Madame C. J. Walker turned a bad hair day into a fortune and a Guinness World Record. She followed her dream, literally, turning her life into a true “rags to riches” story.
Sarah Breedlove was the fifth of six children born to former slaves in Louisiana. Both of her parents died when she was seven years old, but being an orphan wasn’t a life sentence to poverty. She moved in with her older sister and brother-in-law and survived by working in the cotton fields of Louisiana and Mississippi. This turned out to be a bad situation, so at age 14 she married Moses McWilliams to escape her brother-in-law’s abuse.
Four years after her marriage, Breedlove had a baby girl. Two years later her husband died and she was again forced to find her own way. She moved to St. Louis where her four brothers had become successful barbers. She earned $1.50 a day working as a washer woman and eventually saved enough money to send her daughter to school.
Breedlove’s own education was spotty. When she reached school age, there were no funds allocated by the white legislators in Louisiana to educate black children. Then she was pressed into working full time to contribute to the household of her sister and brother-in-law. In St. Louis, she managed to improve her reading and writing with the help of the women at the St. Paul AME church. These women also became her social network and eventually an inspiration for growing her business.
Loss and abandonment followed Breedlove to St. Louis. All her brothers died and she married and divorced John Davis. In addition, an ailment that caused her to lose almost all her hair plagued her. She desperately tried various homemade remedies and store bought products. One potion she used was created by Anne Malone, and in 1905 Breedlove moved to Denver as a sales rep for Malone.
Life took a turn for the better in Denver. Not one to depend on another, Breedlove wanted to develop her own hair products. The formula for a solution to her problem was revealed to her in a dream. “…One night I had a dream…a black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up in my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. I tried it on my friends; it helped them. I made up my mind to begin to sell it.”1 She worked with a pharmacist to develop her own line that rivaled Malone’s.
Her love life was looking up, too. She married newspaperman Charles Joseph Walker. Breedlove changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker, and it proved to have the sophisticated sound that instilled confidence in shoppers. Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower scalp conditioner was her ticket to success. As for her marriage, unfortunately the third time was not a charm, and they divorced after six years.
Madam Walker remembered the relationships she developed with the women at the church in St. Louis. She saw a large potential market in such fellowships and gave product demonstrations at churches and lodges. She also implemented a door to door, grass roots selling strategy that led to hiring individual sales agents. Walker acknowledged that her level of education was insufficient to run a profitable business, so she hired a former teacher to tutor her privately.
The Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was founded with five original products. Expansion was inevitable, and for a year and a half she moved to Pittsburgh and opened the Lelia College of Beauty Culture, named after her daughter. In 1910 Walker moved her entire operation to Indianapolis where she built a factory, training school, and hair and nail salon.
Walker’s success was three-fold. First, she accrued an enormous personal wealth. Second, she provided economic opportunity for black women which gave them an alternative to domestic labor. Her sales agents could potentially earn between $5 and $15 dollars a day when unskilled white laborers were only earning about $11 a week.2 The sales force was organized into local and state clubs with opportunities for management on every level, a model that is used in many companies today. In 1917 the Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America was big enough to hold a convention in Philadelphia.
Third, Walker believed that with wealth comes responsibility, and she became a role model for using her riches to support political and philanthropic causes. She gave generously to African-American organizations and instilled this virtue in her sales force. At the 1917 convention, Walker gave out awards to her agents not just for their business achievements but also for their political activism.
The headquarters for the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company remained in Indianapolis, but in 1916 Walker and her daughter moved to Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, and Walker supervised the business from there. Their new home was a 30-room mansion designed for them by black architect Vertner Tandy, and Walker spared no expense on the furnishings. The estate was named Villa Lewaro after the first two letters of her daughter’s name: Lelia Walker Robinson, and is in the National Register of Historical Places.
During the last year of Walker’s life, total sales of her company exceeded $500,000 and she had trained some 40,000 sales agents serving customers the U.S., Central America and the Caribbean.3 Her legacy includes The Guinness Book record as the first self-made American woman millionaire, and in 1998 the U.S. Postal Service put her image on a stamp.
QUESTION: What would you do if someone gave you one million dollars today?
© 2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved