The Maryland Women’s Business Center (MWBC) remains committed to its purpose of being a visionary leader in women entrepreneurship. To celebrate African American History Month, we’re highlighting four famous African-American women entrepreneurs (one per week) beginning with Madam C.J. Walker. Read a synopsis about her incredible journey as one of America’s most successful women entrepreneurs and be sure to check our social media channels for each new profile during February.
“Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.” ~ Madam C.J. Walker
From her humble beginnings and with only three months’ formal education, Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) created a beauty empire that made her one of the most successful women entrepreneurs and African-American business owners in American history. She was proclaimed “the first self-made U.S. woman millionaire of any race” upon her death in 1919. In addition to her tremendous business successes, Walker was a powerful activist and philanthropist, drawing attention to and creating change for many social and political issues.
One of six children, Sarah was the first child in her family born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Both her parents died by the time she was seven years old, leaving her in the care of various siblings and, for a time, she worked as domestic help in Mississippi.
In 1906, then-Sarah wed Charles Joseph Walker, an advertising salesman from Missouri, and she became known as Madam C. J. Walker, the name under which she would later build her line of beauty and hair care products. She created the products from her personal hair struggles, her brothers who were barbers in St. Louis, and her work experience as a saleswoman for Annie Turnbo Malone, another woman entrepreneur in the beauty industry.
As she launched the business, Madam C. J. Walker and her husband traveled across the country promoting the products while her daughter, A’lelia Walker, managed a direct mail business out of Denver. Later, Madam C. J. Walker founded the Lelia College to train “hair culturalists” and opened offices in Indianapolis—the headquarters of the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company—New York City, and later the Caribbean, Latin America, and Central America.
In addition to building her successful business, she invested in her fellow African-American women entrepreneurs. Women held executive management positions and she trained thousands of women as independent sales agents to help them attain financial independence. She ensured they understood budgeting, marketing, networking, and other important skills in running a business. She organized her sales agents into the “National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents” and the inaugural conference in Philadelphia is considered among one of the first national gatherings of women entrepreneurs.
Her great success as a business entrepreneur and her social standing as prominent woman of color inspired Madam C. J. Walker to influence positive change through activism and philanthropy. As her business matured, she began lecturing and convening African American leaders to discuss important social and political issues. Her generosity supported many organizations—ranging from the local YMCA to educational scholarships for African-Americans to several arts & culture organizations. She also encouraged her employees to give charitably and be involved in their communities.
During African American History Month, Maryland Women’s Business Center remembers Madam C.J. Walker as one of the early entrepreneurial pioneers and—through MWBC’s training, counseling, and resources—carries on the spirit of helping women build a successful business and achieve financial independence.