Part one- The beginning of a movement: Madam C.J. Walker
Recent interactions with entrepreneurs at Cortex St. Louis, Lex Valorem's current home, resulted in a conversation about the tremendous representation of black women in the population of entrepreneurs. This comment is not unfounded, as the 2018 State of Women Owned Business Report stated that black woman owned businesses have grown three times as fast as white women owned businesses in recent years, and the Federal Reserve contends that “Black women are the only racial or ethnic group with more business ownership than their male peers.”
The resulting comment from a college was, “That's because we have always been entrepreneurs!” and she could not be more right. In fact, the first millionaire female entrepreneur was Madam C. J. Walker, the daughter of slaves and a mother of women entrepreneurship.
“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.” – Madam C. J. Walker, 1912
As perhaps a sign of her impending success, she was the first child in her family to be born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed. Her path to becoming a millionaire, though, was anything but clear. Her parents died when she was seven, and up until the time she was 14 and married, she was abused by her brother-in-law. Later, her first husband died when she was 20 years old, and she was left to raise her daughter on her own. Perhaps as a result of this trauma, Madam Walker began experiencing hair loss at a very young age, something not uncommon during the late 1800s.
Eventually, Madam Walker moved to St. Louis where her brothers were established barbers. She expressed to them her frustrations with her hair loss and began experimenting with ways to alleviate it. After being inspired by another black female entrepreneur, she dreamed up her own formula to cure her hair loss. She sold it as Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower and began a campaign to deliver her hair product to all those who needed it. Around 1911, Madam C. J. Walker built a factory for her products, and began climbing the steps to becoming the first woman millionaire.
Madam C.J. Walker often said that she wanted to be wealthy not just to raise herself up, but to also to give rise to others. Her Walker Beauty Culturist Convention was one of the earliest conventions to promote women entrepreneurs. She also used stages such as the convention to encourage political activism. She made waves in the newspapers by donating great amounts of money to advancing the rights of black people in the United States and even now, her great granddaughter continues her legacy of entrepreneurship and giving back as Madam C.J. Walker once did.
-Caroline Mueller, Paralegal at Lex Valorem
You can see photos and read more information about Madam Walker here at the Indiana Historical Society.
Also thanks to the “Madam Walker Essay” by A'Lelia Bundles for most of the information about Madam Walker.