#OGEntrepreneurs: Madam C.J. Walker

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Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, the woman who came to be known as Madam C.J. Walker made her fortune in hair care products for black women. Her parents were freed slaves and she was the first of their children to be born free. She herself suffered from a scalp condition that caused her hair to fall out, and it was this situation that drew her to the cosmetics field.

While Walker is sometimes remembered as the first African American female millionaire, we know that honor actually belongs to Annie Malone. Interestingly, Walker actually worked with Malone for a time, but most of her work was independent. Following a path similar to Malone’s, Walker developed a line of hair care products specifically for African American women that she sold door-to-door.

She called her business Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company and started her first factory and training school in 1908 in Pittsburgh before moving the company’s headquarters to Indianapolis two years later. From 1913 to 1916, Walker traveled throughout Latin America and the Caribbean selling her products. When she returned to the United States, her only child, a daughter named A’Lelia, recognized that Harlem was going to be an important area for black entrepreneurs so she helped her mother establish a presence there.

Although Walker’s time working for Malone was relatively brief, the similarities in their stories is continued. Walker experienced a somewhat tumultuous personal life. Orphaned at a young age, she grew up in her older sister’s house where she was abused by her brother-in-law. She married at age 14 and had A’Lelia. Her first husband died, and she married Charles J. Walker some time after. The two eventually divorced, but Madam C.J. Walker was already a household name so she was known by this moniker for the rest of her life, which ended prematurely when she passed away from hypertension at age 51.

Like Malone, Walker was also known for her philanthropy. For example, she was a major donor to the construction of a YMCA for “colored people” in Indianapolis, and later was involved in many charities during the Harlem Renaissance. Even considering her generosity, Walker’s fortune amounted to the modern equivalent of several million dollars.

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Katie Pruitt