Today is November 1 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often do you make your own opportunities?” Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919) was the first black woman millionaire in America and made her fortune thanks to her homemade line of hair care products for black women.
Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867. Her parents, Owen and Minerva, were Louisiana sharecroppers who had been born into slavery. Sarah, their fifth child, was the first in her family to be born free after the Emancipation Proclamation. Her early life was marked by hardship; she was orphaned at six, married at fourteen (to Moses McWilliams, with whom she had a daughter, A'Lelia, in 1885) and became a widow at twenty.
Walker and 2-year-old A’Lelia moved to St. Louis, where Walker balanced working as a laundress with night school. It was in St. Louis that she first met Charles J. Walker, her future second husband. Walker was inspired to create haircare products for black women after a scalp disorder caused her to lose much of her own hair. Walker’s method, known as the “Walker system,” involved scalp preparation, lotions and iron combs. While other products for black hair (largely manufactured by white businesses) were on the market, she differentiated hers by emphasizing its attention to the health of the women who would use it.
She sold her homemade products directly to black women, using a personal approach that won her loyal customers. She went on to employ a fleet of saleswomen to sell the product whom she called “beauty culturalists.”
Walker moved to Denver, Colorado, in 1905, with just $1.05 in savings in her pocket. Her products like Wonderful Hair Grower, Glossine and Vegetable Shampoo began to gain a loyal following, changing her fortunes. Charles J. Walker moved to Denver in 1906 and they were married soon after. At first, her husband helped her with marketing, advertising, and mail orders, but as the business grew, they grew apart and the two divorced.
In 1908, Walker opened a beauty school and factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania named after her daughter. In 1910, she moved her business headquarters in Indianapolis, a city with access to railroads for distribution and a large population of African American customers. She left the management of the Pittsburgh branch to A’Lelia. At the height of production, the Madame C.J. Walker Company employed over three thousand people, largely black women who sold Walker’s products door-to-door.
Walker’s reputation as an entrepreneur and as the nation’s first African American female millionaire, was matched only by her reputation for philanthropy. She established clubs for her employees, encouraging them to give back to their communities and rewarding them with bonuses when they did. At a time when jobs for black women were fairly limited, she promoted female talent, even stipulating in her company’s charter that only a woman could serve as president. She donated generously to educational causes and black charities, funding scholarships for women at Tuskegee Institute and donating to the NAACP, the black YMCA, and dozens of other organizations that helped make black history.
Reflecting upon her ability to navigate the chaos from poverty to millionaire Walker said
“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 and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground. 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.”