Today, media mogul Oprah Winfrey is recognized as the first self-made, American, female billionaire, but before Oprah, there was Sarah Breedlove, known as Madame C. J. Walker, the first self-made, American, female millionaire. She invented a hair product and built it into an empire that made her a fortune.
This was a miracle considering how her life began! Sarah was born on December 23, 1867 in rural poverty, on a cotton plantation in Delta, Louisiana to Owen and Minerva Breedlove. Her parents and five elder siblings had been slaves on the plantation. Sarah was born after the Emancipation Proclamation and was the first in her family to be born free. By the time Sarah was seven years old both parents had died, leaving her and an older sister, Louvenia, to fend for themselves. The two girls survived by working in the cotton fields of Delta and Vicksburg, Mississippi. Sarah married when she was fourteen to, as she had stated, “have my own home” and escape a “cruel” brother- in-law. In 1885, when she was seventeen, Sarah had her only child, a daughter named A’Lelia. Two years later her husband was killed, and she and her toddler moved to St. Louis, Missouri to join her brothers, who were established barbers. Sarah worked as a laundrywoman and managed to save enough money to educate her daughter. She also became involved with the National Association of Colored Women, a group of educated and social minded women that helped to inspire Sarah to better her life.
A BUSINESS IS BORN
During the 1890’s, Sarah started losing her hair due to a scalp ailment. This turned out to be a blessing! Embarrassed by her appearance, she started experimenting with home-made remedies she mixed herself, using as a base ingredient, products made by another black woman entrepreneur, Annie Malone. In 1905, Sarah became a sales agent for Malone and moved to Denver, where she met and married the handsome and suave, Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman.
Sarah changed her name to Madame C. J. Walker, founded her own business and began selling her own product mixture called ‘Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower’, a scalp conditioning and healing formula. She was a marketing genius for her time. She embarked on promotional tours throughout the South and Southeast, promoting and selling her products door to door, giving demonstrations, and working on new sales and marketing strategies. In 1908, she opened a hair college in Pittsburgh to train her “hair culturists.”
Her products were the foundation of a corporation that, in its heyday, employed over 3,000 people. The Walker system also included a line of cosmetics, licensed Walker Agents, and her Walker Schools that empowered thousands of Black women with meaningful employment and personal growth opportunities. Within fifteen years, due to aggressive marketing strategy and relentless ambition, Madam Walker had amassed a fortune and was recognized as the first self- made, female millionaire!
Madam Walker used her money and position to influence the lives of other women and her community. She was a dedicated philanthropist, a devoted civil rights and political activist. In 1917 she was part of a delegation that travelled to the Whitehouse to petition President Woodrow Wilson to make lynching a federal crime. Madam Walker eventually relocated to New York where she died at the age of 52, on May 25, 1919, at her mansion on the Villa Lewaro, in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, which is designated a National Historic Landmark. In 1998, the United States Postal Service issued Madam C. J. Walker a stamp as part of its “Black Heritage” Series.
Madam Walker’s prescription for success:
“There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” she once observed.
“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.”