There are many Black people to honor in February, and one of our favorites is Madame C.J. Walker. She was a pioneer in consumer products in several different ways.
Who was Madame C.J. Walker?
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 to parents who were born enslaved, she was their first child to be born free after the Emancipation Proclamation. Her parents died when she was six, and she married her first husband at age 14. He died when she was twenty.
She suffered from a scalp disorder that resulted in hair loss, and it inspired her to create her own system of hair care for Black women. She sold her handmade pomade and other products directly to Black women, and later hired saleswomen she called “beauty culturalists” to help her spread the word.
She met her second husband, Charles J. Walker, who provided the name for her company. At first they worked together on marketing, mail orders and ads. As the company bloomed, their marriage disintegrated and the two divorced.
At the height of her business, the company had 3,000 Black saleswomen who sold her products mainly door to door. The “Walker system” of haircare for Black women made her a millionaire. She died in 1919.
Inspiring consumer businesses everywhere
Not only was Madame C.J. Walker the first Black woman to become a millionaire, but she was the first female millionaire period. Her consumer products business enabled her to buy real estate that was a far cry from her hardscrabble childhood.
Madame C.J. Walker was also a well-known philanthropist who donated money to the Tuskegee Institute to fund scholarships for women. She also gave money to the NAACP, Black YMCA and a number of other charities.
Why she’s a particular inspiration for us at Lift Your TableⓇ folding table risers
Not only did Madame C.J. Walker develop her very own consumer product, she was a savvy entrepreneur and found a way to sell her products and then scale up with beauty consultants. She was financially independent at a time when many women, Black or otherwise, were not. She marketed her products as health care, not just hair care.
She gave back to her community too. She could very easily have hoarded her wealth (as some billionaires continue to do today) but instead she chose to donate where she knew her money would do some good.
For Black History Month, we salute Madame C.J. Walker for her entrepreneurship and philanthropy. Photo by Michael Ochs for Getty Images.
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