Women is...: Madam C.J. Walker, Historic Entrepreneur

Madam C.J. Walker, Historic Entrepreneur

profession: A black hair-care tycoon, Madam C.J. was America's first woman self-made millionaire (of any race).

lifespan: Dec. 23, 1867 - May 25, 1919.

the basic story: Today the only African-American woman in the U.S. National Business Hall of Fame, she was the founder and CEO of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, the nation's first successful black-hair-care products firm, headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana.

first steps: Born Sarah Breedlove to former slaves on a Louisiana cotton plantation, she was orphaned at age 7, married at age 14, widowed with a small daughter at age 20. At age 37, after working for 20 years as a laundress, she invented an effective grooming and conditioning product for African-American hair.

"I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South," she said. I was promoted from there to the washtub. Then I was promoted to the cook kitchen, and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations."
the way up: Starting with $1.50 in capital (her week's wages as a washerwoman), she mixed her first products in her washtub and personally peddled her "Wonderful Hair Grower" door to door. From those beginnings, she built a fortune that was estimated, upon her death, at $2 million.

her empire: Founded in 1905, her company included a factory employing 50. Thousands of women were trained in her Walker Hair Care Method at her beauty school, Lelia College, and through special courses she set up at other black schools and colleges. Many went on to operate their own hair salons.

"I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself, for I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race," she said.

Madam C.J. also organized a sales force of more than 20,000 agents in the U.S., the Caribbean and Central America.

household: Madam Walker took her professional name from her third husband, Charles James Walker -- a sales agent for a black newspaper -- whose marketing skills were helpful in building her company. Although the couple divorced in 1912, he remained a Walker sales agent for the rest of his life, and she kept his name and her franchise.
her legacy: Madam's daughter A'Lelia moved the business to New York City, where she held a well-known salon for artists and intellectuals, earning her the title "Joy Goddess of the Harlem Renaissance" from poet Langston Hughes. A'Lelia's daughter and granddaughter went on to run the business in Madam Walker's stead, until it was sold in 1985.

on overcoming barriers: "If I have accomplished anything in life, it is because I have been willing to work hard. I never yet started anything doubtingly, and I have always believed in keeping at things with a vim. There is no royal flower-strewn road to success, and if there is, I have not found it, for what success I have obtained is the result of many sleepless nights and real hard work."

on the image of her business: "Now I realize that in the so-called higher walks of life, many were prone to look down on 'hair dressers,' as they called us. They didn't have a very high opinion of our calling, so I had to go down and dignify this work, so much so that many of the best women of this race are now engaged in this line of work."
on black women entrepreneurs: The girls and women of our race must not be afraid to take hold of business endeavors and. . . wring success out of a number of business opportunities that lie at their very doors."

On philanthropy: While still a laundress, she developed the habit of giving back to her community, by serving as a member of the missionary society of the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Louis. Later, as a wealthy businesswoman, she contributed money to the likes of the NAACP (especially its anti-lynching campaign fighting mob violence and racist terrorism against blacks), the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, the YWCA, YMCA and many black educational organizations.

on her support for the black community: My business is largely supported by my own people, so why shouldn't I spend my own money so it will go back into colored homes?"

her two landmarks: The Walker Building, an office and theater complex built by Madam Walker in Indianapolis, and her grand Villa Lewaro, a Hudson River mansion in Irvington, N.Y., are maintained today as National Historic Landmarks.

The preservation of the villa fulfills Madam Walker's hope that her magnificent palace --"that only Negro money had bought" -- would stand as a monument "what a lone woman had accomplished."