“I got my start by giving myself a start.” Madam C.J. Walker, founder and CEO of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company
Most who aspire to launch a business venture must overcome significant adversity as they build their dream. It is safe to say that none faced a steeper uphill climb than Madam C.J. Walker, the orphaned daughter of freed slaves and a former laundress who became America’s first female and first African-American self-made millionaire. Born Sarah Breedlove in Louisiana in 1867, Madam Walker founded her hair care products company, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, in 1905.
She was a woman with vision; absolute belief in herself and her business model; passion, determination and courage. As all successful entrepreneurs do, she saw a problem, set about solving it and monetized the solution. That she was female and African-American in a time of enormous discrimination and limitations placed on those of her gender and race was apparently beside the point. The lady was not afraid to dream big and take action.
Walker was a savvy businesswoman who knew her customer (initially, herself). She knew there was a large and dissatisfied market waiting to be tapped (African-American women). She entered a business of which she had some knowledge— her four brothers were barbers and owned a shop together. When she developed a scalp ailment that caused her hair to thin, she consulted them for advice and experimented with various remedies, store-bought and home-made.
Walker shared the family flair for entrepreneurship and she excelled in manufacturing, sales and product distribution. Initially, she made batches of her hair care potions herself, in a washtub, and personally sold her products door to door to friends and neighbors in Denver, CO, where she had moved to give herself a fresh start after marrying at age 14, becoming a mother at age 17 and a widow at 20 years old.
Marketing was another of her strengths. To persuade women to try her product, she gave free demonstrations and created plenty of buzz along the way. Later, she implemented the operational efficiency of mail order, to expand product distribution.
By 1908, she had hired and trained a team of female sales representatives and by 1910, she employed 950 representatives who crisscrossed the country making sales and creating loyal customers. She also remarried, to Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman. She summarily launched successful newspaper advertising campaigns and adopted the name Madam C.J. Walker. A brand was born.
Walker built an international business; her products were also sold in the Caribbean and South America. By 1917, she had become the nation’s first self-made female millionaire, founder and Chief Executive of the country’s most successful African-American and woman-owned business.
Her only child, Lelia McWilliams, born during her first marriage, joined her in the enterprise. Lelia first served as Director of Sales and she eventually became President of the company. After Lelia’s death in 1931, Walker’s granddaughter Mae Walker (1898-1945) and great-granddaughter A’Lelia Perry Bundles (1928-1976), also served as company presidents. The company ceased operations in 1981.
Madam Walker passed away in 1919. She was a revered businesswoman and philanthropist who not only built a spectacularly successful multinational enterprise from the ground up, but also knew how to pay it forward. She championed women’s entrepreneurship and in Philadelphia in 1917, she convened what is believed to be the first women’s business conference in the nation. She was no doubt a role model for other highly successful female entrepreneurs who followed her, such as cosmetics business giants Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden and Estee Lauder.
In 2007, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company became a Harvard Business School case, written by Nancy F. Koehn and Katherine Miller. In February 2016, Sundial Brands, a manufacturer of hair care and skin care products, announced that it would re-launch Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture products and that the line will be exclusively available at Sephora.
Thanks for reading,
Kim L. Clark is an external consultant who provides strategy and marketing solutions to for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. Kim is the founder and principal of Polished Professionals Boston and she teaches business plan writing to aspiring entrepreneurs. Visitpolishedprofessionalsboston.com for more information.