-in-law. Three years later she gave birth to a daughter who she named Leila. Sadly, her husband died a few years later and she moved to St. Louis, Missouri to join her brothers who were barbers there. She managed to earn a little more than a dollar a day as a washer woman yet she saved enough money to enroll her daughter in the public schools giving her a chance at a better life.
Opportunity – While in St. Louis, Madam Walker became friendly with some women at her church. They gave her a new perspective on life and she saw possibility where before she saw none. In 1905, after another failed marriage, she started working in sales for Annie Malone, a hair care entrepreneur. Madam Walker herself had experimented with Malone's products in the past because of a scalp condition that caused her to lose much of her own hair. She relocated to Denver, Colorado and soon married her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker who had followed her from St. Louis. It was then she changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker and, taking her knowledge of hair care to a new level, developed her own independent business. Her husband helped her with marketing and advertising and together they began to travel in mostly the southern United States promoting her products and launching a successful mail order business.
Businesswoman – Madam Walker worked tirelessly. Her hair care products were intended specifically for African-American women and it was there she kept her focus. She set up demonstrations in churches and knocked on doors. Eventually she realized the need to expand her sales force. It ended up being her greatest asset. She recruited black women and trained them to become Walker Agents (http://www.aleliabundles.com/2013/02/05/madam-walker-and-20000-agents/). She organized them into state and local chapters making sure they were well educated in the proper applications of her hair products. With her eye always on expansion, she created a Special Correspondence Course of Beauty Culture in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her program was threefold. It taught women not only about her beauty products and how to use them but also personal presentation and finally sales.
In 1917, Madam Walker held a convention in Philadelphia for the Madam Walker Beauty Culturists (https://www.mcjwbeautyculture.com/). It was the first of many. There she handed out prizes to those agents who had the best sales and recruitment. She also rewarded those who gave most in the way of charity in their communities. Social and political issues were always close to her heart.
She had established the home base for her business in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1910 where she purchased a home and added a laboratory, beauty salon and factory. Business was booming. A little over a year after moving to Indianapolis, Madam Walker applied to the Indiana Secretary of State to become incorporated. Her petition was approved and the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company of Indiana Incorporated came to be. She was the sole proprietor and owned all the stock.
Philanthropy- Madam Walker never forgot where she came from and was as dedicated to improving the lives of others as she was in her business endeavors particularly that of African-Americans. In a conversation with Booker T. Washington in 1912 she said, “ I am in the business world, not for myself alone, but to do all the good I can for the uplift of my race.” She was both a political activist and a major contributor to several organizations including the NAACP and the YMCA.
Madam Walker was diagnosed with hypertension in 1917 shortly after she purchased a home in New York to be closer to her daughter. Though she was given medical advice to slow down, she continued to travel and keep speaking engagements. Even when her health problems finally slowed her down, she was part of a Harlem delegation that went to Washington DC to plea for the rights of returning black veterans who had volunteered in the First World War.
She left most of her estate to charity when she died on May 25, 1919 at the age of 51. Her legacy left a trail of educational scholarships, political activism and much needed donations to organizations advancing the cause of African-Americans. Madam C.J. Walker's rags to riches efforts to achieve the American Dream served not only as an inspiration to women then but to all women of all races ever since.
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