Leadership

4 lessons you can learn from America’s first female self-made millionaire

Madam C.J. Walker is America's first female self-made millionaire. Here are four major takeaways from her inspirational story.

She was a self-starter

Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1879 on the same Louisiana plantation on which her parents had been enslaved. When she was just seven years old, her parents died, leaving Sarah an orphan who had to work in the cotton fields to survive.

She was abused by her brother-in-law, married at the age of 14, and had her first child by the time she was 18. Just two years after the birth of her daughter A'Lelia, Sarah's husband passed away, leaving her a single mother.

But as she put it, "I got my start by giving myself a start."

Sarah made a new life for herself and her daughter in St. Louis, where her brothers were barbers. In the 1890's, she began losing some of her hair, as many women do, and Sarah found that there was no product that addressed the issue. She experimented and tested and eventually formulated a scalp conditioning and healing product herself. She named it "Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower."

"She became her own best walking advertisement. Other women saw how her hair was growing, they wanted some of the product," says A'Lelia Bundles, Walker's great-great-granddaughter and biographer.

(l-r) A'Lelia Bundles and Enolia Thomas are joined by Wilma and Wellington Webb for the Interpretive Sign Unvieling at the dedication of Madam C.J. Walker Park.
Craig F. Walker | Getty Images
(l-r) A'Lelia Bundles and Enolia Thomas are joined by Wilma and Wellington Webb for the Interpretive Sign Unvieling at the dedication of Madam C.J. Walker Park.

In 1905, Sarah changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker and founded her own business selling her hair-growth formula. Bundles calls Madam Walker "the quintessential entrepreneur. Like a lot of entrepreneurs she had a personal need and she realized there was a hole in the market, which she filled with her Wonderful Hair Grower."

Walker once explained, "I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them."

"Don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them." -Madame C.J. Walker, entrepreneur and self-made millionaire

She was ahead of the curve

Not only was Walker among the first to address the health and beauty needs of the African American community, but she also was "the pioneer of direct sales and the master of marketing."

"Madam Walker, as part of the first generation out of slavery, really was inventing the way that she operated in the world," says Bundles. Walker took inspiration from the National Association of Colored Women to invent the business model that is known today as direct sales.

She admired the NACW's politically active and civic-minded organizing and found their networking structure to be the perfect template upon which to model her corporation. By educating sales agents and creating an institution that supported employees on a local and national level, Walker's business saw great success.

She eventually expanded her business across the United States, Central America and the Caribbean.

Madam C.J. Walker drives in New York City in 1911.
Smith Collection | Getty Images
Madam C.J. Walker drives in New York City in 1911.

In 1917, Walker held a meeting with 200 of her sales agents from all over the United States. Walker gave prizes to the women who had sold the most products, as well as to those who had contributed the most to charity. This idea was inspired by her "close friendships" with contemporaries such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Ida B. Wells Barnett, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson and Booker T. Washington.

Companies like Avon and Mary Kay have Walker and her colleagues to thank for the direct sales model.

She empowered others

Walker used her business success to help people in her community help themselves.

Bundles described how important this was: "Part of the genius of Madam Walker is that she saw in some way that her hair-care product became a means to an end. It allowed her to help other women with their own hair-care needs, but it also allowed her to provide economic opportunities and job opportunities for other women who were experiencing the same kinds of problems that she was experiencing.

"In doing so she helped them become economically independent."

She created a legacy

Walker's business legacy lives on through the newly imagined Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture line by Sundial. Madam Walker's original formulations from the early 20th century have been transformed using 21st-century science while staying true to Walker's vision: Using the highest quality ingredients, providing options for women of all hair textures, and keeping hair health as a major priority.

Even the packaging references Walker's original designs. "I think Sundial has done an excellent job of referencing the past, bringing it into the future, and speaking to Madam Walker's legacy as a pioneer of the hair-care industry and beauty culture, while also empowering women," says Bundles.

The Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture line comes at a crucial time, during important discussions of implicit bias regarding hair type and style.

A view of the Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture booth during the 2016 Essence Street Style Block Party.
Craig Barritt | Getty Images
A view of the Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture booth during the 2016 Essence Street Style Block Party.

Bundles notes that successful CEOs like former Verizon CEO Marie Johns, Hollywood stars and Harvard Business School students alike have found inspiration in Walker's story.

A'Lelia Bundles' book about Walker's life, "On Her Own Ground," has been optioned by Zero Gravity Management for a television series starring Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer, while students in Nancy Koehn's case study at Harvard Business School regularly dissect Walker's life in an attempt to discover her secret to success.

According to Walker, however, there are no shortcuts. She once said, "There is no royal flower strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it, for whatever success I have attained has been the result of much hard work and many sleepless nights."