Owning a business about giving back to community

Owning a business about giving back to community

Published Saturday, June 30, 2007

Entrepreneurs are known for many things – a tolerance for risk, the desire to be their own bosses, creativity and problem-solving ability among them.

But they are also known for their desire to give back. Successful entrepreneurs are committed to the customers and communities that make them successful. They feel strongly about returning some of their good fortune to those who supported them in their quest for business independence.

One of the most notable was a woman whom many consider to be the first self-made black millionaire in this country – Sarah Breedlove, or as she came to be known throughout her career, Madam C.J. Walker.

Born in 1867 on a plantation in Louisiana’s Madison Parish, which was a Union battle-staging area during the Civil War, this daughter of emancipated slaves became a laundress – and a mother – at the age of 14. From there, she was, in her words, "promoted to the cook kitchen, and from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations."

Walker said that the idea for her product – Madam C.J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower – came to her in a dream. In those days, most blacks still lived in poor conditions, subjected to harsh environments and poor nutrition. As a result, personal hygiene suffered, and many women lost their hair. Madam Walker saw an opportunity to help them both improve their appearance and restore their dignity. Her message to them was one of pride, and by extension, empowerment.

In her day, Madam Walker took empowerment to a new level. When she started her entrepreneurial journey, it was hardly a time for women – especially black women – to be active in the predominantly white male marketplace. But she found a way and in doing so became a large part of the economic evolution that characterized the turn of the century.

With no education or training, Madam Walker knew what to do. She used her personal charisma to tap the active social life in the black community, particularly around churches. She traveled, often staying at the homes of area black leaders who were involved in their religious communities. There, she recruited other women as her sales force and generated word-of-mouth marketing for her products. Long before Avon or Mary Kay, Madam Walker knew the power of women selling to women. She also knew the power of a name. In the days when blacks were still referred to as Aunt or Uncle, she refused to be positioned in such a way and adopted the title Madam, attaching it to the last name of her husband and business partner, Charles Joseph Walker. The name commanded respect and communicated credibility.

While she and her husband traveled the country enlisting and training a sales force, Walker’s daughter ran a mail-order operation from Denver. From 1908 to 1910 they operated a beauty training school in Pittsburgh. In 1910, they moved all operations to Indianapolis to take advantage of the city’s access to eight major railway systems. At its most successful, the company was managed by a group of key principals who oversaw the activities of 40,000 salespeople.

Madam Walker had amassed a great fortune. Her sales force had earned for her and for themselves new levels of respect in addition to a better way of life. Having achieved her goal of business success, Walker turned her attention to social, political and charitable causes. She recalled being the recipient of assistance in her early years and knew well the importance of giving back to help others in need. She worked actively on a multitude of causes, including addressing the ills of her black brothers and sisters still living in intolerable conditions in the South.

She founded a philanthropic foundation from the proceeds of her for-profit business. She campaigned against the still-too-common practice of lynching, and she lobbied to have blacks involved in the peace discussions after World War I. She worked tirelessly to ensure that black veterans were given the same benefits as their white comrades. She lectured extensively and encouraged other women to follow in her footsteps. She was active in the NAACP and was honored by the National Association of Colored Women for making the largest contribution to save the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In her will, she left her holdings to support black schools, organizations, orphanages, retirement homes and many YMCAs and YWCAs.

When she was at home at her estate in Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y., John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould were her neighbors. The Walker home became a conference center where leaders of black institutions met to discuss the issues of the day. Madam Walker’s daughter succeeded her as president of the corporation upon her death in 1919.

In an era of tremendous gender and racial bias, Madam C.J. Walker challenged the rules and perceptions and created a highly successful company that inspired thousands of women to reach for personal and financial independence.

But it seems her ultimate goal was to use the business as a tool to achieve an even greater goal – better equality for her community and the nation as a whole.


Mary Paulsell is the director of the University Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Reach her at paulsellm@missouri.edu, or visit www.missouribusiness.net.

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