Madam Walker with friends split image

“Ain’t no reward without risk.”

Such inspiring words come from Madam C. J. Walker (interpreted by Octavia Spencer) in the Netflix show Self Made – the 2020 series inspired by the life, struggles and fame of real-life hair empress C J Walker. 

Although many might have enjoyed the show, not everyone knows the true story of Louisiana-born Madam Walker, and how she officially became the first self-made millionairess in history.

Despite the countless hardships, both social and gender-related, Madam Walker successfully established a woman-led, minority-owned business that forever changed the world of beauty. 

She was the first woman to earn a personal fortune of more than $1,000,000, and one of the strongest voices of her time when it came to educating and advocating inclusiveness. 

Discover her story, and you might find that it's still modern and relevant - in today's society more than ever.

Madam Walker portrait from Indiana Historical Society

Sarah Breedlove: The Beginning

Then named Sarah Breedlove, the future record-breaking entrepreneur was born in Delta, Louisiana, on 23 December 1867 as the fifth child of Owen and Minerva Breedlove.

The first child from the couple to be born after the Emancipation Proclamation, Sarah lived her first years on the same cotton plantation where her parents had been enslaved until the Civil War. 

As she moved her first steps into the world, Sarah’s hardships had just begun. 

She lost her parents at seven, and married at the tender age of 14 after moving to Mississippi. 

She would later say that her marriage to Moses McWilliams was ‘to escape a cruel brother-in-law.’ 

When Sarah was 20, McWilliams passed away and she moved to St. Louis with her two-year-old daughter, Leia, to reunite with her siblings and fight for a better future.

Although she was living in poverty, Sarah proved to be strong-willed and talented. 

Her life took a turn while she was facing financial issues, trying to sustain herself and her little girl: she began experiencing hair loss due to the extremely stressful lifestyle and the unsustainable working conditions, and she realized that the mainstream brands targeting curly hair (and specifically to women of colour) were close to none. 

The industry was ready for a big change.

Madam Walker factory

Becoming Madam C. J. Walker

Around 1904, Madam Walker began working as a sales agent for Annie Turnbo’s Poro Company – after being already an enthusiastic consumer of Turnbo’s hair products. 

Her job also allowed Madam Walker to experience the hair beauty market from within, trying her hand at different formulas to address scalp infections.

A year later, she moved to Denver and, while studying under a pharmacist, she began experimenting with haircare formulas.

Thanks to her work, she created a variety of hair care products that could tackle hair loss and dandruff: her products specifically targeted African-American women like herself, a marginalized customer base often ignored by the mainstream brands of the time.

In 1906, after marrying her second husband Charles Joseph Walker, she became known as Madam C. J. Walker and founded "Madam C. J. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower." 

The pair would later divorce in 1910, but the iconic name remained.

Madam Walker in her car with her niece, her bookkeeper and her factory forelady

Activism and social efforts

Other than offering an immediate response to the beauty community, Madam Walker’s work became a fundamental route for women of colour to find economic independence and personal growth. 

Women who would have otherwise been relegated to housework found a way to express their talent, their ambition, and their success. 

Madam Walker's activism, her constant battle to uplift women’s voices and her acts of philanthropy became a core part of her life, her business, and her legacy.

Thanks to her gift for marketing, by 1919 it’s reported that Madam Walker had assembled a successful group of around 25,000 sales agents.

In 1908, the record-breaking businesswoman and her husband relocated to Pittsburgh and founded the Lelia College of Beauty Culture. 

The school was aimed to educate beauty experts, and was named after her daughter.

Although the exact extent of Madam Walker's wealth is hard to ascertain with certainty, and she denied being a millionaire during her lifetime, her real estate holdings and revenue point to an outstanding success. 

Her property in New York state alone was valued at $700,000 at the time of her death, and she had a controlling interest in a $500,000-a-year firm. 

Her estimated net worth amounted to well over $1,000,000.

As reported by Britannica, she made several successful real estate investments. 

Some of the villas and townhouses in her portfolio are now national historic landmarks, such as the Madame Walker Theatre Center in Indianapolis or the elegant Villa Lewaro in Westchester County, New York. She also owned real estate in Chicago and St. Louis. 

By the time of her death on 25 May 1919, at the age of 51, Madam Walker was running an empire with an annual revenue of over $500,000. 

She also got involved in several political and philanthropic causes.

She joined the anti-lynch movements and supported the education of six African American students. Her financial aid allowed the young people to attend Tuskegee Institute, in Tuskegee, Alabama.

The resonance of Madam Walker’s success and the impeccable documentation of her finances made it possible to clearly reconstruct her wealth and the success of her woman-owned businesses. 

Today, her beauty empire lives on in MADAM by Madam C J Walker: the brand carries on the inspiring legacy of its namesake.

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