This is a portrait of the first self-made woman millionaire in the United States: Madam C. J. Walker. Her bio is a seriously up-from-her-bootstraps story if there ever was one. Her life was dedicated to self-optimization on every front, and along the way, she lifted up thousands of others.
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, her parents were former slaves who worked as sharecroppers on a cotton plantation in Delta, Louisiana. Sarah was orphaned as a child, then widowed at age 20 with a small child in tow.
Madam C. J. Walker’s firm, the Walker Company, eventually grew to employ over 20,000 men and women in the U.S., Central America and the Caribbean.
A keen capitalist who created products that women wanted?
Yes. But Madam C. J. Walker also profoundly inspired those who worked for her, and the countless others who heard her words on individual determinism and self-sufficiency.
“I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”
Madam C. J. Walker understood the concept of personal self-improvement. She knew she held it in her hands, this power to utterly transform herself and change how the world saw her.
It makes sense that her first, and most famous, product, Wonderful Hair Grower, sprung from her efforts to improve her own scalp and hair, and a desire she had. For others to look and feel good: “I want the great masses of my people to take a greater pride in their personal appearance and to give their hair proper attention.”
(Side note: Wonderful Hair Grower was formulated with sulphur, which helps moisturize and boost the sheen of black hair.)
As Madam C. J. Walker became more successful, she cultivated an eye for fine things, and employed a tutor to upgrade her grammar and school her in subjects that would help her communicate more effectively.
She smartly invested in real estate, which increased her net worth and helped her advance a myriad of social institutions and causes, from the YMCA and NAACP to ending desegregation and helping women get the vote.
“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations….I have built my own factory on my own ground.” (Madame C. J. Walker, July 1912)
Madame C. J. Walker passed away in 1919 at her 34-room estate overlooking the Hudson River in New York.
Madam C. J. Walker still inspires many people, myself included, who look at her self-propelled journey from shack to villa, and think, “Maybe I could too…”