2) Madam C. J. Walker, triumphant - an exhortative tale
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us. . .” So begins Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities, a novel about Paris and London during the French Revolution (1789 - 1799).1
Charles Dickens wrote these introductory sentences in 1859, two years before the American Civil War began (1861 - 1865) and just eight years before Sarah Breedlove was born in Louisiana.2 That she read them is certainly possible. Regardless, she definitely could relate to those sentences, and the view of life they convey. This remarkable woman indeed took control of her life and made her own destiny. Call to mind the times she lived in.
- You think your parents were disadvantaged, could not offer you much? Your family situation was tough? Her parents and older siblings had been slaves on a plantation. Her mother died in 1872 when she was three years old, and her father in 1876 when she was seven. She moved in with her sister, but married at 14 to escape the abuse of her sister's husband.
- You think you don't have an equal chance, equal rights? Yes, blacks got to vote in 1870. But Sarah Breedlove was, after all, a woman. Women did not get the vote until 1920, a full 50 years later and a year after she had died.
- Your business travel schedule is demanding; you complain about difficulties in making hotel reservations? As a black woman Sarah Breedlove wasn't welcome in decent hotels period, even when later on she could afford them.
- You have some slight concerns about your appearance? How about being a woman, and still in your 30s your hair is falling out? You are going bald!
What did Sarah make out of her life in these rather unpromising circumstances? She had prepared herself for a business career by hard, backbreaking work beginning in early childhoold, for long periods for no wages at all, later for wages of $1.50 a week. Finally the stars came together for her in that she was able to find a cure for her scalp disease. She didn't just seize an opportunity, she created it, and then she took off with it at a flat, dead run for the distance - the marathon.
She started knocking on strangers' door to sell her cure for the scalp condition that led to hair loss. She expanded to other hair care products, and hired women to work for her. At the age of 39 she had permantly shifted into high gear. Half a dozen years later she owns a factory manufacturing her products. The explosive growth of her business continues. A mere four years later she has a domestic and international (Central America, the Carribian) sales force of 40,000 agents. She ran a business worth millions of dollars at a time when one dollar had the purchasing power of 20 to 25 current dollars. With that wealth she became a major philanthropist.
Madam C.J. Walker driving her car with friends.
To look at her remarkable business marathon in a little more detail: when her first husband died six years after their marriage, she moved, as a twenty year old widow with a young daughter, to St. Louis. Three of her brothers were barbers there. Her second marriage lasted from 1894 to 1903, her third, to a newspaper sales agent Charles Walker, from 1906 to 1912. She used the name from this last marriage for her business, Madam C.J.Walker Manufacturing Company.
As if life were not rough enough already, she had started to lose her hair. She tried a variety of lotions and medications. Eventually she came up with her own combination that worked. It consisted of a shampoo and an ointment containing sulfur. Because of her brothers, she had some familiarity with barbershops and the business of hair care. She decided to go into business for herself, and began selling her products door to door.
As sales improved, she set up a mail order business for her daughter to run, while her husband and she travelled, promoting sales in the southeast of the U.S. They settled in Pittsburgh in 2008 and opened Lelia College to train people in the hair business. Two years later they moved again, this time to Indianoplis, Indiana. At that time Indianopolis was a major transportation hub for the U.S. railroad system and therefore a favored location for manufacturing. They opened a factory there to make the hair care products.
Sales grew exponentially and she organized her sales agents into local and state clubs. She also expanded internationally, travelling abroad to recruit agents in Cuba, Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica. Agents received awards not only for sales records, but also to recognize their contributions to local charities. Some of her agents, who had been maids and kitchen help, wound up earning more than their former employers.
As C.J. Walker had had no formal education to speak of, when her income allowed it, she hired a woman, Alice Kelly, who had been a school teacher, to give her private tutoring. Eventually Alice Kelly became her plant manager in Indianopolis when she moved to New York in 1916.
In 1917 she commissioned Vertner Tandy, the first licensed black architect in the U.S., to design a home for her, the Villa Lewaro, in Irvington, New York on the Hudson River, close to the estates of John D. Rockefeller and the railroad baron Jay Gould. The link is to the first of a series of videos about C.J. Walker on YouTube, in the first three minutes of which the villa is featured. The photo below does not even begin to do justice to the magnificent villa, set in acres of lush rolling green grounds a ways off from the river bank.
Unfortunately she enjoyed the villa for just two years, dying there at the age of only 51 from hypertension complications. Her daughter, who took over running the company, stayed on in the house. She also died young, outliving her mother by only a dozen years.
Madam C. J. Walker appeared from nowhere to become a major business force in a decade, changing the lives of those who worked for her, above all of her agents. In the process of amassing a fortune she devoted increasing amounts of her time, and massive gifts, to charity in general and civil rights in particular. She was intelligent, a relentlessly hard worker, totally focused on her goals, and must have been both charming and as tough as nails: the iron fist in the velvet glove. Frank Kern's observation (cf. footnote 2) about her in terms of his fellow Internet millionaire gurus is surely correct: "And let me tell you, this lady could have kicked all of our asses - combined!"
Villa Lewaro, Irvington, New York
1 With over 200 million copies sold to date, it ranks as the single highest bestseller of all time, excluding religious works such as the Koran and the Bible and political ones such as the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx (1818 - 1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820 - 1893) and The Little Red Book by Mao Tse-tung (1893 - 1976). There are only five literary books that have had over 100 million copies printed. The other four are: The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolken, 1954/55 (150 million), The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolken, 1937 (100 million +), Dream of the Red Chamber, Cao Yueqin, 1759-91 (100 million +), And then there were none, Agatha Christie, 1939 (100 million). The best selling series is Harry Potter by Joanne Rowling, 1997 - 2007, with over 400 million copies in 65 languages sold. The 7th book set a single day sales record with 11 million copies purchased its day of release in the U.S. and U.K.
Interesting is that of the combined bestseller sales of 1050 million, 650 million are in the fantasy genre. In comparison, the top five business bestsellers, all in English, have combined sales of ca. 136 million, to which one can add the bestselling business series with 26 million. These are elaborated upon in "The Mega-Bestsellers and Their Strategy Siblings, from Not-Very-Good to Really Great?" at Papers.
2 My attention was brought to Madam C. J. Walker by an Internet guru, Frank Kern, who discusses her in an article on his website, Two Magic Powers. The preceding link to his name is about a brief discussion of him in Appendix I of "Instant Internet Empires - from Siren Songs to Real Tycoons" at Papers.
The information I have about her was drawn from a number of Internet sources, with fact checking at Wikipedia (2011) in so far as possible. The principal sources were two. The first was www.madamcjwalker.com, created by A'lelia Bundles, no slouch in her own right. She has gone to considerable lengths to accord her great-grandmother the place in history she is due. The second was the Harvard Business School Case "Beauty Entrepreneur Madam Walker" by Martha Lagare, 2007.
* © Madam C. J. Walker, photo before 1920, public domain - old, from www.connect.in.com/cj-walker/photos; Villa Lewaro, Irvington, N.Y., Omadeo, 24.11.2007, GNU 1.1, CCAS 3.0 (Wikpedia Gyan Web Design 2010