by Suhas Rachaveti
Madam C.J. Walker was the first female self-made millionaire in America. She is an inspiration to many today because though she was an African American living in the 19th and 20th centuries, she didn’t let that stop her from becoming successful.
She made her money by starting a hair business, which provided hair treatment and hair products for African American women all across the United States.
Nevertheless, this wealth didn’t come easy due to racial segregation, the denial of women’s rights, and to some extent, the fact that she was born into a poor family.
Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 to a newly freed African American family in Louisiana. Her parents died within a few years of her birth. She moved to Mississippi to live with her extended family, where she got married at 14 and had her one and only child, A'Lelia, a few years later.
After the death of her first husband, she decided to move to St.Louis and worked as a washerwoman. Due to stress, poverty, and other ailments, Sarah lost most of her hair during her 30s.
Most African American women during these times also lost their hair prematurely due to a lack of proper hair care and regular bathing. This predicament was what sparked Sarah's interest in hair care. Not long after,
Sarah started working for Annie Malone, who owned a haircare business. Meanwhile, on the side, Sarah started to create her own hair care recipes. She eventually married her second husband C.J. Walker and was known as Madam C.J. Walker in 1906. C.J. or Charles fully supported Sarah’s desire to start her own hair care business called Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.
Sarah and her husband traveled to Denver to promote their hair care technique for African American women. What really helped her sell her products was through using her own pictures to show how her hair had improved through using this technique.
This was revolutionary because most other businesses selling hair care products used white women, and darkened their skin in their pictures to attract African American women to buy their products. This in turn gave many women false hope that they would achieve soft and silky hair.
These businesses also almost always had mixed African American and White sales agents in order to attract their customers. Sarah distinguished herself by employing African American women as sales agents in order to give her customers an accurate representation of what their hair could look like.
Sarah left her daughter in charge of the Denver branch and moved her business headquarters to Pittsburgh in 1908. Here, she even opened up a beauty college to educate her sales agents, who were called Walker girls.
These Walker girls were revolutionary because they received an enormous amount of money compared to the wages of a domestic servant. Sarah provided her workers with good wages because her goal was to improve the financial standing of African American women nationwide.
In 1910, she moved her headquarters to Indianapolis. Here, she established a beauty school and a factory and much more for her business. Her business boomed and by the time of her death in 1919, she employed thousands of African American women, with some even filling up management positions.
She had a huge impact on society due to her wealth. She created the “National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents” to teach her employees how to be successful businesswomen because many of them owned franchises. After her death, her daughter continued her legacy by expanding the business into Central American countries.
Later in Sarah’s life, she was able to achieve her true goal, which was to help the African American community across the United States. She gave money to African American organizations such as the YMCA. She also supported and participated in anti-lynching protests. and even submitted a petition to end these unjust actions against Africa Americans.
Sarah died in 1919 due to kidney failure and achieved a net worth of just over a million dollars, which is worth around 15 million dollars today. She even bought an estate close to the Rockefeller’s and many other influential families.
Madam Walker serves as an inspiration to many because she was able to succeed in not only a male-dominated society but also a vehemently racist society during segregation. She was able to take an idea as small as hair products and turn them into a successful venture. She did not let anything stop her from succeeding and through her successful path, improved the lives of many in her community.