On her own ground: Madam CJ Walker

I once read that African-American history suffers under two whams—wham one is that “you never did anything” and wham two is “even if you did something, it’s not worth writing about”.  Of course, I reject that and I’m of the opinion that the whams of others are only material considerations if you allow them to be.  I am an adherent to the seven principles of the Nguzo Saba and the principle Kujichagulia (self determination) has applicability here.  Once one is operating from a position of self reference and self definition that creates a reality that is projected outwardly and ultimately, that’s where you deal from.  Once you’re dealing from that position, it’s what you think that matters and someone else’s whams become immaterial.  If we want our history addressed, we should write it and teach it ourselves.

This title of this post is actually the title of a book written by Madam C.J. Walker’s great great granddaughter, A’lelia Bundles.  It’s been on my reading list for some time and I just now got around to reading it.  It’s an amazing story about a remarkable African American entrepreneur- Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madam C. J. Walker, the first American woman millionaire.

There are so many observations that can be made from having read this very well written book.  The story covers business, history and politics all at the same time and is a fascinating read.  Actually, the period (early 1900’s) when she built the business is a fascinating period of African-American history as well with several notable historical figures on the scene along with her—Booker T. Washington, WEB Dubois, Ida Wells Barnett, Marcus Garvey and others.  She dealt with them all at one point or the other.

Since there are a few observations I’d like to make on both the business and the politics of the time and to keep the length of these posts readable, I’ve decided to break my comments up in at least two posts.  This one will deal with her business acumen and some things I’ve personally drawn from that.  The second post will address the politics of her day and how it directly links to some prominent features of contemporary politics relating to African-Americans today.

This woman’s story is impressive and to be honest, it’s the story of  marketing genius.  As explained in the book, black women at the turn of the century had huge challenges with their hair, not the least of it being it falling out leaving them bald which explains why so many black women were pictured or depicted with kerchiefs around their heads.  Their hair fell out due to lack of care, scalp disease and an apparent dearth of products to address these issues.  Walker had a few people who preceded her into the business and she was a  sales agent for Annie Tumbo Malone who owed a company named Poro.  Walker ultimately developed her own products to grow and restore hair and started her own company much to Ms. Malone’s chagrin.  The women would turn out to be fierce competitors and the book describes their back and forth attempts to one-up one another with Walker ultimately getting the better of Malone.

The racial codes of the day prevented product distribution via normal outlets like drug stores, so Walker was forced to go around this issue by building a direct sales distribution network which required her to build a sales force of  several thousand agents to sell her products.  This meant that she spent a significant amount of time on the road recruiting agents and making product demonstrations.  Since only menial  occupations were available to black women, Walker actually wound up freeing many black women of these laborious occupations while raising their wage levels at the same time.  She saw as her primary mission the uplift of black women and black people in general and like Robert Sengstacke Abbott, hers was not just a business alone but a movement.  As she lifted these women, she created a supportive and loyal sales force.

Walker actually manufactured the product and located her factory in Indianapolis Indiana due to its proximity to nationwide shipping lanes. She made two key hires to run that facility—attorney and general manager, F.B. Ransom and factory forelady, Alice Kelly.  These two ran the manufacturing and distribution operations which, in turn, allowed her to be on the road selling and recruiting sales agents.  It was a classic “inside/outside” arrangement that’s still practiced today.  Walker had a knack for picking the right people to put in place to do things.  Basically, she knew how to hire and how to instill loyalty; basic management principles that challenge most entrepreneurs to this very day.  She also knew how to address another challenge—structuring a business for growth beyond her own efforts.  Many entrepreneurs never get past this stage as the moment you hire someone you need a system for doing things rather than what’s “in your head”.   To manage the sales and distribution channels while matching up the product manufacture with demand meant that she had to have a very strong system in place across the board in the key areas of any business—marketing, operations and finance.

