Issues + Advocacy

Women Who Inspire Us: Madame C.J. Walker

First black female self-made millionaire

I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself, for I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race. […] I want to say to every Negro woman present, don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them!

Madam C.J. Walker

Then, and now as we close our Black History Month and move into National Women’s History Month, Madam C.J. Walker is a woman not only to learn from, but aspire to be. She was a go-getter that took risks, which led to her success as the first African American, and woman, to become a self-made millionaire. Walker was a woman that believed in the power of community. The power in helping others. While she was a powerful force on her own, she worked to grow the community around her. She gave back to aspiring business women by providing career opportunities and investing in their futures with “beauty culturalists” training programs that helped grow her company. Walker used her power and wealth to give back to charitable causes, but also to invest in the future of younger generations through scholarship funds for women at the Tuskegee Institute and donations to National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She is one of the first successful women who not only excelled in business but expanded her influence through her philanthropy and commitment to others.

Walker’s initiatives created a theme we mirror today, and can continue to mirror moving forward. She saw her position at the forefront of a company as an opportunity to promote success for her employees, as well as inspire those around her. Because of entrepreneurs like Madam C.J. Walker, we now have generations of women who recognized gaps in industries and create the things they want and need, despite the barriers they face. And just like Walker, we will go on to support, invest in and inspire the women around us to change their own lives and our world as a whole.

Learn more about Madam C.J. Walker:

Who is she?

Born Sarah Breedlove, Madam C.J. Walker made her fortune inventing a line of African-American hair care products that addressed specific needs of women of color. Madam Walker was inspired by her own beauty needs after a scalp ailment led to her own hair loss. After experiencing the beauty industry’s lack of African American hair products, she took the matter into her own hands. We see this same story throughout the startup market today–a person identifies a gap in the market and decides to take the chance to fill it on their own, instead of waiting or hoping for the current offers to change. Starting your own company can be a daunting task in today’s society and it was an especially brave endeavour for a woman of color in the early 20th century. She overcame multiple intersecting layers of discrimination that emerged not only from the color of her skin, but also from her status as a woman born in Louisiana to former slaves.

Why is she so inspiring?

Madam C.J. Walker inspires us not only because she was a female African American titan of the American industry, but also through her commitment to philanthropy. Throughout her life she donated to African American organizations such as the NAACP and the National Association for Color Women. Even after her death in 1919, she left the bulk of her estate to charities that supported racial equality, education and youth programs. Walker’s status as the first woman self-made millionaire allowed her to influence future women of power and wealth. Now, it’s uncommon to find successful women who don’t support charities; Oprah, Ellen Degeneres, Melinda Gates and countless others give millions to charities every year and undoubtedly live under Walker’s influence.

“I want you to understand that your first duty is to humanity. I want others to look at us and see that we care not just about ourselves but about others.”

Madam C.J. Walker

 Illustration by Ann Shen

Feature Image Provided by TONL