Business

First female American entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker

Oct 14 2020 By Asbin Ghimire
Madam C J Walker
Madam C J Walker
Source: Spanish Revolution

Madam C. J. Walker is the first female American entrepreneur as well as a political and social activist. She is particularly documented in the Guinness Book of World Records as the first self-made female millionaire in America. Even if other women before her had such fortune, Madam C. J. Walker is celebrated with the tagline because others fortune was not well known. Walker is the first woman to earn a personal fortune of more than $1 million in United States history. 

C. J. Walker was the richest African-American businesswoman in the United States during the 1900s. At the time of her death, her net worth estimated to have exceeded $1 million. Besides, C. J. Walker earned her fortune by developing and commercializing a luxury line for black women in makeup and hair-care. Significantly, she reached the height by establishing the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company.

C. J. Walker life in detail

C. J. Walker is undoubtedly an inspirational figure for every woman in the world. In this article, we have dug off information on Walker’s life, starting from early life to being the first female American entrepreneur

C. J. Walker’s bio: early life and family

Madam C. J. Walker was born as a Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, to Owen and Minerva (Anderson) Breedlove. Born as one of six children, Walker grew up with an older sister, Louvenia, and four brothers: Alexander, James, Solomon, and Owen Jr. Although her older siblings were enslaved in Robert W. Burney’s Madison Parish plantation, C.J. was the first child to born after the Emancipation Proclamation, which was signed by Abraham Lincoln.

Madam C.J. Walker
America’s first female entrepreneur.
Source: Flickr

Talking about her parents, her mother died in 1872, likely from cholera, while her father died a year later. Losing her parents at the young age of seven, she moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, when she was ten years old. In the meantime, she started living with Louvenia and brother-in-law, Jesse Powell. It was the time she started earning on her own, working as a child as a domestic servant.

Recalling the struggle, C.J. in one of her interviews, said:

I had little or no opportunity when I started out in life, having been left an orphan and being without mother or father since I was seven years of age.

On the other hand, she doesn’t have any formal academic qualifications. Notably, she only had three months of formal schooling, studying in the church during Sunday school literacy lessons.

Marital life: Married thrice

While C.J. was living with her sister, Louvenia, she had to go through abuse from her brother-in-law, Jesse Powell. To escape this, she tied the knot for the first time with Moses McWilliams in 1882 at 14. From the relationship, the couple had one daughter, A’Lelia, born on June 6, 1885.

Sadly, C.J. had to be a widow at the young age of twenty. Following that, she walked down the aisle for the second time with John Davis in 1903, i.e., six years after the death of her first husband, Moses. However, her marital relationship with John didn’t work, and they parted their ways.

Subsequently, Madam Walker walked down the aisle for the third time with Charles Joseph Walker in January 1906. Additionally, this relationship was the one that transformed her from Sarah Breedlove (Birth name) to Madam C. J. Walker. Similar to her second marital relationship, this one also ended with divorce in 1912.

Step towards entrepreneurship

Madam C.J. Walker’s first significant work was a laundress, earning barely more than a dollar a day. On the other hand, she was eager to make ample money for formal education for her daughter. However, it was impossible to get a high-earning job for a woman with a black racial background.  

In the meantime, similar to other African women, she suffered from severe dandruff and other scalp ailments, including baldness, due to skin disorders. While others didn’t have any idea of dealing with it, she was smart enough to make it an opportunity. 

In particular, she initially learned about hair care from her brothers, who were barbers in St. Louis. Subsequently, she was lucky enough to become a commission agent selling products for Annie Malone. The opportunity landed when she visited Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. Later she established herself as the first female American entrepreneur.

Evolution of Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company

While working with Annie Malone, an African-American hair-care entrepreneur and millionaire, Walker began to learn and develop her product line. While continuing selling products for Malone, C.J. came up with an idea of her own hair-care business in 1905. Meanwhile, this created controversy between Annie and C.J. And Annie accused C.J. of stealing her formula.

Later, the to-be first female American entrepreneur was inspired to market herself as an independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams in around 1906. Additionally, this is when she named her business as Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. In the meantime, she was in a marital relationship with Charles Walker, who also worked as her business partner. Charles not only helped her to grow her business but also assisted her in advertising and promotion.

Following his advice, she successfully taught other black women how to groom and style their hair. With success, in 1906, C.J., along with her then-husband, Charles, expanded their business in the southern and eastern parts of the United States. Since then, the duo was able to grow its business throughout the country. Some of their other ventures include beauty parlours, hair salons, beauty schools, and others. 

Business approach

Madam C. J. Walker’s business approach was to introduce a treatment system to improve the scalp’s health, using her products. The system also encouraged people to use her products like shampoo and pomade, which helps hair growth. Furthermore, her approach was convincing as it guaranteed the transformation of lacklustre and brittle hair into soft and luxuriant.  

On the flip side, there were several rivals to compete with Walker’s product line. Likewise, similar products were manufactured in Europe and the USA by other firms. One of her main competitors was Annie Turnbo Malone’s Poro System, from which she derived her original formula.

To tackle this problem, Walker and her company employed several thousand women as sales agents. Their work was to visit the houses around the United States and in the Caribbean, wearing white shirts and black skirts. Their primary job was to promote the products of Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company

While others were still learning, the first female American entrepreneur was the first to understand the power of advertising and brand awareness. Eventually, she started promoting her products in African-American newspapers and magazines, making her products well-known in the US. This step ultimately proved to be the main formula for the success of her business. 

Apart from monetary strategy, Walker was smart enough to educate other black women about budget, build their businesses, and encourage them to become financially independent. This made her an inspirational figure among the people who helped her commercialize her business more broadly. 

America’s First Female Entrepreneur

Before her death, she was a businesswoman, running a business that had annual revenue of over $500,000. Madam Walker was able to amass a net worth of over $1 million from her long career, which equals about more than $8.8 million today. Likewise, she owned a large and diverse real estate portfolio, including the Villa Lewaro in Westchester County, New York, and a palatial townhouse in Harlem, New York City. 

The precise degree of Mrs Walker’s fortune is impossible to be determined with certainty. Although she denied that she was a millionaire during her lifetime, her massive real estate wealth, coupled with her $500,000-a-year revenue-generating company, brings her approximate net worth to over $1,000,000

On the other hand, other businesswomen may have crossed the million-dollar mark earlier, including Mrs Walker’s former boss Annie Turnbo Malone, the real estate magnate Bridget “Biddy” Mason, and a financier Mary Ellen Pleasant. Despite the fact, they aren’t famous as a millionaire because their finances were not well documented.

Madam C J Walker death

The entrepreneur, C. J. Walker left the world on May 25, 1919, at the age of 51. As per the reports, the cause of her death was kidney failure and complications of hypertension.

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