How Madam C.J. Walker Became the Richest African-American Businesswoman of Her TimePublished: July 02, 2003 in Knowledge@Emory
Starting a business and launching a successful marketing campaign is a challenging task for anyone. But add being an African American woman at the turn of the century, and you have the riveting tale of Madam C.J. Walker. On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker, by A’Lelia Bundles, is an exhaustive study of the personal and professional ups and downs of the author’s great-great-grandmother, who became the richest African-American businesswoman of her time. Madam C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, managed to build a thriving hair care business, which helped to give rise, in a small way, to the modern cosmetics industry. Her earnings in the late 1800’s to the early-1900’s rivaled that of some of America’s top executives of the era.
Walker’s real life story would put the best rags-to-riches story to shame. As the child born to slaves on a rundown Delta, Louisiana cotton plantation in 1867, she had little more than a future of subsistence living ahead of her. Born five years after the Emancipation Proclamation, Walker had the advantage of being born free, unlike her siblings, but had little else to fall back on. Orphaned by the age of 7, she eventually took refuge with an older sister and brother-in-law in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Cotton farming provided them with a meager living. By the time she was 14 years old, Walker had married to obtain a home of her own, working at times as a laundress and seamstress. By 1889, with the early death of her husband and with a young daughter named Lelia in tow, she sought her fortune in the big city of St. Louis.
The book’s author uses her skill at storytelling to describe the difficult life of American blacks at the turn of the century. After working as a washerwoman, Walker decides to sell hair tonics for a short time, under her real name of Sarah McWilliams. (This is an era when even the Sears and Roebuck catalog included ads for hair-restorers and health serums.) Rather than hawk the hair care products of her employer, Walker decided to create her own hair-restorer. Though little more than coconut oils and other common items, Walker crafted a fanciful tale of the African herbs used in her product. She understood the need to create a demand for the product – by building a mystique around it. The author attributes the hygiene regime and grooming habits that Walker specified for her hair treatment process, and not the moisturizing oils, as the most probable reason for its hair growing success.
By 1905, Walker had moved to Denver, and served as a laundress two days a week. On the other days, she worked endlessly giving hair treatments. By sizing up her potential customers, and pouring money into advertising in local black-owned newspapers, Walker got her name out and about. By this time a second marriage had already dissolved, and she married a man by the name of C.J. Walker. She began selling her most popular hair care remedies under the familiar moniker of Madam C.J. Walker.
Denver offered a less rigid class structure than St. Louis, and Walker delighted in the fact that “personal drive and ambition…determined one’s social standing.” But, her ingenuity in going on the road and developing a cadre of sales agents to sell her product and treatments, as well as her salesmanship on the growing mail order business side, eventually took her away from her adopted home. By 1907, Pittsburgh would become her home base, as the area’s train line provided a needed shipping point for her products.
The author describes the marketing techniques and sales strategies Walker employed, all the more interesting fare considering the beauty maven’s lack of formal education and impoverished upbringing. Walker aligned herself with lawyers and other employees to supplement her lack of schooling. However, she appeared to be a natural at business, even devising tactics to pick the brains of her sales force in order to get direct feedback on the sales process. Walker played up her connections with black entrepreneurs, politicians and church leaders, to ensure the word about her line got around in the right circles. After moving the company headquarters to Indianapolis, she offered free treatments to attract new clients, and provided cash awards to the saleswomen for bringing in additional customers. By 1912, with about 950 sales agents and several thousand customers, Walker had managed to devise a “system of mass production, distribution, marketing, and advertising that transformed local patterns of buying and selling, and made cosmetics affordable and indispensable.”
Through detailed descriptions of locales and the historic backdrop of the time, Bundles manages to provide a compelling account of Walker’s life. In the late 1800s to early 1900s, confederate sympathizers and white conservatives wrestled legislative power from African Americans, and employed fear tactics, threats and outright violence in their fight against the black populace. The fact that Walker succeeded in this environment of racism, poverty, and sexism, remains the most remarkable aspect of the story.
This “self-propelled ascent from utter destitution to bountiful luxury” happened despite the tumult of the death of her first husband, two failed marriages, and considerable competition in the industry. Along the way, Bundles also sheds light on Walker’s civil rights work and philanthropy in the black community, as the entrepreneur struggled to win the favor of the famed Booker T. Washington. Later dealings with a small and assorted group of activists, including some with socialist leanings, resulted in Walker being labeled a “race agitator” by the federal government. She was subsequently denied a U.S. passport.
Walker’s predilections for lavish parties, pricey homes, and expensive jewelry occasionally undermined the bottom line of the company, especially when the entrepreneur catered to the many whims of her overly-dependent daughter, Lelia. Luckily, Bundles provides the warts-and-all account, and in the process the reader views the juxtaposition of Walker’s successful professional life set against the disorder and chaos in her personal dealings.
Harlem was the next backdrop for Walker’s business and social affairs, and she was eventually distracted from her work as she presided over the design and construction of a 34-room mansion at Irvington-on-Hudson, New York. Walker had obviously traveled far from the ramshackle cabin of her birth to this wealthy, suburban white enclave. Unfortunately, she died in 1919, and her daughter Lelia was not able to live up to the larger-than-life, inspiring presence of her mother—an organizing force that was clearly needed to keep the company’s sales force on track. The company remained in existence, in the hands of heirs, until 1986, though a shell of its former self.
Unlike many family biographers, Bundles succeeds by putting together a well-written and well-researched testament to Madam C.J. Walker’s life. With some twenty years of painstaking research, the author provides a vivid picture of the life of an African-American business icon, and in turn may bring the story of Madam C.J. Walker back to the forefront. Her true-life tale of professional success warrants study, as Walker’s genius in marketing, sales force building, and self-promotion serves as a template for success to entrepreneurs of any era.