Madam C.J. Walker: Black Entrepreneur Legend and Haircare Pioneer
We can all benefit via the brilliant business and life lessons from this franchising genius.
Another Black History Month has come and gone, but per the findings of a new study commissioned by Groupon and the National Black Chamber of Commerce: Educating ourselves on the adversity African Americans have always faced in the workplace MUST be a year long thing.
Depressingly, 80% of black business owners polled stated they faced more challenges getting their business off the ground due to their race while 85% claimed they had to overcome more obstacles than their non-black peers. Fifty-nine percent reported being victims of bias or racism when starting their company.
All the more reason (even in March) to be aware of the franchising savant, philanthropist and one of the country's first African-American female millionaires that was Madam C.J. Walker. She still has much to teach us 101 years after her death.
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 within the Louisiana Delta, Walker was orphaned at a young age and spent more than a decade working as a washerwoman to support her young daughter. One day she looked down at her hands in the tub and thought: What am I going to do to support my family when I am no longer able to scrub this laundry?
This question, coupled with the fact that Walker felt her follicles were thinning, prompted her to begin working as a salesperson for the hair care product brand, the Poro Company. Walker also worked as a cook where she learned even more about the chemistry behind beauty elixirs and she eventually created her own line of beauty aids.
Walker was a phenomenal brand builder. Her business and signature “Walker Method” for hair care provided career opportunities and economic independence for thousands of African American women. Her company trained some 40,000 “Walker Agents” in her specific product strategy.
The story of Walker’s success is packed with life and leadership lessons.
An underprivileged background does not define you
Walker was born on a plantation where her parents were enslaved, and although she was free, her life was filled with struggle, turmoil and heartbreak. But if you believe, as Walker did, that your circumstances do not define your shine, you can go after your goals and dreams with determination and you can create a new path.
Believe in yourself AND your product
The truth about business is that you WILL face uphill battles. Hearing things like “you won’t succeed” and feeling overwhelmed by the obstacles may feel too much at times. Your own black brothers and sisters may tell you that you won’t succeed because African Americans just don’t make it this far. But you cannot let the words and actions of others diminish your belief in YOURSELF and your product.
Walker faced many critiques for her products, including the claim that encouraging straight hair for black women would internalize white standards of beauty. But Walker knew that her vision of using ingredients from African origins to empower black women to love their hair was a powerful goal. She didn’t lose faith in her company, her vision or herself.
Every endeavor makes you wiser
Walker worked as a laundrywoman, cook, lived with her brothers who worked as barbers, and learned sales from the Poro Company before selling her famous products.
She used these experiences to create her company, applying her skills in chemistry and sales experience. We can look at painful aspects of our past as hindrances or we can see them as assets. At every stage in our lives, there is always something to learn.
Don't just build a business, build a brand
Walker didn’t just sell hair products, she sold a lifestyle. She created an entire brand around the idea that African American women should look good, feel good and encourage themselves to create a better life. Walker embodied her brand. She put herself on the labels and used her own photos in print ads. She positioned herself as a ‘hair culturalist’ and empowered thousands of sales agents to look their best, feel their best and make a living empowering other women to do the same.
Leverage the love
One of the ways Walker stood out was the way she pioneered the franchising model. She was a brilliant salesperson by turning customers into brand ambassadors. Walker not only sold women her products but she also leveraged the lifestyle and dream of being a part of her brand. She trained women on the “Walker Method” and gave cash incentives to agents who did well in sales and embodied the brand.
When you are building your company, remember to leverage those who already love your brand. They are a powerful part of your business and having strategies like reward programs and referral perks are an important part of growth.
Make room at the table
As an advocate of black women's economic independence, Walker opened training programs in the "Walker System" for her national network of licensed sales agents. She paid healthy commissions and employed hundreds of black women in her company.
Our fortunes will not change if we don’t empower our tribe to also be successful. Don’t forget to be looking for ways to bring more voices to the table and use your success to create even more seats.
Walker was a well-known philanthropist and we can all be inspired by her generosity. Giving back to your community and the causes that are important to you and your company can be done in many ways. Having philanthropy as part of your mission statement means you are creating motivation and unity within your team.
Walker is a true inspiration and it is invaluable to look at incredible black women in history and find teachings from their lives and accomplishments.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor