'I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it!
Born Sarah Breedlove, Madame CJ Walker (1867-1919) has been named America’s first female self made millionaire, the world’s most successful African American business woman, and the world’s most successful businesswoman of her time.
She built her vastly successful enterprise by developing and marketing her own line of hair and beauty products for black women. She is also famous for her prolific philanthropy and donation to deserving causes.
One of six children, her parents and older siblings were enslaved on R W Burnley’s plantation. She was the first of her family to be born into freedom after the Emancipation Declaration was signed. At the age of seven, she became an orphan, and three years later,was sent to Vicksburg to become a domestic servant. Through her first marriage, which began when she was 14, she gave birth to her daughter Leila, who was to follow in her footsteps as an influential business woman. After the death of her first husband, Moses McWilliam, she remarried three times. During this time, she found employment as a laundress, earning a dollar a day. But Sarah was determined to give her daughter a proper education…
While singing in the choir at a Methodist church, she observed the educated women in attendance, and longed for a lifestyle like theirs. During this time, she suffered from bad dandruff, skin disorders and hair loss, which was common among black women of the time, due to poor nutrition and overwork, as well as harsh substances such as lye that were present in many soaps and detergents.
Through her brothers, who were barbers, she began to learn about hair care. A while later, she was introduced to Annie Turnbo-Malone, a haircare entrepreneur and owner of a successful company, for whom she began to work as a commission agent. In this role, she grew and developed her knowledge of hair care, and from this, she created a line of her own products.
At the age of 37, Sarah relocated to Denver Colorado, and grew her small business. After her marriage to Charles Walker, who was also her business partner, and an expert in advertising and promotion, she marketed herself as an independent hairdresser and cosmetic cream retailer. She began to teach other African American women to style hair, and to become beauty culturists, using the Walker System, which contained pomades and shampoos designed to encourage hair regrowth.
Despite fierce competition from other similar businesses, the company had trained almost 20,000 women, empowering them to run their own businesses and become financially self sufficient, as well as teaching hundreds how to budget.
It took Madame Walker decades to even develop the idea for her own business. But years of hardship motivated her. And she eventually used her own hair care problems as inspiration to create a solution that would grow to be so much more.