Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower: A Business Built On Perseverance and Inclusion

 

Born December 23, 1867, on a Louisiana Plantation, Sarah Breedlove, is counted among America’s innovative leaders for creating beauty products purchased by millions of consumers. Sarah Breedlove, later known as Madam C.J. Walker, was the daughter of enslaved African American parents, Owen and Minerva Anderson Breedlove. 

Aspiring entrepreneurs can learn numerous lessons from Madam Walker’s business journey.  Her perseverance and corporate inclusion are undoubtedly the two principles Madam Walker used to grow her company.

In the early 1900s, while working for little to no wages as a washerwoman, 38-year-old Madam Walker created and mass-produced Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a hair care product for African Americans to treat debilitating scalp conditions caused by using lye-based soaps to wash their hair.  

In the absence of funding and market access, Madam Walker, knocked on the doors of consumers, which led to growth that made her America’s first female self-made millionaire. Madam Walker inspired entrepreneurial perseverance when she stated, “…from the cotton fields of the South…I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations…built my own factory on my own grounds.”

As a first rule for any start-up, there is the necessity that its founder creates a product that consumer's demand. Through her hair care system, Madam Walker fulfilled that need. However, even with a viable product, Madam Walker encountered physical violence, systemic racism, and trauma, which she overcame to create a thriving business and example for today’s leaders. 

With the growing trend to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives in the workplace, many businesses are accepting the reality that inclusion promotes growth and revenue. Madam Walker was an early example of how building a business based on inclusion leads to corporate growth and scale. In 1908, during a non-stop, direct-to-consumer campaign to promote her products, Madam Walker opened Lelia College to train new entrepreneurs and provide a path to economic opportunities for a new generation of women. Entrepreneurs trained at Leia College were young women from around the United States who were included in the company’s growth and national expansion. Inclusion was also exemplified in 1917 when Madam Walker helped start the Walker Hair Culturist Union of America.

Madam Walker’s story is commonly celebrated because of the distinction she holds for becoming a millionaire, not by birth, marriage, or market access. The additional lesson businesses should glean from Madam Walker’s story is her relentless perseverance and ability to build a business based on providing opportunity and inclusion for its workforce.