Madam CJ Walker

According to Guinness World Records, who was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire?

And the answer: Madam CJ Walker.

Photo Courtesy: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images. 

Born in 1867 with the name Sarah Breedlove, Walker started her own company while in her 20s, launching a line of hair-care products for African American women. Considering the profits from her company, as well as her success in real estate throughout her life, she's considered the first American woman to become a millionaire.

Born to former slaves, Walker built her life and successes from the ground up. After being orphaned at age 7, becoming a mother at 17 and a widow by 20, Walker's early life was riddled with hardship. However, that didn't stop this future businesswoman. After moving to St. Louis with her daughter in 1887, Walker began to support herself and her family by working as a washerwoman, making $1.50 an hour. It was there that another development began to take place: Walker began to lose her hair.

At the time, there were no hair care products on the market for white or African American women, with most women turning to home remedies for such matters. Walker began to experiment with products, soon coming up with her own remedy for her hair troubles. Interestingly, Walker claimed that the idea for her hair ointment came to her in a dream.

With the self-proved success of her product under her belt, Walker began to sell her hair elixir to the masses. With the help of her husband, she traveled door to door and town to town, teaching Black women about the wonders of hair care. At the same time her product began to take off, so too did support for her activism. The more she trained women, the more her network of Walker workers spread throughout the nation. And, with that knowledge came the spread of empowering and educational messages.

Walker went on to set up clubs and conventions with the goal of instilling self-empowerment in African American communities. Walker helped begin a narrative proving that women could make their own way, that they, too, could call the shots. In this sense, Walker's work was revolutionary.

To take a look at some of the artifacts of her innovation, click here.

And, to learn more about Walker's life and achievements, watch the video below.


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