Long before Avon, Merle Norman Cosmetics, and Oprah Winfrey, there was Madame C. J. Walker. She was the first to sell beauty products to women through a network of saleswomen, and the very first ever Black woman millionaire.
What is so very amazing about Madame C. J. Walker’s story is the amount of obstacles she overcame before becoming a successful businesswoman. She was born in 1876 as Sarah Breedlove to Louisiana sharecroppers. By the time she was 6, she was orphaned, and by the time she was 14, she was married. Her daughter was born when she was 18, and at the age of 20, she was a widow.
It was during the time she did laundry to support herself and her 2-year-old daughter that Walker noticed she was losing her hair. As with many successful entrepreneurs, she developed a product that solved a problem, not only for herself but also for other Black women. She called it “The Walker System,” and it included scalp preparation, application of lotions, and the use of iron combs. The products were sold using door-to-door saleswomen.
Building her empire:
By 1910, Madame C. J. was on her way to success. She moved her headquarters to Indianapolis. A branch in Pittsburgh was managed by her daughter A’Lelia. Her second husband, Charles J. Walker, a journalist, was responsible for promoting the business. The company grew to over 3,000, mostly door-to-door saleswomen, and her product line increased to twenty hair and skin items for Black women.
Madame C. J. had a beautiful Manhattan townhouse and a country home fit for a princess. But she was also a princess at heart. She generously rewarded her employees by offering bonuses and prizes to those who contributed to their communities through charitable works. She mandated that only a women could serve as president. She established scholarships for women and donated generously to the NAACP, the Black YMCA, and dozens of other Black charities.
Madame C. J. Walker was not only the first ever Black woman millionaire, but also a shining example of success and a true princess at heart!