Famous Black Female Entrepreneurs In History - The Story of Madam C J Walker (Sarah Breedlove)
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Madam C J Walker - America's First Female Millionaire
I was in my early thirties, married and the mother of two young children when I met Sarah Breedlove. I was not looking for information to help me do an assignment, nor was I doing research for an important magazine or network. For almost 10 years I had been working for an International Oil Corporation in the Southern African Country of Zambia and after all these years, I still received orders, processed payments and made invoices for our customers. I loved my job and it paid me well, but I had been thinking for a long time about doing more with my life, on my own. So cooped up in that little cubicle with one window high in the wall that was my office, I felt most of the day like I was in prison as an isolated inmate. To help myself, I began to look for inspiration by reading about women who have made a difference. There was a lot of superficial information to keep me going but not inspired for long. Then one day in my fervent searches on the internet, I came across a young girl who would inspire me so much, ten years later I am totally thrilled to have an opportunity to do this article about her and hope that others like me with be inspired for years to come.
Sarah Breedlove was a little girl born to Owen and Minerva Breedlove in Delta, Lousianna on December 23rd 1867. Owen and Minerva were freed slaves and so their little girl was born in poverty and would know want for most of her life. To make matters worse, Sarah lost both her parents to an outbreak of Yellow fever (transmitted by mosquito bites) by the time she was 7 years old and went to live with her sister Louivinia in Vicksburg, Mississippi by the time she was ten. Sarah never went to school but worked as a housemaid while suffering much abuse at the hands of her sister’s husband, Jesse Powell. To escape this abuse, she chose to get married at the tender age of 14 to Moses McWilliams. By the time she was 18, they had a daughter born on June 6, 1885 and they named her Leila (she would later be called A’Leila).
Misfortune struck again when Leila was two years old, Moses McWilliams died leaving Sarah widowed and with the responsibility of looking after their daughter alone. Sarah decided to move to St Louis Missouri to help four of her brothers who operated a barber shop. They gave her a stipend of $1.50 a day. During this period, she also did jobs as a laundress and was known as a first class Washer Woman because she was very hard working. She got married again to John Davis on August 11, 1894. This second marriage ended in divorce in 1903. By then, Sarah had proudly managed to send Leila through grade school all the way to college.
Determined Woman with A Hair And Scalp Problem
This illiterate, orphaned, abused girl, once widowed and divorced woman without any special gifts or qualities who in those days before the Civil rights movement, was condemned to a life of insignificance got an opportunity because of a physical ailment .
In the early 1890s Sarah’s hair started thinning, her scalp became itchy and she began to lose hair like a lot of other people at that time. Like many women, even today, she wanted to restore her hair back to what it used to be but she could not so, she began to experiment with various home and store remedies like grow creams and as many products as she could lay her hands on. Some of the products she experimented with were made by Anne Malone an African American entrepreneur who lived in Denver. In 1905, Sarah moved to Denver to work there as an agent for Anne Malone. It was there that she met Charles Joseph Walker a Newspaper agent whom she married in January 1906. Her hair problem, it seemed, was leading her to many good things.
Madame Walker is reported to have said that she was shown a product in her dream that would help hair grow. Once she developed this product and proved its effectiveness on her hair, it attracted the attention of many other African American women who wanted to try it as well. She began to reproduce and sell more of it to these happy women. From there, she began selling her product door to door. When the sales proved really good, she adopted the business name ‘Madam’ C J Walker. Her lack of learning and an education did not deter her from founding a company that would carry her product which she called the Madam Walker Wonderful Hair Grower. The products constituted a conditioner and scalp treatment formula. Her business acumen was astounding.
Madam C J Walker and her husband spent a year traveling around the country, especially in the South promoting, selling, demonstrating and educating people about their products. Her business methods and strategies were particularly advanced, well organized and proved to be very effective. While they were on the road, Leila did the mail order business, packaging and shipping product back home in Denver.
Between 1908 and 1910, they temporarily moved their business and established themselves in Pittsburgh where they opened a beauty training school that they called Lelia College for Walker Hair Culturists. The walker Hair culturists were trained in selling and showing people how to use these hair growth products. When Madam C J Walker was accused of trying to make black women’s hair like that of white women, in defense she said that she was just helping fellow women keep their hair healthy and growing.
By 1910, the business was moved to Indianapolis which was a booming Industrial center that was close to eight railway lines. Madam C J Walker opened a factory in Indianapolis that produced their hair conditioning and scalp formula products. They also established another beauty training school in Indianapolis and began to train agents who sold products there. The agents Madame C J Walker trained became self-supporting entrepreneurs who made money for themselves from this business.
Success, Philanthropy and Activism
In 1912, Madam C J Walker and Charles Joseph Walker divorced because while he wanted her to cease her business growth, she felt she still had a lot of growing to do and much more to offer. They say one of the qualities of a great leader is leaving a successor, in this, madam C J Walker demonstrated her great personality, true leadership and ability when by 1916, she had trained Principals to whom she was ready to pass the reigns of power and work from behind the scenes. In a few years she had managed to start a business from scratch, canvass a large part of the nation, train people and help many more to realize their potential as entrepreneurs as well. She had by then become a millionaire, a very successful, well known and celebrated African American who was often called upon to lecture and empower other women for business. She was making headlines as a community supporter who gave to a lot of charitable organizations like the YMCA, YWCA, black schools, the NAACP and many others.
She did not sit back as an appeased black woman to enjoy her wealth but acted with the strength and status it gave her to support the federal move to make lynching a crime after the race riots of East St Louis in 1917.
Madam C J Walker worked hard, lived generously and created tremendous opportunities for hundreds of thousands if not millions of African Americans throughout history. Her legacy not only touched the African American community but of course extends to all Americans economically, socially and politically. In many ways, she contributed in a big way to the Civil Rights Movement by making financial donations to the NAACP and similar bodies that improve the livelihoods of African American people. Today, she is hailed as the first self-made American woman millionaire. Even among male millionaires, she stands out.
Madame C J Walker
The Construction of Villa Lewaro
In August, 1918 the construction of her great mansion was completed and later named Villa Lewaro by an Italian business man. This house was built in a wealthy white neighborhood where oil magnate John D Rockefeller and Industrialist Jay Gould lived. Even if people had thought of her at first as a maid for the estate, Madam Walker’s mansion became a much loved place for the coming together of race leaders for important gatherings about current affairs.
Madam C J Walker died at Villa Lewaro on May 25, 1919 but her legacy lives on to this day. She continues to be a great inspiration to me today, her story has inspired me to dream and dream big. Time and again it is a story that teaches me like the Reverend Robert Harold Schuller says “You can go from nowhere to somewhere.” So, each one of us has an opportunity and a shot at greatness.
Much credit goes to Aleila Bundles, Perry, Madame C J Walker’s great-great granddaughter who has dedicated a large part of her life to research, and put together most of the near accurate information and documentation we have about Madame C J Walker online and in libraries.
Villa Lewaro - Madame C J Walker's Residence
The impressive mansion that Madame C J Walker built lies within this beautiful area of New York City Today.
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