Madam C. J. Walker—entrepreneur, philanthropist, activist, patron of the arts—was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on the same Delta, Louisiana plantation where her parents had been enslaved. Orphaned at seven, married at 14 and widowed at 20 with a two-year-old daughter, she moved to St. Louis where three older brothers owned a barbershop. Throughout the 1890s she worked as a laundress, sang in her church choir and began to aspire to a better life as she observed the educated, civic-minded women at St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Around 1900, necessity became the mother of invention as she began to go bald. Sarah experienced severe dandruff and other scalp ailments. She developed baldness due to these skin disorders and the application of harsh products like lye that were included in soaps used to cleanse the hair. Because most Americans lacked indoor plumbing and electricity in their homes coupled with stress, poor diet and hygiene-related scalp disease, which eventually led to her hair loss.
She learned about hair care from her brothers, who owned a barbershop in St. Louis.
There she experimented with home remedies and briefly sold hair care products made by Annie Turnbo Malone, who would become her fiercest competitor. While working with Annie Malone, she adapted her knowledge of hair and hair products. She moved to Denver to work on her hair care products, and married Charles Joseph Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman. She emerged with the name Madam C. J. Walker, an independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams. After their marriage Charles Walker provided advice on advertising and promotion, while Madam C. J. Walker trained women to become “beauty culturists” and to learn the art of selling.
Through trial and error—and with the aid of a Denver pharmacist—she developed her own curative shampoo and ointment and founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1906 soon after marrying her third husband, Charles Joseph Walker. By the time she died on May 25, 1919, she had become a millionaire, trained thousands of women in the Walker System of Hair Culture, involved herself in the political debates of her day and bequeathed tens of thousands of dollars to charitable organizations, educational institutions and political causes.
Whenever she was asked the secret to her success, she would say, “There is no royal flower strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it, for whatever success I have attained has been the result of much hard work and many sleepless nights.” And yet, there are certain tenets that were key to achieving her goals. Today she continues to inspire entrepreneurs and anyone who faces obstacles.