What Madam CJ Walker Can Teach Black Women Entrepreneurs

With women of color, specifically Black women, accounting for the recent boom in newly-opened businesses across the nation, having a sound understanding of strong business practices has never been more crucial. However, with an onslaught of systemic obstacles plaguing women of color in America, how can we find long-term success in a world meant for us to fail?

The only viable answer is to look back to the prosperous women of our past to learn and refine possible solutions—and what better woman to reminisce about than the one and only Madam CJ Walker?

Who is Madam CJ Walker?

Born Sarah Breedlove in Delta, Louisiana on December 23, 1867, Madam CJ Walker was the first of her family to be born free due to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. She was the daughter of slaves, Owen and Minerva, with five other siblings, the oldest of which worked on a neighboring plantation owned by Robert W. Burney in Madison Parish.

With her mother dying of cholera in 1872 and her father passing shortly after, Madam CJ Walker was orphaned at the young age of seven years old. By the age of 10, she moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi to live with her older sister, Louvenia, and her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell.

With only three months of formal education, she received from short-lived Sunday school literacy lessons, Madam CJ Walker served as a domestic servant as a child.

In 1882, at the age of 14, she married Moses McWilliams to escape her abusive brother-in-law. Together, the couple had a daughter, A’Lelia, in 1885; however, when Madam CJ Walker was twenty years old and her daughter only two, Moses passed away.

Nearly ten years later, Madam CJ Walker married her second husband, John Davis, who she then soon after left, concluding their nine-year union.

Madam C. J. Walker, c.1914. Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/

In 1906, she remarried a newspaper advertising salesman from St. Louis by the name of Charles Joseph Walker. Through this marriage, Madam CJ Walker adopted her famous namesake, and her daughter took her new step-father’s last name as well. The couple would divorce in 1912, resulting in yet another short-lived marriage, and Charles Walker passed away in 1926.

In 1888, Madam CJ Walker and her daughter moved to St. Louis, where her three brothers also lived and worked as barbers. She found work as a laundress; however, given that her work barely paid a dollar a day, her early career was far from lucrative. Nevertheless, she was determined to provide her young daughter with the extensive formal education she never had.

After joining and singing in the choir at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, she, herself, began to yearn to be like the educated women she regularly saw within her ministry. Further, her teachers and mentors from the National Association of Colored Women only inspired her craving for formal education more.

A fire of determination for a better life burned within Madam CJ Walker as she began thinking of ways to manifest her aspirations.

Madam CJ Walker’s Rise to Millionaire Status

Like most women of the 19th century, Madam CJ Walker suffered from several scalp conditions, including severe dandruff and baldness. Such ailments were widespread due to the lack of indoor plumbing, common skin diseases, and the use of harsh detergents on the scalp.

Seeing a need for adequate hair care products, Madam CJ Walker first began experimenting on possible formulas after learning about Black hair care from her older brothers. Putting her creations on the backburner, she became a commission agent selling Black hair care products for the Poro Company—a business founded by Black woman entrepreneur Annie Malone.

Madam CJ Walker worked under Annie Malone for about two years, collecting enough knowledge to begin her own hair care product line after moving to Denver, Colorado in 1905. While in Denver, she worked as a cook for a pharmacist. There, she picked up the basic skills in chemistry that allowed her to perfect her ointment that healed dandruff and other hair conditions.

The black woman entrepreneur

While married to Charles Walker, who acted as her business partner and marketing advisor, she branded herself as an independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams.

With a fierce determination to become a successful black woman entrepreneur, Madam CJ Walker initially established most of her clientele by going door to door to sell her products. As her fanbase grew, she also began teaching local Black women how to properly groom and care for their hair using her products. Her product line soon became known as the “Walker Method” and the “Walker System of Beauty Culture”.

In 1906, Madam CJ Walker and her husband traveled to the Southern and Eastern parts of the United States to create a national network for her business while her daughter, now 21, stayed behind to take mail-orders from clients.

After successfully expanding her business, Madam CJ Walker and her family relocated to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where she successfully opened the Lelia College of Beauty Culture, named after her only daughter, to train her future employees called “hair culturists”.

Madam CJ Walker’s uplifting the black community

As her business grew in prestige, Madam CJ Walker decided to relocate the headquarters of her company to Indianapolis, a city booming with Black businesses, in 1910. She would go on to employ more than 3,000 peoplemainly Black women who would otherwise be domestic servants, cooks, or farmhands—to work her new establishment.

Apart from rebuilding her factory, hair salon, and beauty school, Madam CJ Walker also installed a laboratory to expand research for her product line.

Wanting to grow the network for her booming business further, she also established an office and beauty salon in New York City’s growing Harlem neighborhood in 1913, which became a center for Black Culture for New Yorkers.

With business booming, expansions of her company running successfully, and loyal clients all over the nation, Madam CJ Walker was well on her way to dominating the business scene of the early 1900s.

