Millionaires

6 Lessons From Madam C.J. Walker, America's First Black Self-Made Female Millionaire

Invest in yourself and your community.
6 Lessons From Madam C.J. Walker, America's First Black Self-Made Female Millionaire
Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives | Getty Images
Entrepreneur Staff
Staff Writer. Covers leadership, media, technology and culture.
4 min read

It's not very often that an entrepreneur's influence can still be felt for more than a century, but that is the case for Madam C.J. Walker.

Walker, born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Louisiana, is remembered today as the first black self-made female millionaire in the United States, amassing her fortune thanks to her groundbreaking haircare products for women of color and finely honed marketing skills.

Related: They're Doing It: Awe-Inspiring African American Female Entrepreneurs

In addition to being a determined businesswoman, Walker was an activist and philanthropist, using her success as a platform to help her community. Today, her legacy lives on. In 2016, Sundial Brands launched the Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture product line with Sephora.

Not only that, but the company had some particular personal insight into the woman who inspired the collection -- acclaimed writer and Walker's great, great granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles is on board as the product line's advisor and official historian.

Read on for six lessons from Madam C.J. Walker.

6 Lessons From Madam C.J. Walker, America's First Black Self-Made Female Millionaire

You have strength you don’t even realize.

One of Walker's best known quotes is "I got my start by giving myself a start." She was born the child of sharecroppers in Louisiana, and her parents died when she was just 7 years old. She worked as a farm laborer and married her first husband when she was just 14 to leave the dangerous home of her brother-in-law. A widow and single mother to a young daughter at 20, she decided to move to Missouri where she worked for less than $2 a day to afford to get her daughter an education.

6 Lessons From Madam C.J. Walker, America's First Black Self-Made Female Millionaire

Solving a problem for yourself can fix something for others.

In the 1890s, Walker was suffering from hair loss and wanted to find a solution. On the advice of her four brothers, who all worked as barbers, she tested out a number of remedies to find the formula that worked best for her. She also tried out products made by Annie Malone, another black female entrepreneur in the beauty space. Realizing she had a passion for the industry, she got a job working for Malone as a sales representative.

6 Lessons From Madam C.J. Walker, America's First Black Self-Made Female Millionaire

You can reinvent yourself.

Seeing that there was a real need, she was inspired to launch her own business and she changed her name from Sarah Breedlove to Madam C.J. Walker, the first steps towards building her empire.

She traveled around the country for a year and a half, going door to door and doing demos at churches and community gathering places to sell Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower. It was a hit, and it allowed her to open her first training center in Pittsburgh in 1908, and then her first factory two years later in Indianapolis.

6 Lessons From Madam C.J. Walker, America's First Black Self-Made Female Millionaire

Collaborate with people who believe in your vision.

Though Walker started out as a one-woman operation, it didn't last that way for very long. With the Lelia College of Beauty Culture, she was dedicated to training women who could be ambassadors for her brand. By 1919, she had 25,000 Walker agents across the country who had gotten diplomas from the school.

6 Lessons From Madam C.J. Walker, America's First Black Self-Made Female Millionaire

Invest in yourself.

Though Walker had a difficult time getting backers for her factory in Indianapolis, she was undeterred. She decided to invest $10,000 out of her own pocket to open the Walker Manufacturing Company, making her the lone shareholder of the operation, which massively paid off. She used her fortune to also pay for some sizable pieces of real estate: a Harlem townhouse that was a frequent gathering place for luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance and a mansion in Irvington, N.Y., which still stands as a historical landmark.

6 Lessons From Madam C.J. Walker, America's First Black Self-Made Female Millionaire

Support your community.

Walker was a well-known activist and philanthropist. She donated money to support scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute and to preserve Frederick Douglass's house. She was also patron of a number of organizations including the African American Young Men's Christian Association and the NAACP.

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  • 6 Lessons From Madam C.J. Walker, America's First Black Self-Made Female Millionaire
  • 1. You have strength you don’t even realize.
  • 2. Solving a problem for yourself can fix something for others.
  • 3. You can reinvent yourself.
  • 4. Collaborate with people who believe in your vision.
  • 5. Invest in yourself.
  • 6. Support your community.
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