If you walk into a Sephora cosmetics store, you’ll find a line of Madam C.J. Walker hair products in pastel squeeze bottles. They may seem like any other line of coconut and shea oils, but the story behind their namesake is a particularly remarkable one.
Madam C.J. Walker, who first started selling a hair grower at the turn of the 20th century, was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. Walker was born in 1867 as Sarah Breedlove on the same plantation where her parents had been enslaved before the Civil War.
“I got my start by giving myself a start,” Walker often said, according to A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s biographer and her great-great-granddaughter.
Her tumultuous childhood left her orphaned at age 7 and married at age 14 in order to escape an abusive brother-in-law, she said. She became a mother at age 17 and was widowed at age 20. By the time she died at age 51, she had become not only a successful entrepreneur who built a hair care company that still exists today, but she was a philanthropist and political activist as well.
Walker’s estate was worth $600,000 (which is about $9,000,000 in 2018 dollars) at the time of her death. That, plus the value of her real estate, jewelry, and other assets put her over $1,000,000 in 1919 dollars. Walker was also recognized by the Guinness World Records as being the first woman to be a self-made millionaire, meaning she neither inherited the money nor married into it.
A newspaper ad for Madam C.J. Walker’s Hair Grower, printed in 1915
In the beginning, Walker sold a product called Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, to condition and heal scalp issues. She had started to lose her hair, which was fairly common at the time; people didn’t have indoor plumbing, they bathed infrequently, and washed their hair even less frequently. Very few hair products were made and marketed for black women then, and some of them used images of white women tinted darker in advertisements. Walker used her own photo in ads and on the 2-ounce tins she sold.
A before and after photo of Madam Walker herself, used to sell her hair growth solution. Photo courtesy of Madam Walker Family Archives/A’Lelia Bundles
She saw her business not only as a way to get hair products to black women, but as a way to empower them financially as well. At its height, she employed 20,000 agents, or hair culturists as she called them, across the country.
In 1917, Walker held a convention in Philadelphia for the Madam C. J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America. At the event, which was one of the first national gatherings of business women in the country, her agents learned about sales, marketing, and management.
Madam Walker’s first National Convention, 1917 in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of Madam Walker Family Archives/A’Lelia Bundles
The president of the union, Margaret Thompson, told the other women there that she had been making $5 a week as a servant, but now she was making $250 a week as an agent of Walker’s—or more than $5,000 in 2018 dollars. These women could buy homes, send their children to school, and more with this money. They could be financially independent.
“I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race,” she said, according to an article Bundles wrote for Biography.com.
Madam C.J. Walker’s manufacturing plant in Indianapolis, IN
In addition to being an entrepreneur, Madam C.J. Walker was also a political activist. She donated $1,000 to open a YMCA for black people in St. Louis. She was a part of the Silent March in 1917 that the NAACP organized in response to the lynchings and violence that was rampant across the country. And in July 1917, after a group of white people killed more than three dozen black people in St. Louis, Walker visited the White House with a group from Harlem to petition for anti-lynching legislation at the federal level.
Madam Walker in her Waverley automobile—an early electric vehicle. Photo courtesy of Madam Walker Family Archives/A’Lelia Bundles.
By the time Madam Walker died at age 51 at her estate in Irvington-on-Hudson, in New York, she had not only become a successful entrepreneur, but brought many other women along with her.
Today, Sundial, the company that now owns Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture products, has done the same. Sundial announced a fund of $100 million dedicated to support women of color entrepreneurs.
“There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” Walker said. “And if there is, I have not found it, for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.”