Walker looms large among African American pioneers. She was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 on the same plantation where her parents and older siblings had been enslaved before the end of the Civil War. The first child in her family born into freedom, she was orphaned at six, married at fourteen (to Moses McWilliams, with whom she had a daughter, A'Lelia, in 1885) and became a widow at twenty. She never lost her drive and used her challenges to push her further towards greatness. Walker was inspired to create haircare products for Black women after a scalp disorder caused her to lose much of her own hair.
The “Walker System,” as it would eventually be known, involved scalp preparation, lotions and iron combs. While other products for Black hair (largely manufactured by white businesses) were on the market, she differentiated hers by emphasizing its attention to the health of the women who would use it.
It was during her third marriage in 1906 to Charles Walker, that the company would see even more growth through mail order packages, and Sarah would become, Madam C.J. Walker. It was by this name we would all forever know the great entrepreneur that changed the look of hair care.
As the first African American woman millionaire and a true trailblazer in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Walker turned her hair-care company into an empire. She provided job opportunities for the nearly 20,000 sales agents, lovingly known as “beauty culturists” who sold her Wonderful Hair Grower, she supported those who worked for her to help them become economically independent. She used her wealth and influence as a philanthropist, patron of the arts and political activist to support black institutions and organizations. Madam Walker bequeathed more than $100,000 to her community, including $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund at the time of her death in 1919.
While you can learn more about Madam Walker by binging, “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C. J. Walker” — the Netflix series starring Oscar winner Octavia Spencer or by visiting one of the many blogs and sites dedicated to her life, we wanted to share with you the ways she inspires us daily.
- Seize the opportunity – Madam C. J. Walker put it this way: “I got my start by giving myself a start!” Madam C. J. – then Sarah Breedlove – saw a need and set out to find a solution. Once she did so, there was no reason not to take it further. She saw an opportunity and seized it, not letting anything derail her plans. She developed a passion to save her hair and scalp. That led to her multi-faceted purpose of not only helping African American women to enjoy great hair care, but also teaching them how to run a business, make their own money and live more independently. These are all traits that we can lean into daily.
- Success demands persistence– “Perseverance is my motto!” said Madam C. J. Walker. Her entire life was one of perseverance. Her business was as well. Perseverance, consistency, persistence, stick-to-itiveness – no matter what you call it, building a brand, be it personal or business and achieving success, requires hard work. We put work in daily to ensure that we are the best versions of ourselves not only for our personal life but for our business ventures.
- Own who you are – We believe at the core of every person is authenticity. We can’t let our past define us, but we must embrace our journey because it’s why we are the person we are today. A final Madam C. J. Walker quote puts it this way: “I am not ashamed of my past. I am not ashamed of my humble beginning.”
Madam Walker knew that it took her entire journey to make her the woman she became. The same is true for you and me. So, enjoy your journey with every twist, turn, uphill and downhill moment there is.