The daughter of slaves, she was orphaned by the age of seven. She and her older sister survived by working in the Delta and Vicksburg, Mississippi cotton fields. Married at the age of 14 to a Mr. McWilliams, Sarah Breedlove was a widow by the age of 20 with a daughter, A'Lelia, to support. After her husband's death, they moved to St. Louis, where she worked as a laundry woman, she managed to save enough money to educate her daughter and became involved in activities with the National Association of Colored Women.
During the 1890s, Sarah began to suffer from a scalp ailment that caused her to lose some of her hair. Embarrassed by her appearance, she experimented with a variety of home-made remedies and products made by another black woman entrepreneur, Annie Malone. She began selling the products.
She married in 1906 to Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaperman. Changing her name to Madame C.J. Walker, Sarah founded her own business and began selling her own product called Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula. To promote her products, she embarked on an exhausting sales drive throughout the South and Southeast selling her products door to door, giving demonstrations, and working on sales and marketing strategies.
In 1908, she opened a college in Pittsburgh to train her "hair culturists." Walker Schools of Beauty Culture across the country and initiated hygienic regulations for her staff that anticipated later state cosmetology laws.
In 1910, she transferred her business, by then called the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Co., to Indianapolis, Indiana, adding a complete line of toiletries and cosmetics to her products.
She did not invent the straightening comb, but she modified the curling iron invented by the French to make it more suitable to the hair texture of most Black women. She once described herself in the following manner: "I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations...I built my own factory on my own ground."
At its peak, her company employed some 3,000 people, many of them "Walker agents"; saleswomen dressed in long Black skirts and white blouses who became familiar figures in the Black communities of the United States and the Caribbean.
Her Walker System, which included a broad offering of cosmetics, licensed Walker Agents, and Walker Schools offered meaningful employment and personal growth to thousands of Black women. Madame Walker's aggressive marketing strategy combined with relentless ambition led her to be labeled as the first known African-American woman to become a self-made millionaire.
Her fortune was augmented by shrewd real estate investments. Generous with her money, she included in her extensive philanthropies educational scholarships, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, homes for the aged, the National Conference on Lynching, the YMCA, and other charitable organizations.
Having amassed a fortune in fifteen years, this pioneering businesswoman died at the age of 52 May 25, 1919 in Irvington, New York. Her prescription for success was perseverance, hard work, faith in herself and in God, "honest business dealings" and of course, quality products. "There is no royal flower-strewn path to success," she once observed. "And if there is, I have not found it - for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard."
She left her estate to various charitable and educational institutions and to her daughter, A'Lelia Walker Kennedy, who was later known for supporting an intellectual salon known as The Dark Tower that helped to stimulate the cultural Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.
An employee of Madame C.J. Walker's empire, Marjorie Joyner invented an improved permanent wave machine. This device patented in 1928, curled or "permed" women's hair for a relatively lengthy period of time. The wave machine was popular among women white and black allowing for longer-lasting wavy hair styles. Joyner went on to become a prominent figure in Madame CJ Walker's industry, though she never profited directly from her invention, the assigned intellectual property of the Walker Company.
- I got my start by giving myself a start.
- I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.
- I had to make my own living and my own opportunity. But I made it! Don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.
- One night I had a dream, and in that dream a big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up for my hair. I made up my mind I would begin to sell it.
- I am not satisfied in making money for myself. I endeavour to provide employment for hundreds of the women of my race.
- There is no royal flower-strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.
- Perseverance is my motto.
Compiled from www.anothershadeofcolor.com and http://inventors.about.com/od/wstartinventors/a/MadameWalker.htm.