Malith Wijeratne Professor Julie Marzano RDG055-01 July 7, 2011 Madame C. J. Walker was an inventor, businesswoman, philanthropist and a social activist who made her fortune by developing and marketing a hugely successful line of beauty and hair products for black women. The Guinness Book of Records cites Walker as the first female, black or white who becomes a millionaire by her own achievements. Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 on a Delta, Louisiana plantation, this daughter of former slaves transformed herself from an uneducated farm laborer and launders into the twentieth century’s most successful, self-made entrepreneur.

Orphaned at age seven, Madame C. J. Walker 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. Like many women of that era, Sarah washed her hair only once a month. As a result, she suffered from severe dandruff and a scalp disease that caused her to lose most of her hair. In 1905, she moved to Denver where she worked as a sales agent for Annie Malone, a black woman entrepreneur who manufactured hair care products.

Sarah consulted with a Denver pharmacist who analyzed Malone’s formula and helped Sarah formulate her own products. While in Denver, Sarah 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 door to door. The elements of the “Walker System” were a shampoo, a pomade “hair-grower,” vigorous brushing, and the application of heated hair combs. The method transformed stubborn, lusterless hair into shining smoothness.

Madam Walker, by the way, did not invent the straightening comb, though many people incorrectly believe that to be true. To promote her products, the new “Madam C. J. Walker” traveled for a year and a half on a dizzying crusade throughout the heavily black South and Southeast, selling her products door to door, demonstrating her scalp treatments in churches and lodges, and devising sales and marketing strategies. In 1908, Madam Walker created a college for her future employees. They were trained in the art of hair styling.

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Leila College, run by Madam Walker’s daughter, A’Lelia, taught their students what became known as the Walker Method. After their schooling, most of the graduates were employed by Walker herself. She and her company employed over 3,000 people at one point. By early 1910, she had settled in Indianapolis, then the nation’s largest inland manufacturing center, where she built a factory, hair and manicure salon and another training school. This way she helped so many black women at that time to stand on their own feet.

One of the reason for her success as a businesswoman was her self-confidence, she was poor but that didn’t stop her to become the first female millionaire. No single accomplishment or personal trait captures the essence of Madam C. J. Walker’s legacy. Rather, her life is best summed up as being a Pioneering entrepreneur. Madam C. J. Walker was clearly a pioneer of the modern cosmetics industry. Tenacity and perseverance, faith in her and in God, quality products and “honest business dealings” were the elements and strategies she prescribed for aspiring entrepreneurs who requested the secret to her rags-to-riches ascent.

Along the way, she provided educational opportunities and lucrative incomes for thousands of African American women who otherwise would have been consigned to jobs as farm laborers, washerwomen and maids. Pioneering philanthropist Madam Walker was also a pioneering philanthropist, initiating the philosophy of charitable giving in the black community with her unprecedented contributions to the YMCA, the NAACP, the Tuskegee Institute, and Bethune-Cookman College. As a pioneering political activist, Madam C. J. Walker organized her sales agents to use their economic clout to protest lynching and racial injustice.

She made it her goal to create a safe and comfortable place in which black women could be “pampered,” believing that this kind of attention would boost their self-confidence and alleviate the daily stress that black women suffered from. In addition to feeling physical beauty, she wanted women to, “combine these qualities with a beautiful mind and soul. ”   As much as any woman of the twentieth century, Madam C. J. Walker paved the way for the profound social changes that altered women’s place in American society.


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