An American millionaire: What to learn from Madam CJ Walker

Published · 3 min read

“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.” – Madam Walker, National Negro Business League Convention, July 1912

Madame CJ Walker

Madame CJ Walker

Madam CJ Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) was born free to Louisiana slaves, orphaned at the age of 7, married at 14, widowed with a daughter at 20.

By the time she passed away, she was the wealthiest black woman in America, and the first self-made female American millionaire. Her quest began simply as a search for a product to help her own scalp disorder. It ended up elevating her beyond her tough childhood and challenging early life to become both a legendary entrepreneur and philanthropist.

Here are five lessons that today’s entrepreneurs can learn from her revolutionary business model.

Focus on what you know.

Before her days as Madame CJ Walker, Sarah suffered from severe dandruff and other scalp problems. Back in the late 1800s, the only solution was the application of harsh products like lye soap—which often caused baldness! Her scalp disorder prompted her to experiment with home remedies and store-bought hair care treatments. She landed on a combination that worked, and tapped into a huge, undeveloped market in black women’s hair care.

Question: How can your own personal struggles or triumphs shape your business?

Embrace your personal brand.

After losing her husband and moving to Louisiana to be with her brothers, Sarah married Charles Joseph Walker in 1905. Under her new moniker “Madam CJ Walker,” she took her experience as a hairdresser and started marketing her products like “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” and “Madam Walker’s Vegetable Shampoo.” As Madam CJ Walker, she expanded her company from St. Louis to Denver to Pittsburgh and eventually throughout the entire country.

Question: How can you use your personal brand to reach out to new customers?

Teach people why your product or service matters.

As her company expanded, she enlisted “Walker Agents” who promoted Madame CJ Walker’s philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness” in conjunction with her products. Their role wasn’t just to sell products, but also to teach people in the community about cleanliness, hygiene, personal pride and the value of good appearance.

Question: How can you help your customers understand why what you do matters—and how it can help them?

Keep your eye out for new opportunities.

Her business grew, and after her divorce in 1913 she traveled throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to promote her business, recruit others to be Walker Agents and find new markets.

She enlisted the help of her daughter A’Lelia Walker to run things back home, who purchased a property in Harlem, NY. Walker recognized that it would be an important base of operations. Harlem became a new center for the entire company, and it put Walker within reach of Harlem’s social and political culture.

Question: Are you doing business in the right place? Are there new opportunities beyond your backyard?

Give back to the community.

From her new base in Harlem, Walker founded philanthropies, donated homes to the elderly and took an active role in the NAACP, National Conference on Lynching and other organizations that helped African Americans. When she passed away, she donated 2/3 of her wealth to charities that helped her community and people of color throughout the country.

Question: How are you helping others? What can you do to support your community?

As we celebrate Women in Small Business Month, we’ll be highlighting on social media the interesting contributions made by female business owners around North America.

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