Madam C. J. Walker: Against All Odds

Self-made millionaire. Entrepreneur. Philanthropist. Civil rights activist. One of the first practitioners of social marketing. The face of a brand—a brand that still stands today.

A woman, born on the same plantation her parents were enslaved, who became the first African-American female self-made millionaire in the United States.

Here is the full video transcript:

Madam Walker was one of the first self-made American woman millionaires. This is a woman who was born on the same plantation where her parents had been enslaved before the civil war. She was an orphan at 7, a mother at 17, and a widow at 20. An uneducated woman. No skills. Struggling to raise her daughter. Working as a washer woman for a dollar. Her life was a struggle.

Her hair was falling out from the stress. She was ashamed of the way she looked. That’s how she came upon this idea of Madam Walkers Wonderful Hair Grower. She developed this formula that contained Sulphur and the Sulphur  healed the sores on her scalp. So, her hair began to grow back. It was full and looked very healthy. Soon, other women who had suffered from the same kind of bald spots wanted to know what she had done. She went into business.

It didn’t take long before she set her sights on expanding her market. In the early 1900s most of America’s black population was still concentrated in the south and the east. So that’s where she went. Jim Crow laws were the rule. Segregation was the norm. But Madam Walker was nothing if not independent. She went door to door. She printed up fliers. She printed up business cards. She started to create what we now call a brand.

When she finally settled in Indianapolis, that was the real turning point for her business. Hundreds of trains went through Indianapolis every day. It also had three black newspapers and as the black people would go through, they would pick up copies and sell those papers in San Francisco, Boston, Detroit, Atlanta. So, she took out ads in those papers. Her strategy was to show other women that they could be beautiful. So, she used before and after pictures. She used testimonials. In the early 1900s this idea of a woman advertising in a newspaper, that was really pretty new.

She built a factory, a laboratory and a beauty school, all in just a few short years. She was able to empower other women by helping them become Walker sales agents. Women who otherwise would have been laundresses and maids and cooks and share croppers, now, could buy homes, educate their children, and make contributions to their churches and to their communities. This was very important to her, that people have their own entrée into business in America.

Miss Jessie’s is an iconic brand now. They, for me, represent the legacy of Madam CJ Walker. Madam CJ Walker started from nothing. She built her business from scratch and she did that during that time. Madam Walker would say, “I got my start by giving myself a start.” So, don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. You have to get up and make them for yourself.