Parents died by age seven.
Married by 14.
Widowed at age 20.
From all angles, this sounds like a life that was off to a rough start. And it was for Sarah Breedlove aka Madam C.J. Walker, but more often than not, necessity is the mother of invention.
Orphaned at age seven, she often said, “I got my start by giving myself a start.” She and her older sister, Louvenia, survived by working in the cotton fields of Delta and nearby Vicksburg, Mississippi. At 14, she married Moses McWilliams to escape abuse from her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell.
Her only daughter, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia Walker) was born on June 6, 1885. When her husband died two years later, she moved to St. Louis to join her four brothers who had established themselves as barbers. Working for as little as $1.50 a day, she managed to save enough money to educate her daughter in the city’s public schools.
During the 1890s, Sarah began to suffer from a scalp ailment that caused her to lose most of her hair. She consulted her brothers for advice and also experimented with many homemade remedies and store-bought products, including those made by Annie Malone, another black woman entrepreneur. In 1905 Sarah moved to Denver as a sales agent for Malone, then married her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker, a St. Louis newspaperman. After changing her name to “Madam” C. J. Walker, she founded her own business and began selling Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula, which she claimed had been revealed to her in a dream.
“Madam C.J. Walker” traveled for a year and a half throughout the South and Southeast, selling her products door to door. She was quick to demonstrate her scalp treatments in churches and lodges, and devising sales and marketing strategies. In 1908, she temporarily moved her base to Pittsburgh where she opened Lelia College to train other hair enthusiasts and those interested in healthy hair.
The Walker System included hair products, cosmetetics, licenseed Walker Agents, and Walker Schools. This system shaped the foundation of a flourishing national corporation which provided meaningful employment to thousands of black women. The Walker System snagged national headlines and employed over 3,000 people. Madam C.J. Walker’s marketing strategies and relentless drive birthed her label as “the first known African-American woman to become a self-made millionaire.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. Madam C.J. Walker was an activist for those who could not speak, a self-starter and a businesswoman in every arena. Entrepreneurs today speak about how her story inspires them even now.
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