Madam C. J. Walker—entrepreneur, philanthropist, activist, patron of the arts—was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on the same Delta, Louisiana plantation where her parents had been enslaved. Orphaned at seven, married at 14 and widowed at 20 with a two-year-old daughter, she moved to St. Louis where three older brothers owned a barbershop. Throughout the 1890s—in the neighborhood where ragtime music was born—she worked as a laundress, sang in her church choir and began to aspire to a better life as she observed the educated, civic-minded women at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Around 1900, necessity became the mother of invention as she began to go bald. Stress, poor diet and hygiene-related scalp disease—in an era when most Americans lacked indoor plumbing and electricity in their homes—contributed to her hair loss. She consulted her barber brothers, experimented with home remedies and briefly sold hair care products made by Annie Turnbo Malone, who would become her fiercest competitor. Through trial and error—and with the aid of a Denver pharmacist—she developed her own curative shampoo and ointment and founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1906 soon after marrying her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker. By the time she died on May 25, 1919, she had become a millionaire, trained thousands of women in the Walker System of Hair Culture, involved herself in the political debates of her day and bequeathed tens of thousands of dollars to charitable organizations, educational institutions and political causes.
Whenever she was asked the secret to her success, she would say, “There is no royal flower strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it, for whatever success I have attained has been the result of much hard work and many sleepless nights.” And yet, there are certain tenets that were key to achieving her goals. Today she continues to inspire entrepreneurs and anyone who faces obstacles. Here are a few secrets to Madam C.J. Walker's astonishing success:
TAKE THE INITIATIVE
“I got my start by giving myself a start!” − Madam C.J. Walker (1917)
In 1917—two years before Mary Kay Ash of Mary Kay Cosmetics was born—Madam C. J. Walker convened her sales agents and beauty culturists for three days of training and motivation. More than 200 women—many who had been maids, cooks and sharecroppers—assembled in Philadelphia at one of the first national gatherings of women entrepreneurs. Walker gave prizes not only to the agents who had sold the most products, but to those whose local Walker clubs had contributed the most to charity. At the end of the convention, the women spoke out against the recent riots in East St. Louis and sent a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson urging him to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime.
BE AHEAD OF THE CURVE
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the wash tub. . .from there to the kitchen. . .and from there, I promoted myself!” − Madam C.J. Walker (1912)
In 1913—when fewer than 10 percent of licensed drivers were women—Madam Walker owned three automobiles: a Ford Model T, a Waverly Electric and a luxury, seven-passenger Cole Touring Car. For afternoon trips to the movies, she preferred her Waverly. For an overseas sales trip to Cuba, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica that year, she shipped the Cole and brought along her chauffeur.
Today we take for granted the hundreds of hair care products available in our favorite stores. But when Walker founded her company more than a century ago, cosmetics manufacturing was in its infancy. Along with her contemporaries like Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden, she was a pioneer of what is now a multi-billion dollar international beauty and personal care products industry.
LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE
“Having a good article for the market is one thing. Putting it properly before the public is another.” − Madam C.J. Walker (1916)
Madam Walker understood the power of advertising. At a time when the prevailing standard of beauty was European hair texture and facial features, she boldly displayed her own image on her products to appeal to her core market of African-American women. She advertised extensively in black newspapers, employing the kind of testimonial endorsements and “before and after” photographs that still are effective today. Long before radio, television, the Internet and social media, her products were well-known and widely distributed throughout the United States and the Caribbean.
“I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race.” − Madam C.J. Walker (1914)
During the early 1900s, when most black women were excluded from jobs other than as household domestics or farm workers, Madam Walker provided a path to financial independence and less drudgery. At her annual conventions, her sales agents talked about earning money to educate their children, purchase real estate and contribute to charitable causes. “You have made it possible for me to make more money in a week than I could in a month working in someone else’s kitchen,” one woman wrote to her.
With the exception of Freeman B. Ransom, her attorney and business manager, most of Walker’s key executives were women including her factory manager, her national sales manager and her bookkeeper.
“Now my object in life is not simply to make money for myself or to spend it on myself in dressing or running around in any automobile, but I love to use a part of what I make to help others.” − Madam C.J. Walker (1912)
Even when Madam Walker was a poor washerwoman, she contributed a few pennies each week to her church’s missionary society. Soon after she moved to Indianapolis in 1910, she pledged $1,000 to the building fund of a new black YMCA. During the next several years she assisted young musicians and artists and also provided scholarships for students at several schools including Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute and Mary McLeod Bethune’s Daytona Normal and Industrial Institute for Girls. During World War I, she and her daughter led a fundraising campaign to purchase an ambulance for black soldiers. Shortly before her death in May 1919, her $5,000 pledge to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund was the largest individual gift the organization ever had received.
BE OPEN TO NEW IDEAS & UNEXPLORED TERRITORY
“Girls and women must not be afraid to. . .wring success out of a number of business opportunities that lie at their very doors.” − Madam C.J. Walker (1913)
As with most parents, a large part of Madam Walker’s early motivation was ensuring that her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, would have more opportunities than she had had. After managing their Denver and Pittsburgh offices from 1906 to 1913, A’Lelia persuaded her mother to open an office and beauty school in Harlem just as the neighborhood was becoming a mecca of African-American culture and political activism. That timely presence catapulted them and their company onto an even larger stage and placed A’Lelia Walker at the center of the Harlem Renaissance. Parties at “The Dark Tower”—a converted floor of their 136th Street townhouse—attracted artists, writers, musicians, actors, political figures and socialites, and inspired poet Langston Hughes to dub A’Lelia Walker “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.”
BE BOLD & COURAGEOUS
“Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. You have to get up and make them for yourself!” − Madam C.J. Walker
Madam Walker hired Vertner Woodson Tandy, one of New York State’s first licensed black architects, to design her Irvington-on-Hudson, NY mansion with a view of Hudson River sunsets. She officially opened the home in August 1918 with a conference of civil rights leaders and entertainment by the top black musicians of the day. After her death in 1919, her daughter continued the tradition of important gatherings, hosting the president of Liberia for a grand, fireworks filled Fourth of July weekend in 1921. Known as Villa Lewaro, it is a National Historic Landmark and recently was named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
INVEST IN FUTURE GENERATIONS
“I want young people to see what can be accomplished by thrift, industry and intelligent investment of money.” − Madam C.J. Walker
When Madam Walker built Villa Lewaro, she hoped it would inspire young African Americans to “see a wealth of business possibilities” and to “do big things.” Before her death, she had begun acquiring property in Indianapolis for a new corporate headquarters. What now is known as the Madam Walker Theatre Center opened in December 1927 with an African Art Deco theater, beauty school, hair salon, restaurant, ballroom, drugstore and manufacturing facility. Today it is a National Historic Landmark and an arts education and performance venue.
A’Lelia Bundles—Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker—shares the story of her famous female relatives through her Madam Walker Family Archives. She is chairman of the board of the National Archives Foundation in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter @aleliabundles