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Who was the First Female Self-Made Millionaire in the US?

Many millionaires made their money from inventing something or pioneering a service or a process that genuinely changed the consumer markets. But did you know that the first self-made American millionaire made her money by understanding her niche market?

Madam C.J. Walker marketed hair care and cosmetics for a particular niche. She catered to an African American market, helping her build her fortune. She is the Guinness World Records holder for the first female self-made millionaire.

Who was Madam C.J. Walker?

Madam C.J. Walker was born as Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867, on a cotton plantation near Delta, Louisiana. Walker was the first to be born free, as her parents Owen and Minerva Breedlove, were slaves.

Walker was orphaned at seven, forcing her to live with her sister Louvinia and her abusive brother-in-law. They moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1877, where it was known that she gained employment as a cotton picker. Walker married Moses McWilliams when she was 14. Her decision to marry McWilliams improved her life and got away from her terrible working environment and her brother-in-law’s frequent mistreatment.

She bore a child, A’leia. When McWilliams passed just two years into their marriage, Walker and her child moved to St. Louis to join her brothers, who were barbers at the time. She found work as a washerwoman and at the same time attended the public night school when she could.

At the time, Walker met her second husband, Charles J. Walker, who worked in the advertising industry. In 1913, the Walkers divorced. Walker traveled to several places, including Latin America and the Caribbeans. By 1916, Walker moved to Harlem, immersing herself in the social and political landscape of the Harlem Renaissance.

There she dedicated herself to creating opportunities for educational scholarships and other projects that focused on improving the lives of African Americans. She was also generous, donating to homes for the aged and becoming the most prominent African American donor to constructing an Indianapolis YMCA in 1913.

Walker continued her business in the hair-care industry up until she passed away on May 25, 1919. (Source: Biography)

The Madam C.J. Walker Company

In the 1890s, Walker suffered from a scalp disorder, which caused her to lose much of her hair, leading her to experiment with store-bought hair care treatments as well as home remedies. Her scalp disorder led her to become a commission agent with Annie Turnbo Malone, a successful African American hair-care product entrepreneur, in 1905.

Walker then moved to Denver, Colorado. There she developed and perfected her brand of hair-care treatment products. Her second husband helped her create advertisements for her products and encouraged her to use a more recognizable Madam C.J. Walker as part of her branding.

In 1907, the Walkers traveled to promote their product and provide lectures on the Walker Method, which was the proper usage of her developed pomade and adequate brushing and use of heated combs.

A year later, Walker opened a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh due to the success of her product. And in two years, she moved her business to Indianapolis. The company manufactured hair-care products and provided training for the Walker Agents sales beauticians.
The agents became famous in most African American communities across the country, promoting Walker’s philosophy of cleanliness and loveliness as a means of advancing the status of African Americans. The company’s success brought about huge profits that were the modern-day equivalent of several millions of dollars. (Source: Biography)

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