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Madam C.J. Walker – 3 Lessons to Learn From An American Entrepreneur

Black history is rich throughout the American story. While there are many important names we’ve often heard, there are some African-Americans whose exceptional and historic accomplishments may not be as well known. Black History Month is a great time to get to know these extraordinary people. In the history of business and marketing, achievements do not get much more impressive than those of Madam C.J. Walker.

When we hear about the giants of business in American, we recognize names like Vanderbuilt,  Rockerfeller, and Carnegie. A name we may not be as well acquainted with is that of Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire in America. This African-American daughter of formerly enslaved sharecroppers was an inventor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist who built an incredibly successful business on her own. In addition to hard work and determination, her desire to share her prosperity with other women evolved into an innovative marketing approach that cemented her success and proved she was clearly ahead of her time. 

Madam Walker’s business story began with solving a problem. As a young adult she began losing her hair due to a scalp ailment. She began experimenting with home remedies and products that were available at the time, and eventually developed her own scalp conditioning and healing formula. This product eventually grew into a family of products designed to promote hair growth, wellness, and beauty solutions for African American women.

Recognizing the widespread need for her products, Madam Walker embarked on an ambitious marketing campaign, which took her to churches and lodges where she personally gave demonstrations. She ultimately grew her business to the point of building her own factory, salons, and training schools. 

Her business model was largely built on educating and equipping other women to represent and sell her products, which in turn empowered them. As Madam Walker representatives, women were able to earn better wages and provide for greater things for their families. 

The more Madam Walker’s wealth and influence grew, she saw her position as an opportunity to serve others as a philanthropist and civil rights activist. Her daughter, A’Lelia Walker, worked alongside her mother, and carried on the legacy of their business.

The dream and dedication of Madam Walker led to creation of an enduring brand, which has remained on the market for over a century. 

Today’s business and marketing professionals can learn much from Madam Walker’s success story. For the purpose of this post, I will highlight three important lessons:

  1. Build your success based on something you are passionate about. No doubt much of Madam Walker’s success was driven by her passion to solve a problem that she experienced firsthand and understood. Her achievements were motivated by more than financial success.
  2. Be willing to work hard and be your own advocate in achieving success. Clearly Madam Walker had to blaze her own trail and create her own opportunities. She did not look for an easy path to follow, she knew where she wanted to go and made her own way there.
  3. Inspire others to share in your passion and success. The business model created by Madam Walker was inspired by something greater than personal gain. By inspiring others to share in her success, she grew her own business and made lives better for countless others.
Walker Ad - Ever Wonder Why circa 1960 MWFA 300 dpi 2-18-2021 for WM
Photo courtesy of Madam C.J. Walker Family Archives/A’Lelia Bundles.


Learn more about Madam C.J. Walker by reading the “Madam Walker Essay”  by A’Lelia Bundles, her great-great-granddaughter and official biographer. A’Lelia Bundles is also a speaker and author of several books about Madam Walker’s life and legacy.