Some of us admire the rise of women beauty entrepreneurs like Kim Kardashian, who's already made a reported $100 million with KKW Beauty, her cosmetics and fragrance brand. And you might be in awe of the way singer Rihanna leveraged herself to build her Fenty Beauty brand co-owned with LVMH. Products like her Pro Filt'r Soft Matte foundation — available in 50 shades — have made Rihanna the richest female musician in the world, with a fortune pegged at $600 million.
But both of these female entrepreneurs are following a trail blazed by Madam C.J. Walker a century ago. "Many consider her the first self-made American woman millionaire," says A'Lelia Bundles, Walker's great-great granddaughter and biographer. "For a woman in business and who launched her product before women had the right to vote, is pretty extraordinary."
Some reports claim Walker was the first Black woman to build a million-dollar fortune. But Guinness World Records lists Walker as the first self-made female millionaire, period.
And the fact that Walker was the daughter of sharecroppers, yet still built a national brand, empowered hundreds of women, and became a philanthropist and civil rights activist makes her story even more inspiring. The recent Netflix miniseries "Self Made," starring Octavia Spencer, is loosely based on Walker's life story.
Who Is Madam C.J. Walker?
The woman we know as Madam C.J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on a Louisiana cotton plantation in 1867. The fifth child of Owen and Minerva Breedlove, who had once been enslaved, Sarah was the first of her siblings to be born free. Her early years in Louisiana were full of struggle, and Sarah was an orphan by age 7, so she went to live with her older sister Louvenia and her husband. In 1877, the family moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, where young Sarah picked cotton and did domestic work.
At age 14 she married Moses McWilliams to escape backbreaking work and her brother-in-law, who mistreated her. Her only child, Lelia (who later changed her name to A'Lelia Walker), was born in June 1885. When her husband died in 1887, Sarah moved to St. Louis, where her brothers were barbers. She started doing laundry, earning $1.50 a day, which allowed Walker and her daughter to attend school.
By the 1890s, Breedlove's hair started falling out due to a scalp condition. There were very few hair care products designed for women of African descent and hair loss was a big problem, Bundles says. She searched for a way to cure her hair loss. She tried the Poro hair care line by Annie Turnbo Malone, a Black entrepreneur and it helped. She sold Poro for 18 months, while experimenting with her own hair-growing formula.
Madam C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower
In 1906, she wed Charles Joseph (C.J.) Walker, a sales and advertising man, in Denver. He helped her with marketing strategies and business ideas, and both of these — and his name — were useful. That same year she changed her name from Sarah Breedlove to Madam C.J. Walker and launched Madam C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower.
"She was one of the women who was a pioneer in a multimillion-dollar cosmetics and hair care industry," Bundles says. "In 1906 when she founded her company, there was no national distribution for hair care and cosmetics, like when women like Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden" created their brands.
To promote Madam C.J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower, she and C.J. traveled the South for 18 months selling door to door and doing demonstrations, mostly in churches. Convinced by Walker's before-and-after photos, women snapped up tins of her hair grower for 50 cents each. By 1908, Walker was earning the equivalent of $150,000 a year in today's money. She liked to say, "There would be no hair growing industry if I hadn't invented it."
The exact recipe is lost to time, but the original formula included coconut oil, beeswax, petrolatum (similar to petroleum jelly), copper sulfate, precipitated sulfur and a violet scent. Coconut oil is a favorite in natural hair care today, but the key ingredient was likely sulfur, which had been used in scalp and hair preparations for years. A 2019 study found that an oral form of sulfur known as MSM supported the growth of healthy hair and fingernails, likely because it boosts the development of keratin, a protein abundant in hair, skin and nails.
Her "Walker System" included a vegetable-based shampoo, and Glossine, which helped smooth hair pressed with a hot comb.
Building a Legacy Beyond Hair
By 1911, Walker incorporated, then recruited and trained agents she called "beauty culturists" in major cities. As Walker's success grew, her marriage deteriorated. After she caught C.J. in an affair, she divorced him in 1912.
By this time, she lived in Indianapolis, a Midwestern hub of transit and Black life. She hobnobbed with newspaper publishers, and eventually became allied with influential politicians and activists including Ida B. Wells, W.E.B DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune and Booker T. Washington, one of the most influential Black men in the country at that time.
In 1916, she settled in New York's Harlem, the epicenter of Black culture. She and her daughter A'Lelia Walker Robinson opened a posh salon featuring Doric columns, velvet seating, parquet floors and a grand piano in the lobby. In 1917, Walker hosted her first national convention for beauty culturists in Philadelphia. Besides inspiring her agents to sell more, she encouraged them to support charitable causes through the Madam C.J. Walker Benevolent Association.
Walker donated money to Black colleges, and gave $5,000 to the NAACP's anti-lynching fund. "She visited the White House in 1917 with a group to try to persuade President [Woodrow] Wilson to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime," Bundles says. "In the early 20th century there were hundreds and hundreds of lynchings, and African American men were targeted. There are many parallels with what's happening today with Black Lives Matter."
Wilson publicly condemned the heinous practice that killed an estimated 4,742 people, but the federal government wouldn't outlaw lynching until 2018, a century later.
In 1918, Walker moved into Villa Lewaro, an Italianate mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, about 45 minutes north of Manhattan. With 20,000 square feet (1,858 square meters) spread over 34 rooms, and expansive views of the Hudson River, the home designed by African American architect Vertner Woodson Tandy was a marvel.
Sadly, she didn't get to enjoy it long. Walker died in 1919. In her obituary, W.E.B. DuBois wrote: "It is given to few persons to transform a people in a generation. Yet this was done by the late Madam C.J. Walker."
Her Larger-Than-Life Story
Walker's Villa Lewaro mansion was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976 and has largely been restored by Ambassador Harold E. Doley Jr. and his wife Helena, who lived there from 1993 to 2018. Doley, a retired investment banker, and the first African American to own his seat on the New York Stock Exchange, had a toy model of Villa Lewaro as a boy. In late 2018, Richelieu Dennis, the Sundial Brands hair care magnate who invented the Shea Moisture line, acquired the home. Dennis worked with Sephora to launch a Walker Beauty Culture hair care line in 2016. The restoration work is continuing and he plans to use Villa Lewaro as a think tank and base for his New Voices Foundation to support African American women entrepreneurs.
More than a dozen books and movies have featured Walker and her rise to riches and fame. Bundles wrote her Columbia University master's thesis on her great-great grandmother and has authored four books on her life based on her research and family archives including 50,000 documents and photographs. Her biography, "On Her Own Ground, The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker," was published in 2001.
Bundles had been working with Alex Haley on a Walker project, but after Haley died in 1992, his estate shared the research with Tananarive Due, who wrote a fictionalized account, "The Black Rose."
Bundles says she is looking forward to Tyrone McKinley Freeman's book "Madam C.J. Walker's Gospel of Giving" which is due out in October 2020 and focuses on Walker's considerable philanthropy during the Jim Crow era.