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The pioneer of female entrepreneurship

Over 100 years ago Madam C. J. Walker paved the way for female entrepreneurs.

It wasn't always common to read stories of successful business women. Before the days of modern power brokers like Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey, it was much harder for women to achieve business success and financial independence.

This started to change 100 years ago, when an African American woman used her unique understanding of business and marketing to create a successful line of personal care products. This is the tale of Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madam C.J. Walker, the pioneer of female entrepreneurship in America.

The life story of C. J. Walker is a classic example of human triumph motivated by sheer determination. From a lowly laborer, she became the first self-made American women millionaire. Not with the help of any genie or fairy godmother, but through hard work.

A Childhood of Suffering

Sarah Breedlove was born in the post Civil War era, on December 23, 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. Her parents, Owen and Minerva Breedlove, worked as sharecroppers in a plantation. Their family lived in poverty, which explains why Sarah only had little education. She was orphaned at the age of seven, so she stayed with her sister Louvina in Mississippi.

However, Louvina's husband mistreated her. She could not bear her stepbrother's cruelty, so she stowed away and married Moses McWilliams. They were blessed with a daughter whom she named Lelia, but she was soon widowed when her husband was murdered by a mob.

Despite this grave loss, Sarah did not falter. She took her daughter to Missouri, and carried on with their lives there. By performing domestic tasks as a washerwoman and housecleaner, she was able to provide for her daughter's education in the public schools of St. Louis. She made sure that Lelia got what she was deprived of. 1

At a young age, Sarah had already experienced severe emotional anguish. But as her sufferings escalated, the stronger she became. She had felt the scars of pain, which fueled her determination.

Life Changing Dream

Sarah's burden mounted, and that led to tremendous stress which caused her to lose some hair. She tried several treatments, but none was able to solve her hair problems. Fortunately, she had a dream that answered her prayers.

In her narration, she said that a "big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out"

She experimented with the formula and asked her friends with the same hair problems to try it out. It proved to be effective, for they had the same positive results. At that point, she realized that there weren't many cosmetic products that cater to African-American women.2

Sarah saw this as an opportunity to start a business in order to capitalize with this untapped market. That time, many black women needed hair care products that would suit them, and she offered the solution. Little did she know that this would be her first step in the path of becoming a millionaire. In 1905, she set off for Denver, with only $2.00 in her pocket.

Sarah demonstrated the value of knowing your market before engaging in any business activity. As an African-American woman, she was well aware of their demands. She was able to empathize with them. Aside from the business profits, she also wanted them to have a good fashion sense, and be more presentable in society.

Early Business Ventures

Her stay in Denver opened another romantic chapter in her life when she met Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper man equipped with advertising skills. They married in 1906, and since then, Sarah changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker.

As she started with her new business of selling hair grower, Charles helped her out with marketing strategies. They were earning decently, around $10 a day.

Madam felt that she could do more. She started planning for possible business expansion. She wanted to have a wide array of beauty products that included facial creams, and a metal comb that is heated for hair straightening.3

Building an Empire

In the following years, Madam Walker traveled in the South, places that were heavily populated by African-Americans. She personally endorsed, marketed, and sold her products, moving from house to house. Her business eventually prospered, and she started to travel across the states to achieve her dream of expansion.

In 1908, she moved to Pittsburgh, where she began training "hair culturists". In 1910, she transferred to Indiana, the heart of the manufacturing industry. There, she built a factory that she called "Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company". She also had a salon and a training facility. In 1913, she went to the Caribbean and Central America to augment business growth. And in 1916, she settled in New York and she ran the company branch there. As her business expanded and as her workforce of sales agents and hair dressers grew larger, Madam Walker became very wealthy. 4


Her success in the consumer products business was truly inspiring, especially at that time of racial segregation. Madam Walker's affluent lifestyle did not hinder her from performing her social obligation - to advocate the empowerment of the African-American women in business.

First of all, her businesses absorbed many black women, making them self-sufficient. She served as a speaker and lecturer in programs sponsored by many African-American institutions like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She also gave huge donations to several fund raising activities geared towards the development of the African-American heritage. Likewise, she "revised her will to support black schools, organizations, individuals, orphanages, retirement homes, as well as YWCAs and YMCAs." 5

A fulfilling life

Madam Walker died on March 25, 1919 due to hypertension. Some accounts recognize her as the first American women, of any race, to be a millionaire. Her wealth was not handed to her on a silver platter. She shed blood, sweat, and tears to be successful in business. She did not hesitate to use her influence in order to encourage her fellow African-Americans to follow the same road that she took, a road filled with obstacles that one can overcome by having a firm vision.

And her life is not fiction.

1. http://madame-cj-walker.com/madame-cj-walker/madame-cj-walker-Sarah-Breedlove-McWilliams-Walker-millionaire-hair-care-straightening-products-2.shtml
2. http://www.blackinventor.com/pages/madamewalker.html
3. http://www.africawithin.com/bios/cj_walker.htm
4. http://www.madamecjwalker.com
5. http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/walk-mad.htm

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