Madame CJ Walker
Born into a family of former slaves in 1867, Sarah Breedlove grew up in a poverty stricken area of rural Louisiana which had served as a battle-staging area during the Civil War. Orphaned at age 7 when her parents died during an epidemic of yellow fever, Sarah along with an older sister moved on to Vicksburg, Mississippi in the wake of their parents death. At age 10 Sarah took work in the cotton fields, as well as a maid for a wealthy Louisiana family. During this time, Sarah endured the emotional struggles of living with her sister and an abusive brother-in-law. To escape her harsh life, Sarah married at the age of fourteen and gave birth to a daughter, Lelia, shortly thereafter.
After her husband’s death two years later, she traveled to St. Louis to join her four brothers who had established themselves as barbers. Working as a laundry woman, she managed to save enough money to educate her daughter, and became involved in activities with the National Association of Colored Women.
During the 1890s, Sarah began to suffer from a scalp ailment that caused her to lose some of her hair. Embarrassed by her appearance, she experimented with a variety of homemade formulas and remedies, as well as with products made by another black woman entrepreneur, Annie Malone. In 1905, Sarah became a sales agent for Malone and moved to Denver, where she married Charles Joseph Walker.Changing her name to Madame CJ Walker, Sarah founded her own business and began selling her own product called Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula. With an entrepanerual spirit, Sarah promoted her products, embarking on an exhausting sales drive throughout the South and Southeast selling her products door to door, giving demonstrations, and working on sales and marketing strategies. In 1908, she opened a college in Pittsburgh to train her “hair culturists.”
Eventually, the former Sarah Breedlove founded “The Walker System” a line of products which formed the basis of a thriving national corporation employing at one point over 3,000 people. Her Walker System, which included a broad offering of cosmetics, licensed Walker Agents, and Walker Schools offered meaningful employment and personal growth to thousands of African American women. Madame Walker’s aggressive marketing strategy combined with relentless ambition led her to be labeled as the first known African-American woman to become a self-made millionaire.
Sadly, after having amassed a fortune in fifteen years, this pioneering businesswoman died at the age of 52. Her prescription for success was perseverance, hard work, faith in herself and in God, “honest business dealings” and of course, quality products. “There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” she once observed. “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.”