Madam C.J. Walker: Remembering a great African-American entrepreneur

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Many individual African Americans made important entrepreneurial contributions to American society. One of the most famous of these entrepreneurs is Madam C.J. Walker.

Walker was born in 1867 in Louisiana. Her parents were former slaves, and by the time she was 5, the future businesswoman was carrying water to field workers, planting cotton seeds, and washing white people’s clothes for a dollar a week. When she was 19, she left for St. Louis, where she was told that laundress jobs were relatively well paid.



Over the next 17 years, she supported herself and her only daughter as a washerwoman. In the local church community, she first met successful, well-educated African Americans. Then, only in her 30s, she found that her hair was falling out. She experimented with hair products already on the market, but nothing helped. As she told a reporter, it came to her in a dream to create a remedy for her hair. She did this, and soon her hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. She made up her mind that she would sell it.

Because St. Louis already had several cosmetic companies, Walker decided to move to another city to set up her own business. Arriving in Denver in 1905 with $1.50 savings, she saved her money from laundry jobs and spent the rest of her time mixing her products and selling them door to door. Wonderful Hair Grower, Glossine, and Vegetable Shampoo were well accepted by the African-American women of Denver.

Even after her business began to provide a regular income, Walker was convinced that her hair remedies would serve a large market nationwide. While her 21-year-old daughter was in charge of the mail-order branch of the business, Walker continued to tour the country promoting her business and hiring hairdressers and door-to-door sales representatives.

She recruited and trained a national sales force that included schoolteachers, housewives, cooks and washerwomen. Walker’s traveling agents taught these women to set up beauty shops in their homes, keep business records, and make their customers feel pampered and valued.

By 1917, Walker sales agents were holding yearly conventions, learning new techniques and sharing experiences. By the time she died in 1919, the 51-year-old former laundress had become one of the wealthiest businesswomen of her day.

Walker was among the first African Americans to break through the economic obstacles that confronted many in her generation. Since that time, many others have followed her example. In the 1990s, African American businesses in the United States generated more than $100 billion in annual sales. And African Americans account for a spending base of more than $800 billion.

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