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In the early 1900s, Madam C.J. Walker turned her homemade recipes for hair and scalp-care products into a business empire that made her the USA’s first self-made black female millionaire.
A century later, Walker’s legacy — which extends far beyond her business successes —inspires new generations of female African-American entrepreneurs vying for a piece of the multibillion-dollar black cosmetics industry.
“As one of the pioneers of modern hair care and cosmetics, Madam Walker is still an inspiration to a lot of people going into the business,” says A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great-granddaughter.
Bundles, who wrote a biography of Walker, points to the women behind several successful black cosmetics brands, including Lisa Price, founder of Carol’s Daughter; sisters Miko and Titi Branch, founders of Miss Jessie’s; and Nadine Thompson of Soul Purpose Lifestyle Co.
“They have often spoken of Madam Walker as their inspiration,” Bundles says.
The prologue of Bundles’s book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, lays out Walker’s far-reaching legacy as:
–A pioneer of the modern cosmetics industry who created marketing schemes, training opportunities and distribution strategies as innovative as those of any entrepreneur of her time.
–An early advocate of women’s economic independence, providing income for thousands of African-American women who otherwise might have been consigned to jobs as farm laborers, washerwomen and maids.
–A philanthropist who helped shape the philosophy of charitable giving in the black community.
–A political activist who used her economic clout to protest lynchings and racial injustice.
“As much as any woman of the twentieth century,” Bundles wrote, “Madam Walker paved the way for the profound social changes that altered women’s place in American society.”
Walker’s story is as awe-inspiring as any of the USA’s other great rags-to-riches tales.
Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867 on a Louisiana cotton plantation to parents who were recently freed slaves. Orphaned at age 7, she married at 14, then was widowed, with a young daughter, by the time she was 20.
The young mother joined the millions of other blacks who left the South for the hope of a better life in Northern urban centers, moving to St. Louis in the late 1880s. The move reunited her with four brothers, who worked as barbers, and she found jobs as a laundry woman and cook.
Like many African-American women of that time, she suffered from a scalp ailment that caused her to lose her hair. And like many others, she found there were few products designed to help with the specific properties of black women’s hair.
Bundles’ wrote in her biography that she “consulted her brothers for advice and also experimented with many homemade remedies and store-bought products, including those made by Annie Malone, another black woman entrepreneur.”
In 1905, she moved to Denver to work as a sales agent for Malone. But with the assistance of Charles J. Walker, a newspaper publisher she met and married in Colorado, the woman now known as Madam C.J. Walker soon struck out on her own. He helped with marketing ideas that led her to open a mail-order sales business, along with a beauty parlor and training school in Pittsburgh.
With her new business thriving, the entrepreneur moved to Indianapolis in 1910 and opened a manufacturing operation. The facility was needed to meet the demand for her products which, at the business’s peak, were sold by more than 15,000 sales agents across the USA and in several foreign countries. She also opened a nationwide chain of beauty colleges.
It was in Indianapolis where Walker began to leverage her business success and money to improve the lives of others and fight discrimination. She provided jobs for black women when opportunities other than farm labor and menial housework were scarce. She campaigned against the lynchings of blacks, and donated to black colleges and universities. She gave money to help save the Washington, D.C., home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and to establish the first YMCA for blacks. And she did this at a time when women in American — black or white — didn’t even have the right to vote.
Walker left Indianapolis in 1916, moving to New York, where she died in 1919 at age 51. She was inducted into the National Business Hall of Fame in 1992, joining the likes of Sam Walton, Steve Jobs and Richard Sears.
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“You can’t talk about the history of black hair care or business without talking about Madam C.J. Walker,” says Lori L. Tharps, an associate professor of journalism at Temple University and co-author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America. “Her genius was not so much her products, but the marketing and the idea of giving black women the gift of pampering themselves, of allowing them to take pleasure in cosmetics and hair grooming.”