The first female self-made millionaire in America was a black woman called Madam C J Walker. She made her fortune developing and marketing a line of cosmetics and hair care products for black women through the business she founded.
Born in 1867 in Louisiana, Sarah Breedlove (as she was named at birth) was orphaned at the age of 7, and, having moved to live with her sister and brother in law, began her working life as a domestic servant. She married three times, the first marriage at just 14 years old. Her third husband was Charles Joseph Walker, whom she married in 1906 and adopted his initials as her own, becoming Madam C J Walker. The Madam was chosen as it was used by female pioneers in the French beauty industry.
Sarah suffered severe scalp issues and even hair loss due to a combination of the harsh products available to her at the time and probably also to infrequent bathing and hair washing as she lived in a time when indoor plumbing and heating was scarce. That, combined with a likelihood of poor diet and frequent illnesses, left her with a problem for which she sought her own solutions.
Her brothers were barbers and she learned about hair care from them, and also took a job as a salesperson for Annie Malone, an African-American hair care entrepreneur. While working with Annie, she began to apply her new-found knowledge to develop her own products.
As her business grew, Sarah promoted herself as an independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams. She sold products door to door, at the same time providing tips and advice to other black women on how to groom themselves and style their hair. Under the business name of Madam C J Walker, she designed her products and developed her methods to promote hair growth and condition the scalp. She created a shampoo and a pomade which was intended to help hair grow, promoting frequent and lengthy brushing of the hair and the use of iron combs.
In 1908, Walker and her husband opened their business in Pittsburgh and established a college to train what they referred to as “hair culturists.” They built a factory, hair salon, and beauty school to train her sales agents, and later she added a laboratory to help with research. Many of her company’s employees, including those in key management and staff positions, were women. By 1917, her company claimed to have trained nearly 20,000 women as doorstep sales agents in what she named “The Walker System”. Not only that, but they also taught business skills, budgeting and how to recruit new agents to grow the business.
To find out more about her story, you can watch a Netflix film about her life called Self Made.
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