There aren’t many millionaire success stories these days of companies built from the ground up, and if you think it’s rare in today’s day and age, imagine it happening in the early 20th century, engineered by a woman who was the first daughter born into freedom in her family after Emancipation in 1867 Louisiana.
Well, that story really happened, and it’s the story of Madam C. J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove), the first female self-made millionaire.
Walker grew up quickly. Her parents passed away when she was 7, and she was married at 14. Widowed with a daughter at 20, she moved to St. Louis and remarried Charles J. Walker, who she would eventually name her incredibly popular hair care products after.
Finding work as a washerwoman, she used her meager income to send her daughter to school and take classes herself. When she suffered from early hair loss, she used her past work experiences to develop hair care products specifically for black women. After tinkering with products and processes, she finally perfected a hair care line by Madam C. J. Walker. Beginning in 1907, Madam and Mr. Walker traveled the country advertising the “Walker Method,” educating women and selling her products.
In 1908, with her profits growing steadily, Walker opened a factory and beauty school in Pittsburgh. By 1910, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was a huge success, raking in profits that would be in the millions today. It didn’t stop there, however. Soon, Walker was expanding her company internationally in the Caribbean and Central America.
But there’s more to Madam C.J. Walker’s story. Walker was motivated by a force of good and philanthropy. KeriLynn Engel at Amazing Women in History writes: “She said that she wanted to be a millionaire not for herself, but for the good she could do with it.”
Raised in hardship, she understood the value of hard work and a drive for change. She was a benefactor and active participant in the NAACP, and even encouraged her employees to be politically active. She advocated for education, lectured around the country, and supported legislation against lynching. She now has several landmarks and monuments to her name and achievements. Madam Walker excelled in a time when all of the odds were stacked against her, and remains an inspiration for anyone with an entrepreneurial spirit and a drive for equality.