You may not ever discover the ever-mythical secret to success but if you play close enough attention to successful people, you’ll quickly come to realize that the secrets are often hidden in the obvious. In honor of black history month I thought it was only right to explore not only one of history’s greatest black entrepreneurs, but one of history’s most successful female entrepreneurs, period, Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first female, self-made millionaire.
Born Sarah Breedlove, daughter of and sister to former slaves, she was the first person in her family of eight to be born into freedom. Her life was plagued with hardships, from abuse, to failed marriages to hard labor. So how did Sarah Breedlove go from being born on a plantation to becoming the wealthiest and most successful female entrepreneur of her day? She’s often quoted as saying “I got my start by giving myself a start.” Well Amen sister!
Rather than try and write a short-form version of a biography that has already been written (please check out Walkers official biography On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by great great granddaughter A’lelia Bundles), what I want to do is highlight some of the strategic moves that helped make Walker a success.
1. Learn From the Best — Then Do It Better
Forget a formal education. All Walker needed was an unofficial apprenticeship to get the ball rolling. She went to work for Annie Turnbo Malone, owner of the Poro Company, one of the times most successful African American hair-care entrepreneurs. As a commissioned sales agent, one could say she received on-the-job training while also working to develop her own product line. Walker would work for Malone just one year before branching out to start her own line and subsequently become Malone’s biggest rival in the industry. Sneaky? Maybe, but she positioned herself to learn from the best at the time and as a result, most likely identified a weakness and seized an opportunity to capitalize on it.
2. Make Them Remember Your Name
Madam C.J. Walker understood the importance of Personal Branding and Brand Identity before they were buzzwords. She didn’t just sell product she sold a brand. In an era where white people commonly disparaged black women by calling them by their first names or the further belittling “Auntie”, she adopted the moniker Madam C.J. Walker after marrying husband Christopher Joseph Walker, mimicking the distinctive naming convention often used by elite French hairdressers.1 By design, Walker’s reputation preceded her. Her brand had a distinctive look and she, not a paid model or spokesperson, was the face of it.
3. Surround Yourself With Excellence
From the start Madam C.J. Walker surrounded herself with extraordinary talents. From her start with Mahone to her partnership with husband Charles Walker who was an experienced sales and advertising professional, to long-time employee Marjorie Stewart Joyner, a legend in her own right, who was responsible for patenting the permanent wave machine while working for Madam Walker. She would align herself with several other history-making African Americans throughout her career.
4. Become a Master Seller
Widely recognized as a master seller and expert marketer, Madam Walker understood who she was targeting, where she could best reach them with her advertising and showcases and how she needed to speak to them. She brought drama to the sale, using live demonstrations to engage potential customers. Perhaps learning from Malone before her, she was one of the first to successfully institute a multi-level marketing or direct sales marketing organization which trained thousands women on sales principles and tactics, appearance guidelines and brand advocacy.
“Having a good article for the market is one thing. Putting it properly before the public is another.” − Madam C.J. Walker (1916)
5. Be Bold
Meekness was not a trait one would associate with Madam C.J. Walker. She was humble in some regard but also audacious. There was a confident swagger about her and she wasn’t afraid to make an example of her success. Who could blame her? To accomplish what she did during the time period in which she did was an extraordinary feat. When she commissioned New Yorks’ first licensed black architect, Vertner Woodson Tandy, to build her 20,000 sq. ft., 34-room mansion in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York among some of the countries riches families including Wall Street’s elite such as the Rockefellers, she asked him to position it close to the village’s main thoroughfare so it was easily visible by travelers en route from Manhattan to Albany.2
6. Give Back (the bonus power move)
Madam C.J. walker was a successful entrepreneur but perhaps more importantly she was a dedicated philanthropist. She gave regularly to causes that benefited the lives of African Americans. She set a precedent by giving generously in amounts that were nearly unheard of at the time. For example in 1910 she donated $1,000 (present-day value: approx. $ 24,500) to the building fund of the “colored” YMCA in Indianapolis and in 1916 she gave $5,000 (present-day value: approx. $111,400) to NAACP’s anti-lynching movement. She sought to be an example inspiring others to give back as well. In regards to her $1000 gift to the "colored" YMCA she wrote: “… and do not say that I am the only one. You might say that I was the first and caused others to awaken to the sense of their duty in helping deserving causes for the benefit of the race”.
Her organization also proudly advocated for the empowerment of women and sought to help them become economically independent. The Walker Company not only trained them in sales and grooming but also provided guidance on budgeting and building their own businesses. Additionally, she made a point of placing women in leadership roles in her company. With the exception of legal counsel Robert Lee Brokenburr and Freeman B. Ransom, many of the key executives and those in management roles were women.
I didn’t write a report on Madam Walker in middle school. I never got to draw her name out of a basket of carefully-chosen, African American, historical figures and I didn’t get to stand in front of my social studies class and confidently share what little information I knew about her to a group of my peers who likely knew even less than I did. Today, I’m grateful that I didn’t. I somehow doubt that as a tween I would have truly appreciated the complexities of this remarkable woman. Nor would I have realized how I could apply her leanings and accomplishments to my life. America’s first female, self-made millionaire was a force to be reckoned with and I’m determined to be one as well. Thank you Madam C.J. (Sarah Breedlove) Walker for empowering me and women like me long after your departure from this earth.
Thank you for reading. Now… Let the power moves continue.