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Entrepreneur, philanthropist, and activist, Madam C.J. Walker came from a life of poverty in the South to become one of the wealthiest African American women of her time.

Have you heard about the American black woman, who became a self-made millionaire by producing hair care products? It was CJ Walker. She created a homemade line of African American hair care products after suffering a scalp ailment and then promoted it. Her entrepreneurial skills and self-promotion of the products made her business successful. Continue reading to know more about CJ Walker.

Here is a biography of the woman, who became a self-made millionaire by overcoming a life of poverty. 

Who was Madam CJ Walker? 

CJ Walker life story

Madam C. J. Walker is recognized to be the “first Black woman millionaire in America”. She made her fortune through her homemade line of hair care products for Black women. She was born Sarah Breedlove to parents who had been enslaved and was inspired to create her hair products after an experience with hair loss, which led to the creation of the “Walker system” of hair care. 

CJ Walker is a talented entrepreneur with a talent for self-promotion. At first, she sold products directly to Black women, and then she employed beauty culturists to hand-sell her wares. It was how she built her business empire. 

She became a self-made millionaire and used her fortune to fund scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute and donated large parts of her wealth to the NAACP, the Black YMCA, and other charities.

CJ Walker’s early days

CJ Walker was originally named Sarah Breedlove and she was born on 23rd December 1867 on a plantation of cotton near Delta Louisiana. She was born to Owen and Minerva, who was born in slavery. After they got freed from being enslaved, Sarah Breedlove was born as their fifth child known as the first child to be born after being free. Her childhood was filled with hardships, and she faced most of the negative experiences before reaching her 20s. 

Sarah became an orphan at the age of 7, as her parents Minerva died in 1874 and Owen died the following year and the cause of their deaths was unknown. Sarah had no other choice other than to live with her sister, Louivinia, and her brother-in-law in Vicksburg, Mississippi. In 1877, Sarah was employed to do household work and picked cotton. 

From the time she was very young, she worked hard and was extremely poor, and had little opportunity to get an education. 

But she was not treated well by her brother-in-law and was facing difficulties in her oppressive working environment. 

To escape such difficulties, she married at the age of 14 to a man named Moses, William. But due to unavoidable circumstances, he died two years after she gave birth to her daughter A’leila and worked as a laundress at a night school and earned $1.50 per day, and managed to send her daughter to a public school in the city. She also sang in choirs in the church and became active in the National Association of colored women. 

The story behind the hair care business

How CJ Walker started her business? 

During the 1890s, Sarah developed a scalp disorder and she was suffering from hair loss. She then became interested in the science of hair care and decided to experiment with some hair care treatments from stores to home remedies with the intention of improving her condition.

She experimented with a mix of homemade and store-bought remedies for her condition.

It was around this time that she met Annie Turnbo Malone, a black haircare entrepreneur, and Sarah’s future rival. Sarah became a sales agent for her and was one of Malone’s earliest hires. In 1905, she moved to Denver, Colorado, and continued working for Malone there.

The Walker system

Then she came up with a treatment that entirely changed the black hair industry and the so-called walker system, including the preparation of scalp, lotions, and combs. Her custom pomade was a wild success. 

By this time Sarah had met and married her second husband, Charles Joseph “C.J.” Walker,  who was working in advertising, and later she adopted her husband’s name. His promotional expertise came in handy when she decided to split from Malone in 1906 and develop her own hair care treatment, then called Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower. 

It was reportedly Charles who encouraged her to adopt her distinctive moniker, Madam C.J. Walker.

The walker company

Madam CJ Walker Manufacturing Company, Indianapolis, Indiana in 1911

Although there were many large manufacturers possessed by the white businessman in the market. CJ walker managed to differentiate her products by emphasizing the health of women. She obtained her loyal customers and used her personal approach to sell it to the Black woman and then she employed a group of saleswomen to sell the products. 

In 1905, she moved to Denver, Colorado with $1.05 in savings but her products changed her fortunes as they had a loyal following. She received help from her husband to market and advertise her products. They traveled around the south and southeast and gave lecture demonstrators with their own formulas for brushing and usage of heated combs. 

At a time when unskilled white workers earned about $11 a week, Walker’s agents were making $5 to $15 a day, pioneering a system of multilevel marketing that Walker and her associates perfected for the black market. More than any other single businessperson, Walker unveiled the vast economic potential of an African-American economy, even one stifled and suffocating under Jim Crow segregation.

In 1908, her profits grew and so she opened a factory and beauty school in Pittsburg in 1910. Walker transferred the business operations to Indianapolis and the madam CJ walker manufacturing company became successful. The company manufactured cosmetics and trained beauticians and the walker agents became well-known in the black community of the US. They also promoted cleanliness and loveliness, advancing the status of African Americans. She also put her efforts into Philanthropic and education by organizing clubs and conventions. 

CJ Walker business 

The business of Walker continued to expand where she not only marketed her hair care products but also tutored African American men and women in their use. She recruited a group called “Walker Agents.” 

