This week we have the pleasure of celebrating the success and advancements of Madam C J Walker as our Woman of the Week. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on a plantation in Louisiana, she was the first of her family to be born into freedom just a few years after the Emancipation Proclamation. At 7 years old Sarah was orphaned and at 10 years old she moved to Mississippi to begin working as a domestic. At 14 years old, Sarah had her first of three marriages, the first of which gave her a daughter, Lelia, and the last of which gave her name, Madam C J Walker (Charles Joseph Walker).
As you can imagine, Sarah’s life was far from easy, but she was determined to make a life for herself and her daughter. In 1888, after moving to Missouri to live with three of her brothers, Sarah began working as a laundress, making a very small wage (less than a dollar a day), but was engaged in her community, singing and being involved at her church. Sarah suffered, as many black women did at the time, hair loss and dandruff due to a variety of skin disorders originating from lack of access to good cleaning and diet. At first Sarah learned haircare from her brothers, who were barbers, but then she began selling hair-care products for the Poro Company, owned by the African-American Annie Turnbo Malone. From there, Sarah was able to start her own business for hair-care: initially selling door to door, then branching out to a beauty parlor in Pittsburgh, and, after closing that, opening an office and beauty salon in Harlem in 1913.
Earlier, in 1910, Sarah set up her headquarters of the Madam C J Walker Manufacturing Company in Indianapolis, which later grew to be a factory, hair salon, beauty school to train her sales agents and a laboratory to develop new product. Sarah trained her sales agents in the “Walker System” of haircare and at the peak of its success, Sarah’s company employed several thousand women and had trained almost 20,000. The company grew to be well know around the states and in several caribbean and central american countries. Sarah added to her community by encouraging other black women to build their businesses and become financially independent as well as creating the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C J Walker Agents, a conference believed to have been one of the first national women entrepreneur gatherings. Sarah also was a philanthropist and donated to establish a branch of the YMCA in Indianapolis’s black community, to establish scholarship funds and to various other organizations. Sarah was involved politically as well and was part of various organizations fighting for African American rights as well as delivering several lectures towards the advancement of black rights.
Dying in 1919, Walker was considered the wealthiest African American woman in the US and is viewed today as one of the most successful female entrepreneurs of her time as well as one of the most successful African American business owners ever. As female entrepreneurs ourselves, we can say Madam C J Walker is GOALS and well deserving of our Woman of the Week.