Madam CJ Walker: Self-Made Lady Boss Of The Early 20th Century

Madam CJ Walker

Our Patron Saint of Feminism for February is the truly inspiring, OG lady-boss, Madam CJ Walker.

In 1905, after a traumatic hair-loss experience due to a scalp infection, Madam CJ hit the road with her new products, of her own invention, wherein she gave lecture-demonstrations, showing off the effectiveness of her merchandise. Her business boomed so thoroughly, in fact, that she eventually established Madame C.J. Walker Laboratories to manufacture her products, and employed “train sales” specialists. Essentially, Walker’s Agents, as they would later be called, were Avon ladies before there was Avon. Ding dong!

Her products were so popular that she turned herself into a straight-up self-made millionaire.

Madam CJ Walker

Let’s reflect on that for a moment. In the early 1900s, women weren’t even considered whole people, and especially not Black women. Not only did this woman have the bravery to pursue her entrepreneurial aspirations, she scienced that shit into a straight fortune. She thought it, planned it, and did it. 

In 1908, Walker opened both a factory and a beauty school, before deciding to transfer her entire operation to Indianapolis, rather than her longstanding home of Pittsburgh. Once she established herself in Indy, she quickly made a name for herself as a savvy businesswoman. She not only manufactured her products at her sprawling factory, but trained beauty consultants as well, lovingly dubbed as “Walker Agents,” well-known throughout Indianapolis’ African American communities. Walker also held conventions and organized clubs for her employees, nurturing a thriving, productive work environment.

She eventually decided to travel the world, finding recruits that wanted to join her cause and help sell her products globally. While she traveled, her daughter secured a property for her in Harlem, NY, recognizing the cultural importance of the region. When she returned from her travels, she settled into a Harlem townhouse, where she continued to develop her new line of business, while a forewoman ran the Indianapolis operation.

Madam CJ Walker

Not only was Madam CJ Walker a wildly successful business woman, she was enormously generous. She donated the single largest sum of money by an African American to the construction of the Indianapolis YMCA in 1913, and also invested in educational scholarships, and donated to homes for the elderly as well as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and many other organizations that dedicated their resources to improving the lives of Black Americans.

Madam CJ Walker lived her life fully for 51 years. She built an empire and employed countless young women, helping them to better their lives and the lives of their families. She had conviction, courage and a whole lot of ambition, which led to her being a successful, Black businessWOMAN in a time when women couldn’t vote, own property or even choose their husbands or when/if to have children. She succeeded in a time when every single deck was stacked against her, and she did it with a hell of a lot of style.

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