In this series, Nav.it profiles infamous female financiers and shares what they taught us about navigating their own personal finances. These ladies made money moves long before Cardi B.
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History is everywhere, including Sephora. You can buy products from the Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture line, the same line of hair care products belonging to the first woman to become a self-made millionaire and a woman of color directly after the Civil War no less – #wholeotherlevel.
But before she became a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist, she was just Sarah Breedlove, born on Dec. 23, 1867 on a Louisiana plantation. Sarah was growing up during Reconstruction. The Civil War just ended and the 13th amendment abolishing slavery was just ratified.
“She was born into a moment of high promise, but there was backlash happening,” said A’Lelia Bundles, author, journalist and Madam C.J. Walker’s great, great granddaughter.
Her parents died when she was very young, so she married at age 14. She and her sister worked in cotton fields and as washerwomen to get by, but times were still desperate.
Sarah gave birth to her only daughter, Lelia, on June 6, 1885. Her husband died shortly thereafter, so Sarah moved to St. Louis where work was rumored to be plentiful. Her four brothers also lived in St. Louis, working as barbers. It was 1888.
“Money looked like a few pennies. She just hoped hoped to pay the rent, buy something to eat,” Bundles said. “She was always struggling, unsure where she’d be living month to month.”
At age 20, Sarah had a lot of ambition and sharp instincts, Bundles said. “She made alliances with other women, especially in her church [St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church], who began to give her a vision of herself as something other than an illiterate washer woman.”
Sarah was working for about $1.50 per day, but these women helped her save money and ensured that she enrolled her daughter in public school. She joined the choir. She learned to read and write.
“Those women were school teachers and [National Association of Colored Women] club women who encouraged her to read and write,” Bundles said. “And the church had a long reputation since its founding for educating African Americans, even when it was illegal.”
Being in that atmosphere gave her real opportunity. She was exposed to things she may never have been exposed to before.
What She Learned from Mentorship
Having mentors in an established organization helped Sarah launch her career as a self-made woman in American history.
In 1906, Sarah Breedlove was 38 and married to Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaperman.
Shortly thereafter, she changed her name to Madam C.J. Walker and founded the Madam C.J. Walker Company. But her goals went beyond earning money. She built her business to motivate other women, just as the club women of the NACW did for her.
For example, some white-owned companies were marketing to black women at the time, but the exploitative ads upheld European beauty standards and focused on hair straightening, Bundles said.
“What made her stand out, was the idea of feeling good about yourself, about hygiene. Most people didn’t have indoor plumbing, so they didn’t wash often and suffered from scalp disease,” Bundles said. “And she brought a personal touch to it, by traveling around, not only selling the products but teaching women to become her sales agents.”
She made her customers feel good, and created job opportunities for women who were sharecroppers or housekeepers.
“Door-to-door sales had been around, but Madam Walker is a pioneer of the direct sales model, certainly among African American women,” Bundles said. “As she traveled and trained women, she based her methods on the NACW.”
She also borrowed the idea of a convention after the NACW held its fourth convention at her church in 1904.
“She saw this as a template, and learned the power of organization. In 1916, she held a national convention,” Bundles said. “She was intentional when she organized these women in Philadelphia: 200 women came from all over the U.S. and Caribbean. She talked to them about saving money, paying their bills, motivation, and the progress of race.”
Bundles believes this is one of the first large national convention of women entrepreneurs, and that it included and was organized by a woman of color in the era blows our minds. We want to be like her.