Madam CJ Walker was the first African-American woman in the US to become a self-made millionaire. Her entrepreneurial spirit is still somewhat controversial because her modified hot comb became the world’s first widely successful hair-straightening formula. Some saw this invention as a way for those in the minority to conform to the social majority’s visual societal expectations. Yet her life, though eventually wealthy, started as far from wealth as possible in the US.
1. A Child of Two Former Slaves
Madam CJ Walker was born as Sarah Breedlove in 1867. She was born on a plantation in Louisiana and was technically the only “free” member of her family. Her other siblings were born on the other side of the Emancipation Proclamation. Despite this, by the young age of 7, she was an orphan toiling away in the fields of cotton her parents had worked. To escape this life, she got married at the age of 14.
2. A Fateful Experience
Madam CJ Walker had her hair begin falling out at an early age. This was a common issue because bathing was infrequent for many in this era. Thanks to a fortuitous experience with a hair growing product that worked well, she was able to begin selling the product as a local agent.
3. She Fulfilled a Need
During this era, the white social majority rarely created products that worked well for African-Americans and other racial minorities. This left a major gap in the product market and Madam CJ Walker realized she could fill that gap. She wasn’t the only one. When she launched her business, it was during an era when 40,000 other businesses were launched by African-Americans.
4. Inspired By a Dream
Madam CJ Walker had two unique benefits to her business: she had a French title instead of a derogatory white title bestowed upon her and her product formula she always claimed came from a dream. “A big black man told me what to use,” she would often say in some variation.
5. A Trademark Not Trademarked
Seeing her success, numerous companies owned by whites tried to create knockoff products. To counter this, Madam CJ Walker included a specific seal to show that her product was genuine.
For Walker, the goal wasn’t to make money. The goal was to help other women find a way to refine their own talents and gifts. Because of this, her efforts are still remembered to this day because of her ability to find success at the height of the Jim Crow era in the US.