October 1, 2019

Celebrating Great People - Madam C. J. Walker

The world loves a rags to riches story (or at least I do), particularly when it happens thanks to the person's own hard work (as opposed to a Cinderella story).

So today I'm going to speak a little about the great Madam C. J. Walker.

Born Sarah Breedlove two days before Christmas 1867 in Louisiana, Madam C. J. Walker is touted as the first female self-made millionaire (1). Not only that, but she was also a philanthropist, social activist, and patron of the arts. Truly an all-round source of inspiration.

Sarah's parents and her five older siblings were slaves on a cotton plantation, and she was the first of the family to be born free thanks to signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln. Unfortunately, she lost both her parents by the time she was seven. This forced her to start working at 10 as a domestic servant (in the kitchens), having received very little formal education prior to that through Sunday school.

"There is no royal flower-strewn path to success. 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."

She married at 14, became a mother at 18, but when she lost her husband, Sarah moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where she barely made a living as a laundress. This job, however, on top of being thankless, was really rough on her health, and she developed a number of scalp-related issues, including baldness.

Around 1904, Sarah started selling the hair care products of another entrepreneur and future rival (2), and used her spare time to develop her own line. This side business of hers got her in trouble with her employer, who accused her of stealing her formula (despite the ingredients having been in use loooooong before any of these women were born).

A couple of years later, after getting married to Charles Walker, Sarah started her own enterprise and became known as Madam C. J. Walker. She was 36.

"I got my start by giving myself a start."

In the years that followed, the family relocated several times, opening and closing beauty parlors and schools where they could train other women in the business, and also teach them how to become financially independent (3). Then, in 1910, Madam Walker settled in Indianapolis where she opened the Madam Walker Manufacturing Company headquarters.
Advertising for Madam Walker products

The headquarters grew to include factories, hair salon, beauty school, R&D lab, and a large sales force. Best of all, is that Madam Walker was an equal opportunity employer and hired many women to work for her, including in managerial positions!

Now, to stress the importance of this fact, I would like to remind that back then, women were considered second-rate citizens with very few rights, if any (women in America weren't allowed to vote until 1920, so ten years later, and only in 1948 did women in Belgium get full voting rights).

Part of her success came from the fact that Madam Walker was the queen of advertising. She knew the importance of branding (even her sales force had strict uniform rules), and flooded newspapers and magazines with ads. Not only that, but she ended up being an advocate for many causes (including education for girls), gave public speeches across the country, and donated to a number of philanthropic causes, for, in her own words, "Your first duty is to humanity."

Madam Walker passed away at 51, shortly after the end of WWI, and received much posthumous and well-deserved recognition for her contributions.

"I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them."

Ad for competing product Poro
(where Sarah first started in the hair product bus.)

(1) Although technically her net worth at death was estimated at around $600K, if you account for  inflation, that would equate to almost $9M in 2018...so yeah, first self-made woman millionaire!

(2) Annie Malone. She, Like Madam C. J. Walker, was also orphaned at an early age, but was able to attend school and study chemistry. Studies which, although interrupted due to illness, she put to good use to develop her hair care products.

(3)  She also taught women how to budget and build a business.

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