Trained hair culturists doing the ‘Walker Method’ on clients. Credit: https://historycollection.co/

She easily made upwards of $35, or roughly $1,075 today, weekly from her sales—which was twice the salary of the average White man and 20 times that of the average Black woman. By 1917, she gracefully took the title as one of Black America’s most successful entrepreneurs and its first female millionaire, and by 1919 she claimed more than 25,000 active Walker hair culturists.

To commemorate her long-term success, Madam CJ Walker commissioned black architect Vernet Tandy to build her a grand mansion on the Hudson River in Irvington, New York. However, due to complications with hypertension and kidney failure, Madam CJ Walker didn’t get much time to enjoy her new lavish home.

She passed on May 25, 1919, at the age of 51.

In Death There’s Legacy

More than a mere businesswoman, Madam CJ Walker was also an astute and giving philanthropist. She made several significant donations to causes she deeply believed in, all of which were focused on the liberation of Black people. Some of her most notable donations included a $1,000 gift (roughly $20,200 today) to the African American Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and a $5,000 gift (about $101,050 today) to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) anti-lynching fund.

She also made a multitude of financial contributions to students who attended Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and boarding schools, as well as to orphanages and retirement homes. Madam CJ Walker was also very politically active, as she spoke out against lynching at the Negro Silent Protest Parade and even advocated for Black soldiers who fought in France during World War I while visiting the White House in 1917.

In total, Madam CJ Walker died with a net worth of $600,000, which is equal to roughly $8.7 million today. Apart from her copious amount of assets, which she left most of to her daughter, A’Lelia, she left this world with a legacy like none other. Madam CJ Walker is a testament to where a Black woman can end up when she has enough grit and tenacity to follow her dreams.

Lessons for Contemporary Black Women Entrepreneurs

Madam CJ Walker’s trailblazing story can easily act as a model for modern-day Black women entrepreneurs. Take the issue of beginning your business, for instance. With Black women statistically less likely to receive startup loans and access to capital due to covert sexist and racist ordeals, starting maybe the hardest part of running a sustainable business. However, much like Madam CJ Walker said, “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.”

We, as Black women, simply cannot expect a silver spoon to be put in our mouths, but rather must create one ourselves. We must utilize all of our resources, even if we must take the time to build them from the ground up first.

Madam CJ Walker could not have begun her career without the support of her late husband, Charles Joseph Walker, and daughter, A’Lelia, for example. And from there, she went door to door, making personable connections with clientele that would go on to support her as well. Don’t be afraid to ask for the help and support you need.

Another lesson that can be learned from the legendary Madam CJ Walker is to find your niche. In a world where it seems as if everything has already been done, we must especially take Madam CJ Walker’s advice to heart: "keep in mind that you have something that the person standing before you really needs, imagine yourself a missionary and convert him." Black women entrepreneurs must find within themselves what others are missing and devise a plan on how to supply them with it.

Consider scoping out your target audience through quick surveys, polls, or inquisitive phone calls when figuring out what it is you want to sell. From there, consistently find ways to harness your craft or refine your product/service both before and during the sale of it.

Smithsonian Channel: Meet the First Self-Made Female Millionaire

Madam CJ Walker would also implore contemporary Black women entrepreneurs to remember and embrace their roots. In a society that wants us to be ashamed of our tough beginnings, Madam CJ Walker actively cherished them.

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there, I got 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 … I have built my own factory on my own ground.”

Growing up during the beginning of America’s Reconstruction Era—a twelve-year initiative meant to implement basic rights for Blacks after the Union’s victory in the Civil War—made Madam CJ Walker’s early life far from comfortable.

Distraught with abject poverty and no parents to take care of her, Madam CJ Walker depended on low wages to make a living for most of her days before striking success. Further, she had to find a way to sustain a multimillion-dollar business in a war-torn country during World War I, and face extreme racism and sexism as a Black Woman of the 19th and 20th centuries. Yet through it all, she has championed every hardship by combatting them with intense determination.

Black women entrepreneurs today must lean on their supports to do the same.

Black Women Entrepreneurs working together

A final lesson Madam CJ Walker embodied was to give back, even if you don’t have much to give. One of her most famous quotes was, “I want you to understand that your first duty is to humanity. I want others to look at us and see that we care not just about ourselves but about others.”

She rallied behind causes that she believed in and prided herself on always lending a helping hand to fellow Black women. Today’s Black women entrepreneurs must also throw down a ladder to lift each other as they climb. Madam CJ Walker would also insist on giving back to causes that you are passionate about, be it via time, money, or simply word of mouth.

Seek solace in those that came before you as you push forward towards prosperity. Remember that “there is no royal flower-strewn path to success” but rather one full of curved loops and rocky roads that can always be navigated through the lessons of those that have already done so.