Hers is a “rags to riches” story.
Madam C.J. Walker went from poverty -- being the daughter of freed slaves -- to being a wealthy African-American businesswoman.
She was a millionaire at a time when African-American women usually cleaned houses or worked other jobs for low pay.
Madam C.J. Walker made her money making and selling cosmetics to African-American women.
Her great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, researched and wrote a book about her: “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker.”
“Madam Walker for me was a woman who embodied the great American dream. A person who had an idea, and she parlayed it into a fortune. But more important, she used that fortune and she used her influence to try to make a difference in her community.”
Walker made her fortune developing and creating hair-care products for African-American women. Bundles says no one else was filling that demand. So, she says, Walker took a very small idea, and turned it into a big company.
Born to Freed Slaves
She was the first child in her family born into freedom, in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. Her parents had been slaves, but gained their freedom in 1865. They named her Sarah Breedlove.
Sadly, Walker was orphaned at 7 years old. She married at 14, but her husband died when she was 20. In 1888, she moved north to St. Louis, Missouri. There she worked as a poor washer woman, cleaning other people’s clothes. Bundles says it was where Walker learned some of her marketing skills, and developed her drive to succeed.
She learned from women at church. They were involved in the National Association of Colored Women, and Walker learned about organizing and holding meetings, about gathering women to work together for a common cause.
“She had had to survive as a washer woman. So she had to be good at marketing her skills, even then, but she took that to the next level. Marketing her products. She traveled all over the United States after she married her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker. They were in Denver and then they traveled throughout the Southern and Eastern United States.”
"A Secret Formula"
Like other early cosmetic businesswomen, Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein, Bundles says Madam Walker embellished her stories about her products.
“Well, everybody said they had a secret formula that no one else could see, but it a really basic system of vegetable shampoo and ointment with sulfur.”
A’Lelia Bundles grew up using Madam C.J. Walkers’ silverware on her dining room table, but never knew her. She has studied her great-great grandmother for more than four decades. She says Madam Walker was a marketing and distribution genius.
“I have to say, I’m continuously amazed, not only at the way that she can still inspire others, but at some of her really innovative approaches to advertising, to marketing, to developing products, and to having really high standards about the quality of her products.”
Marketing and Distribution
Madam Walker knew how to get the word out about her products. She would advertise in the newspapers that African-Americans read. She had cards printed with her information on them. At a time without airplanes, telephones or the Internet, she traveled across the country and spread the word of her company.
In each town they visited, she and her husband went to both the Black churches -- the Baptist and the AME, or African Methodist Episcopal, churches. That way she could speak with all the women in the different churches. She used “before” and “after” pictures in ads, to show how well her products worked -- something still done by companies today.
She also employed women at the top levels of her business. That was also rare then. Walker gave women power at a time when women could not even vote in the U.S. But her factory manager, her national sales manager and her bookkeeper were all women.
“So she had a much bigger vision than just selling hair products. It was empowering women. It was helping them to understand their role in the community as leaders.”
And lead she did. She organized and trained women to sell her products. She had her first conference for her sales women in 1917. That management practice became well-known decades later by a later cosmetic businesswoman named Mary Kay Ash. But Mary Kay did not start her company until 1963.
When Walker held her sales conferences, she gave out prizes not just to women who sold the most. She also rewarded those who gave to charity and were involved in political causes, Bundles says.
Her sales agents discussed making money for buying real estate and educating their children, as well as giving to charity.
By the time Walker died on May 25, 1919, she had trained thousands of women in the Walker System of Hair Culture. She left tens of thousands of dollars to charitable organizations, educational institutions and political causes.
Bundles says Walker was a “workaholic,” who was driven to succeed. When asked about the secret to her success, Walker herself said, “…whatever success I have attained has been the result of much hard work and many sleepless nights.”
But she also had a sense of humor, and she loved art and music. She liked the old and the new -- opera and the new ragtime music coming out at that time.
Walker owned three automobiles in 1913, when less than 10 percent of licensed drivers were women. She even shipped one of them, along with her personal driver, when she took a business trip to Central America and the Caribbean.
Charity and Political Work
With her fortune, Walker supported both the arts and political groups. She worked hard to end lynching. Lynching is when a mob, usually a group of white people, would kill an African-American person by hanging or setting them on fire, for a made-up crime they did not commit.
The Equal Justice Initiative says that nearly 4,000 African-Americans were killed by lynching in the U.S. between 1877 and 1950.
Walker’s company still survives to this day, but it is owned by a different company, Sundail Brands. Last Tuesday, the company announced it will start selling a new line of Madam C.J. Walker hair care products. Beginning in March, they will be available at Sephora stores in the U.S. They have new ingredients, but, the company says the products carry on Walker’s spirit.
Richelieu Dennis is CEO of Sundail Brands. He said these products continue Madam C.J. Walkers’ legacy to help every woman feel sure of herself. “It’s also a dream come true not just for us, but for the millions of women who have been touched by the legacy of Madam C.J. Walker and the millions more who will be inspired to reach their own levels of greatness by hearing her story.”
Madam Walker “absolutely was a woman ahead of her time,” says her great-great granddaughter. She was a rich and successful businesswoman when women -- especially African-American women -- could not get high paying jobs.
And, she made the hair-care products not just to build her own fortune, but also to use that money to help her community.
I’m Anne Ball.
Anne Ball wrote this story. Kathleen Struck was the editor.
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Words in This Story
rags to riches – phrase. someone who was poor and then became wealthy
cosmetics – n. beauty products and make-up
embody – v. to represent something in a clear and obvious way
parlay – v. to use something to get something else of greater value
fortune – n. a very large amount of money
orphaned – v. to cause a child to lose its parents
embellish – v. to make something more attractive or appealing
ointment – n. a smooth substance that is rubbed onto the skin to heal a wound or reduce pain or discomfort
sulfur – n. a yellow chemical element used in medicine or gunpowder
genius –n. a very smart person
innovative – adj. introduce or use new ideas or methods
bookkeeper – n. a person whose job is to keep financial records for a business
workaholic – n. a person who chooses to work a lot, and always thinking about work
legacy – n. something that comes from someone in the past, how the person is remembered