Back in those days, anyone looking to do something big found that all roads ran through Tuskegee Alabama and  Booker T. Washington. Washington ran Tuskegee University and in those days was the “recognized” black leader, but was facing a few rivals who were trying to pull him off that perch owing to his policies of accommodating rampant racism.   In addition to running Tuskegee, Washington had also formed an organization known as the Negro Business League which was similar to a chamber of commerce for black businesses of the day and anyone who was someone was a member.  Walker jockeyed mightily for position with Washington mainly to get his blessing and to position herself to open a cosmetology school at Tuskegee.  She surmised that if she were to be able to pull this off, she’d be able to build her sales and one-up her rivals.   She also sought to become a board member of  Tuskegee when a white member resigned.  Washington was initially non committal to her overtures but eventually warmed up and they reached a happy medium with Washington providing public recognition of her accomplishments at Negro Business League conventions and Walker making donations to Tuskegee.  Thus, at some level the pay to play rule seemed to be in place in those days as well although Walker made sure she got what she wanted before sending money.

She was a extraordinary networker and her approach to targeting any new black market was to identify the movers and shakers in a given black community and work them as an efficient way to recruit her sales people as well as to garner sales.  From what I’ve read of her, three words come to mind—aggressive, focused and persistent—three qualities that any businessperson has to have if they hope to succeed at what they do.

Her marketing prowess was also supported by a genuine community outreach and a concern for other African-Americans, so she was involved in a number of activities of a civic nature for the betterment and uplift of the African-American community.  This was something that was truly her mission and I find that particularly impressive about her as I’m of the belief that any business really must be part of the fabric of any community in which it operates and help solve problems.  This is particularly so with African-American businesses.

She was not without challenges.  She had two other competitors besides Ms. Malone.  She had to put down a near revolt among her sales people when she decided to distribute one product through a drug store hence cutting into their sales.  She had to deal with people trying to do knockoffs or cheap imitations of her product and pass them off under the Walker brand name and her activism wound up getting her placed on a list of “black subversives”.  Her crimes?  Protesting against lynching, being associated with Marcus Garvey and other so called “black malcontents” and wanting to attend the Paris Peace talks at the end of WWI to request that Germany’s African colonies be returned to black rule.

I just found me a new heroine and her story is certainly worthy of review as a case study on business as she set the pace for folks like Estee Lauder and anyone in business or planning one would benefit from her story. But her story is more that than a story about a business.  It’s a story about leadership and heart and, as such, should be on the reading list for all of our children; both girls and boys.

  • "This woman’s story is impressive and to be honest, it’s the story of marketing genius."

    Madam Walker's spirit was irrepressible, and unconquerable: that kind of entrepreneurial spirit is rare today. Can you imagine just how rare it was during her age, when women were still fighting for the right to vote?

    Madam C.J. Walker’s great great granddaughter, A’lelia Bundles, is well spoken. Hearing her speak so eloquently about her grandmother, and the period in which she lived, is to be transported to that time. Here's a link to YouTube, just in case you haven't heard her:


  • Brother Greg L,
    Many thanks for sharing your thoughts about my book, On Her Own Ground, with your readers. I very much appreciate the analysis you've brought to the topic. And I think you'll be pleased to know that there is indeed a case study about Madam Walker in Professor Nancy Koehn's entrepreneurship class at Harvard's Business School. I have posted your link on my Facebook page and will post it on my website.
    Now that I've found your blog, I look forward to more posts!
    A'Lelia Bundles http://www.madamcjwalker.com

  • Ms Bundles,

    After all of that explaining about the discussion platform I use here, your comment wound up in moderation! This intense debate platform is wonderful, but at times gives me fits! Please accept my apologies for the delay in your comments appearing.

    It's a real honor for you to post here at my blog and as I indicate above, I thoroughly enjoyed your book. As a matter of fact, it has spurred me to read more broadly about some of the historical figures you mentioned that Madam Walker dealt with–namely W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington. The battle that went on between those two is an entire story unto itself and for Madam Walker to have maintained good relations with both camps must have been a very narrow tightrope for her to walk on. I just find the early 1900's an extremely interesting period of black history and your work has provided further illumination.

    Again, it's a very special treat for you to post here and I do hope you'll visit again!

  • Nashaefrazier

    i love madam cj walker

    •  She is certainly an inspiration

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