The products she produced were often used with a metal comb that was heated on the stove, then applied to straighten very curly hair. A facial skin cream was also manufactured by her. 

But the hair process was controversial when many felt that African American women should wear their hair in natural styles rather than trying to change the texture from curly to straight. But still, among all those issues, Walker’s hair care methods gained increasing popularity among African American women, who enjoyed products designed especially for them. 

As a result, Walker’s business was growing in profits and it had an increasing number of agents who marketed the products for her door-to-door.

She worked closely with her daughter Lelia and then opened a school for “hair culturists” in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Lelia College. It operated from 1908 to 1910. 

Madam CJ Walker home 67 Broadway Irvington NY jeh

Later Walkers moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, and then to produce their products, they established a modern factory They began to hire African American professionals who could direct various aspects of their operation. There were workers among tutors who helped Walker get a basic education.

Walker used to travel throughout the nation to demonstrate her products. She recruited salespersons and then encouraged African American entrepreneurs. The rounds included conventions of African American organizations, civic groups, and churches. 

Walker traveled to the Caribbean and Latin America to promote her business and to recruit her business and to recruit individuals to teach her hair care methods.  Walker’s company was estimated by Observers that had about three thousand agents for whom Walker held annual conventions where they were tutored in product use, hygienic (cleaning) care techniques, and marketing strategies.

She also gave cash awards to those who were most successful in promoting sales.

Then Walker purchased the property in New York City in 1913 with the intention that a base in that city would be important and in 1916, she moved to a luxurious townhouse. She had built in Harlem and a year later an estate called Villa Lewaro. 

She also had constructed at Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. 

Facts about CJ Walker 

CJ Walker bio

Her mentor became her biggest Rival

It was in 1904, Madam CJ Walker began to work for Annie Turnbo Malone who was a  fellow African American woman. 

Walker sold Malone’s hair products on the commission that were branded under the name Poro. From her, she learned to market items like hair growth serum, moisturizing oils, and hair straighteners. Walker left the company after a disagreement with Malone. 

After failing, shortly Walker started her own brand of similar products. All those products were made with her own tested recipes. 

Then her manufacturing grew in popularity and it was Malone who quickly became her biggest rival, as both targeted the same demographic. And their personal relationship is said to have never recovered. 

She didn’t start her business until age 38

Although we know that Madam CJ Walker came from a cotton sharecropper to a rich businesswoman. But she worked at many labor-intensive jobs, including laundress in between. 

After spending decades dealing with scalp and hair issues, at the age of 38, she consulted with her brothers who were barbers, and used the knowledge and accrued selling hair products that were made by another woman. 

Although she started late in life, she was able to achieve in her life. 

A Generous Philanthropist

She was recognized as a philanthropist because her company became successful. She began to support and give to people wholeheartedly. 

She gave scholarship money to the Tuskegee Institute, and $1,000 towards the construction of a YMCA building for the Black community of Indianapolis and donated money to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund.

Walker supported the arts and provided the largest individual donation to the group working to preserve Frederick Douglass’ former Anacostia house. Walker handed down over $100,000 to a number of different causes, including orphanages in her own will. 

The First National meetings of businesswomen in the country

Madam CJ Walker used to encourage women to be independent. She hired them as salespeople, and she put together state and nationwide groups of female entrepreneurs and businesswomen in the hopes that they would make them all strong and more successful. 

She organized the first national conference of the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents in 1917. The conference took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This is believed to be among the very first national meetings of female entrepreneurs in the United States.  

Madam CJ Walker the wealthiest woman

Madam CJ Walker Grave in 2009

She passed away on May 25, 1919, due to kidney problems and hypertension. And this contributed to her death at the age of 51. 

When she passed away, her estate was worth  $600,000 which is 8 million dollars in 2017 money and she became the wealthiest African American woman in the country at the time.

She had a huge influence on society. This influence is due to her set up of classes to help her fellow female businesswomen and encouraged them to become financially independent. She considered it her duty to spread her success around and help other women like her achieve their dreams.

Her factory became the Madame Walker Theatre Center

In 1919, Madam CJ Walker shortly before her death, broke ground on the Walker Building and Theatre in Indianapolis, Indiana. The building was designed with the intent of manufacturing her products while developing the arts for the city’s African American community. 

The same structure now sits in Indianapolis’ Arts District. In 1981, after Walker Manufacturing went out of business, the building became home to the Madam Walker Building Urban Life Center and now the Madame Walker Theatre Center.

It was fully restored and has a ballroom, office spaces, and the 935-seat Walker Theatre. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Final thoughts

We know biographies of self-made millionaires, who came from poverty. Do you think it is because of luck? Win and lose are a part of our life, some give up when they lose. Moreover, poverty is just an excuse you give for not trying. But then how did some people become millionaires? It is not because of luck, instead, it is because of the confidence, efforts, and the never giving up attitude they had.

Hence the life story of CJ Walker is a great example of hard work and effort.  

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