Madam C.J. Walker (1867 – 1919)
A shrewd businesswoman and innovative entrepreneur, Madam C.J. Walker was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. Walker drew from her personal experiences with hair loss to develop her own line of hair and beauty products. The “Walker system” combined scalp preparation, lotions, and iron combs. Unlike other cosmetic products of the day, Walker argued that her products were more sensitive to the needs of African-American women.
Madam Walker’s initial investment into her business was $1.25 (slightly more than $30 in 2017). Her natural abilities in marketing and self-promotion tactics grew her $1.25 investment into a million-dollar business and recruited a salesforce of women who became known as “beauty culturalists.” These saleswomen were specially trained by Walker and sold her products door-to-door, granting them financial independence.
Walker was also a philanthropist who funded scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute and donated money to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC), and many other charities. At the time of her death in 1919, Walker was considered the wealthiest woman in America, having turned a $1.25 investment into a million-dollar manufacturing company with over 15,000 international agents.