Madam C.J. Walker: A Tale of a Resilient Lotus

Madam C.J. Walker: A Tale of a Resilient Lotus | Mr. Business Magazine


Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919)—an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and activist who carved her own story on the walls of History. A story in which Madam Walker became the symbol of the strong will inherited by every woman. However, this is also a story of a daughter, sister, wife, and mother. Reading her story enlightened me with a new perspective on my mother.

The strength and potential she holds which was always overlapped by my father’s achievements and now mine. Suddenly I realized how strong she was as I’d never seen her shed a single drop of tear. I realized this sheer strength and courage camouflaged by her nurturing nature is something that reflects on every woman I know. Something that always has been ignored by men stepping on their stories like broken glass. 

This article is nothing but a man trying to un-step from the beautiful story of Madam C.J. Walker. Just like hers, every story has a three-act structure that storytellers like me adore. Act I – Setup, also known as plot point one, Act II – Confrontation, the rising midpoint, and finally Act III – Resolution, where the climax and conclusion take place. I have tried my best to portray Madam C.J. Walker’s story for men like us to understand that the strength of a woman is bigger than the ego in our pants. 

Act I: A Lotus Born in a Puddle 

Early life struggles of Madam C.J. Walker: 

Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, faced profound challenges during her childhood that later shaped the course of her life. Born into poverty in Delta, Louisiana, Walker experienced the hardships of post-Civil War America as a child. Her parents, Owen and Minerva Breedlove were formerly enslaved. Sarah, being the first child born free in her family, grew up facing economic struggles and racial discrimination.

Orphaned at just seven years old, Walker’s early years were continuous tribulation and distress. Losing both her parents and the harsh conditions of sharecropping added to the family’s difficulties. Walker lived with her older sister Louvenia, and the two worked in the cotton fields. She got married at the age of 14 partly to escape her abusive brother-in-law. However, tragedy struck again when her husband died, leaving her a widow and a single parent of a two-year-old daughter in her early twenties.

Madam C.J. Walker: A Tale of a Resilient Lotus | Mr. Business Magazine

In 1889, Madam C.J. Walker relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, to wash off the stains of mud (poverty) on the petals of the Lotus. Working as a laundress and cook, she connected with some accomplished people from the African Methodist Episcopal Church. She found inspiration in the success of these people. Her marriage to John Davis in 1894 faced difficulties, leading to their eventual divorce. Walker’s journey reflects her determination to rise above challenges and pursue a path toward success or at the very least bloom into a pile of mud.

Act II: The Blooming of the Lotus

1. Building a Fortune in the Hair Care Industry:

After dealing with a scalp issue that led to significant hair loss, Sarah got curious about hair care science. She started trying out a mix of DIY and store-bought remedies. Who would have thought this disorder would change her fortune forever? This is when she crossed paths with Annie Turnbo Malone, a fellow entrepreneur in the black hair-care industry. This same person would later become Madam Walker’s rival. She joined Malone’s team as a sales agent, and in 1905, she moved to Denver, Colorado, still working for Malone.

There, she met and married her third husband, Charles Joseph “C.J.” Walker. With his promotional skills, Sarah decided to part ways with Malone in 1906 and create her own hair care treatment, initially known as “Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower”. It was Charles who suggested her iconic name, Madam C.J. Walker.

2. The Walker System:

Madam C.J. Walker’s approach, famously named the “Walker system,” included scalp preparation, special lotions, and the use of iron combs. Her personalized pomade gained immense popularity. In a market where products for Black hair were predominantly produced by white companies. Walker stood out by highlighting the health benefits for women. She directly sold her homemade products to Black women, building personal connections that fostered customer loyalty. She assembled a team of saleswomen, expanding her outreach, and referred to them as “beauty culturalists,” to promote her products.

Madam C.J. Walker: A Tale of a Resilient Lotus | Mr. Business Magazine

Act III: The Fragrance of the Lotus Spreads World Wide

1. Founding the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1910

During this period, both Madam C.J. Walker and her husband traveled the Southern regions, tirelessly promoting her revolutionary product, the “Walker system”. In 1908, Walker established a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh, marking a significant milestone. The Madam C.J. Walker Company was formally incorporated in Indianapolis, Indiana. Beyond selling hair care products and cosmetics, the company became a training ground for a substantial number of salespeople and beauticians known as Walker Agents. These agents not only promoted the company’s products but also embraced Walker’s philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness.”

At a time when unskilled white workers earned a weekly average of $11, Walker’s agents were earning between $5 and $15 daily. This pioneering system of multilevel marketing, perfected for the black market, showcased Walker’s visionary approach. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., in a 1998 article for Time, Walker’s economic impact was unparalleled. It was revealing the immense potential of an African-American economy even in the challenging era of Jim Crow segregation. By the time of her death, the Madam C.J. Walker’s Company had employed some 40,000 people, largely Black women. 

2. The first Black woman millionaire in America

Upon Madam C.J. Walker’s passing in 1919, she stood as the wealthiest African-American businesswoman and the richest self-made woman in America. Yet, her impact transcends financial success. As a philanthropist, Walker generously contributed millions to causes championing racial justice and equality. She played a vital role in establishing a black YMCA in Indianapolis, further solidifying her commitment to community development.

Madam C.J. Walker: A Tale of a Resilient Lotus | Mr. Business Magazine

Her legacy extends to Villa Lewaro, a grand 34-room mansion in Irvington, New York. Walker, showcasing her visionary approach, engaged Vertner Tandy, the first licensed black architect in New York, to craft the Neo-Palladian estate. Beyond her entrepreneurial achievements, her dedication to philanthropy and racial justice underscores the impact of her legacy, inspiring countless individuals across time. She died at her country home in Irvington-on-Hudson on May 25, 1919, at the age of fifty-one, of hypertension. Today, she is remembered as a pioneering Black female entrepreneur who inspired many with her financial independence, business ingenuity, and philanthropy.

Concluding our Impeccable Story

Do you know why I have compared Madam Walker to the flower Lotus in this article? Trust me, I had a bunch of options but out of all Lotus is a flower that symbolizes a new beginning. Its seed can survive intense conditions like droughts for more than two hundred years. It is also used for medicine and cosmetic purposes. Lastly, the Lotus is the statue of beauty, resilience, and transformation. This very flower is the perfect portrayal of Madam C.J. Walker’s personality and story overall.

“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.” This is what I meant when I said Madam Walker is someone who carved her own story. Not just any story but a story that will remind women of their true potential and strength for generations. Her story is a reminder that nothing is greater but hard work and anyone who perceives it will never face failure.

I hope you enjoyed this story of the first black female millionaire—Madam C.J. Walker. I hope this article inspired you to get back up no matter how difficult your life seems and for my “male” friends, I hope you understand that strength comes in many forms irrespective of the size of anything. 

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