Sarah Breedlove was born in December, 1867 and raised on a Louisiana cotton plantation. She went to work in the fields picking cotton shortly after she learned to walk. Sarah's parents died when she was seven and she went to live with her sister, Louvenia, in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Louvenia's husband was mean as hell and treated Sarah badly. She escaped when she was fourteen by marrying a laborer named Moses McWilliams. Sarah gave birth when she was eighteen to a baby girl she named Lelia. Two years later her husband died and she moved to St. Louis where her four brothers lived and found work as a laundress earning about $1.50 a day. This was her life for the next eighteen years.
So far, her story would not nominate her as a likely candidate to be the first woman self-made millionaire in the United States. The rest of the story shows how she got there out of sheer determination.
She decided that her daughter would go to college. Sarah scrimped and saved her meager earnings and when the time came she had enough to send Lelia to Knoxville College in Tennessee.
About this time, the strange hand of opportunity knocked- her hair started falling out.
Sarah was now in her late 30s and her hard life combined with the hair care products available at the time was causing her hair to fall out. This was a problem for many other black women as well.
She was almost bald and had tried just about every product she could find to cure it, when she began mixing and experimenting in an attempt to find her own cure for the hair loss. She tried out her concoctions on herself, her daughter, and her friends.
She claimed that she found the answer in a dream, "A big black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up."
Whether she actually had the dream, was later disputed by another hair-care product company called Pope-Turbo for whom she worked as a sales agent for a short time. They claimed that she had copied them.
Some of the ingredients for her formula were only available from Africa. She ordered it, mixed it up, and put it on her scalp.
She said, "In a few weeks, my hair started coming in faster than it had even fallen out." She tried it on her friends and neighbors. It seemed to work for them. She said, "I made up my mind I would begin to sell it."
Sarah started selling her hair loss cure door to door. She gave free demonstrations. Soon, black women from all over St. Louis were buying her product.
She moved to Denver to help her widowed sister-in-law take care of her four daughters. Again, she started selling her product door to door and it became a success in Denver.
Sarah had met newspaperman, C.J. Walker while living in St. Louis. He moved to Denver and they got married. She renamed herself Madam C. J. Walker. The term, "Madam", had long been used by hairdressers in France and she believed the name would let the customers know she was selling a high quality product.
She named her product- MADAM C.J. WALKER'S WONDERFUL HAIR GROWER and her husband helped her start advertising in black newspapers. Soon, she had a booming mail-order business.
Sarah became convinced that her product filled a real need and black women all over the country would use her product if they knew about it.
She was ready to expand nationwide. Her husband was satisfied when they reached the $10 a day mark in sales and though that she should not be so ambitious. This caused a rift and they were divorced.
She moved with her daughter to Pittsburg in 1908. She put Lelia in charge of the mail-order business. They started Lelia college, a training facility for the Walker System of Hair Culture. Sarah set out on a tour of the Southern United States to spread the word about her product.
She had and worked her plan to build a national sales force.
In each town Sarah visited, she would contact the local Baptist church or African Methodist Episcopal church. She introduced herself to the local black fraternal organizations and would make arrangements to hold demonstrations. At the demonstrations, she would recruit agents, train them, and take orders. She repeated this system in each town she visited. She was spurred on by the vision of the wealth and opulence she had caught a glimpse of from afar in her youth in Vicksburg.
Her traveling sales agents would teach women how to set up beauty shops in their homes, how to keep business records and how to treat customers so they felt pampered and valued.
During a visit to Indianapolis in 1910, she fell in love with the city. It had a thriving black business community and with its central location was a major transportation hub with access to eight major railways, an important advantage for a mail-order business. She moved her entire operation there. She built a new factory, opened a salon and another training school. The graduates of her school were trained to style hair, and give scalp treatments, manicures and massages. Her business grew to 5,000 agents throughout the country and her company was grossing $7,000 a week.
Consultations were free, but scalp treatments were $1.00, quite expensive for the time, and tins of Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower sold for 50 cents. Customers were given incentives such as cash prizes and free treatments.
Madam Walker's daughter, who had changed her name to A'Leilia, felt too flamboyant for the staid small town of Indianapolis and persuaded her mother to move to a townhouse in Harlem, New York in 1913. Lelia spent over $15,000 renovating the townhouse to house a palatial beauty salon and Lelia College training school.
Madam Walker again hit the road to expand her business on the East Coast by traveling from town to town and making personal contacts and recruiting agents like she had done before. She, also, set up partnerships with black vocational schools. She would build a salon and supply the inventory for training students in the school. She would assign an agent to teach and would split the profits with the school.
Her Harlem townhouse became a hub for business, social and political functions and they soon outgrew it. She had a 34-room mansion built in a small town north of New York City called Irvington-on-the Hudson. She named her estate Villa Lewaro, taking the first two letters of each of her daughter's names- Lelia Walker Robinson. Her wealthy neighbors were astonished to learn that a black woman could afford to build such a place.
Madam Walker held her first Beauty Culturists convention at Philadelphia in 1917 and over 200 delegates arrived from nearly every state. The agents shared their stories about how their lives had been changed- their new homes, ten-fold increases in income, and educations for their children that they couldn't imagine before Madam Walker came into their lives.
Madam Walker died in May, 1919 of kidney failure at the age of 51. Her estate was estimated to equal about $6 million in today's dollars, plus she had already given away untold sums to charities and for the improvement of the black community. Lelia continued her business and it still operates, today.
Madam Walker went from a laundress to one of the most successful entrepreneurs in America with one powerful guiding thought- "Perseverance is my motto!"