• Oliver Scott

The First Female Entrepreneur

The first female self-made millionaire in America is in the Guinness Book of World Records and her name is Madam C. J. Walker. She was an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist born in 1867. Her parents, Owen and Minerva, were sharecroppers born in to slavery in Louisiana.

Walker was the first in her family to be born free after the Emancipation Proclamation. Her early life was faced with challenges, being orphaned at six, married at fourteen, and widowed at the age of twenty.

Starting over, she moved to St. Louis to join her brothers who were barbers, while she worked as a laundress. At the time, she was earning as little as $1.50 a day however, was destined to be a leader and entrepreneur. After suffering from scalp ailments and hair loss, with the support and influence of her brothers, she developed her own regimine of haircare products. She prayed nightly for her hair to come back and one night, a man came to her in her dreams and told her the way to cure her bald spots. In 1905 she moved again to Denver where she soon met her husband, Charles J. Walker, who helped her with marketing and mail order of her products as they gained popularity like her Wonderful Hair Grower, changing her fortunes. She experimented with formulas, eventually settling on a combination of petroleum jelly, beeswax, copper sulfate, and perfume to hide the sulfur smell. It was called the "Walker System".

This system involved scalp preparation, lotions and iron combs and her pomade became the most successful item sold. She differentiated her products from the competitive market (mostly monopolized by white men) by targeting it directly to her audience, black women. She expressed how her products were made with their better interest in mind. She won over the market and became so successful, she hired a fleet of saleswomen she called "beauty cultralists" who sold the products by going door-to-door. She went on to employing thousands of women under her business model, The Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Co.

Walker took great pride in using her wealth to fund scholarships for women and donated to the NAACP, the Black YMCA and other charities. She also encouraged her employees to give back to their community and provided bonuses when they did. She also expanded out of the U.S. to the Caribbean and Central American where she saw "untapped opportunity".

Madam Walker's success broke barriers and bypassed the stereotypes of her time.

Her New York mansion was designed by an African-American architect in a suburb known for wealth and status, and is now a privately owned Historic Landmark. According to the Smithsonian, her personal fortune was estimated to be $600,000 to $700,000 when she died in 1919 at the age of 51 which is the equivalent to 10,584,242.77 today. She denied ever being a millionare but said she "hoped to be one day".

By the end of Walker’s life in 1919, she would rank among the nation’s wealthiest self-made women of the era.

Credits and References:

Smithsonian Mag



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