The year was 1867 and Sarah Breedlove was born on December 23 to slaves on a Delta, Louisiana Plantation. Sarah Breedlove went from the daughter of former slaves to becoming an entrepreneur the first black millionaire. The journey for Sarah was not easy. As you can imagine she had her share of struggles and hardships as a black woman from the South in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Some of those hardships included being an orphaned at seven and being a widow and single parent at eighteen.
It was her own ailment that led her to success. She developed a scalp condition that caused her to lose her hair in the 1890’s. She began creating home-remedies for hair care. She then married her third husband Charles Joseph Walker and officially changes her name to Madame C.J. Walker. She created her own business selling her product “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower”. Madam C.J. Walker traveled selling her products door to door for over a year. Part of her marketing plan included demonstrations at local churches.
After her travels she moved to Pittsburgh and opened Lelia College, after her daughter A’Lelia. Here she trained “hair culturists” to sell and advertise her products. In 1910, she moved to Indianapolis and built a factory. In 1913, Walker expanded her brand and business to Central America and the Caribbean. She then moved to New York in 1916 where she continued to oversee her business in New York. She also continued to support philanthropies giving $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement and continued to be an advocate and supporter for black rights in America.
The key to her success is seen in many female cosmetic businesses we see today. Like Mary Kay and Avon, she created sales agent positions to do the actual the selling and marketing and also did demonstration for clients. She organized agents into local and state clubs and created a reward system as well as held conventions for her sales agents.
At her death at the age of 51, approximately 40,000 black women had been trained sales agents. Madam C.J. Walker is one the first successful self-made American businesswomen and a pioneer of the modern black hair-care and cosmetics industry. She worked hard to achieve her accomplishments and is on the most influential black entrepreneurs of the 1900s.
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was 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.” – Madam Walker, 1912
Bundles, A’Lelia. (n.d.). Madam C.J. Walker: A Brief Biographical Essay. Retrieved July 30, 2012, from http://www.madamcjwalker.com/bios/madam-c-j-walker/
Lagace, Martha. 2007, 25 June. HBS Cases: Beauty Entrepreneur Madam Walker. Retrieved from http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5662.html
The New York Times. (n.a.). 1919, May 26. Obituary: Wealthiest Negress Dead Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1223.html