After a lifetime as slaves, Owen and Minerva Breedlove became free people when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Lincoln on January 1, 1863. Both Owen and Minerva continued to work as sharecroppers, growing and picking cotton in Delta, Louisiana. Sarah Breedlove, the couple’s fifth child, was born in December of 1867, the first of her family born into freedom.
Freedom, however, did not equate to an easy life. Her mother died of yellow fever when Sarah was just five years old – her father died two years later. Orphaned at the age of seven, Sarah moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi to live with her married older sister. To earn money, she worked as a domestic – doing laundry, cleaning, and housework. Her brother-in-law was terribly abusive to Sarah. Driven to escape his cruelty, Sarah married a laborer, Moses McWilliams. Sarah was fourteen. When she was eighteen, Sarah gave birth to a daughter, Lelia. Sarah was twenty when Moses died in an accident, leaving her a widow.
Imagine, orphaned at 7, married at 14, a mother at 18, and a widow at 20.
Sarah was driven by one thing in particular – she was committed to providing Lelia a better life than her own. She moved north to St. Louis, where three of her brothers lived. There, she worked as a laundress for $1.50 a day, saving every penny possible. After eighteen years, Sarah’s hard work and frugality paid off – she was able to send Lelia to Knoxville College in Tennessee. During that time, Sarah had married once more, but the marriage ended when she could no longer tolerate his anger – nor his girlfriend.
By then, Sarah was in her late thirties. She had begun to experience significant hair loss, a common malady of African-American women at that point in history. The primary reason was the use of harsh soap, laden with lye. Sarah began to create her own products, which she hoped would address her scalp issue – but experienced very little improvement.
Sarah received a completely unexpected visitor one night in 1905. A very large black man came to her as she slept. In that dream, the man provided her with a list of ingredients to ‘mix up’. Some items were readily available, others she had to send off for. The new concoction worked on her – amazingly well. She tried it on her friends with equally terrific results. Excited with the performance of the products, Sarah began to sell them door-to-door.
As it turned out, Sarah was a gifted marketer. Rather than using a sales pitch, she gave free demonstrations. Soon, black women across St. Louis became eager customers and vocal brand advocates. Sarah began to enlist other women to sell her products, providing them with training in product use and selling techniques. The business began to grow exponentially.
When one of her brothers died unexpectedly, Sarah moved to Denver to help support her sister-in-law and her children. There she met the man who would become her third husband – a newspaperman by the name of Charles J. Walker. His advertising and marketing skills further boosted the company’s success. For one thing, the two started a mail order business. For another, Sarah assumed a new name, one which had greater awareness – she became Madam C. J. Walker, incorporating the name into the products. While their union was great for the business, it wasn’t as a marriage. The two divorced in 1912. Afterwards, she moved to New York and traveled extensively throughout the U.S., South America and the Caribbean promoting the business.
By 1917, Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing had become the most successful black business in the United States. For her part, Madam C. J. Walker (nee Sarah Breedlove) had become the first self-made female millionaire in the country. How? Madam C. J. Walker built herself, and her company, as fearless brands.
Fearless Brands overcome obstacles to seize opportunities
Madam C. J. Walker’s fifty-one years on this earth was quite a journey. In her words “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations…. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”
Madam C. J. was more than a businesswoman. She was a philanthropist, an activist, and a trailblazer for all women and her race. She funded a YMCA in a black neighborhood in Indianapolis, funded scholarships at the Tuskegee Institute, as well as what would eventually become Bethune-Cookman University in Florida. Her activism included support of the initiatives of the NAACP and was personal involvement in anti-lynching efforts, including a massive march which took place in New York City.
Madam C. J. Walker’s accomplishments would be incredible today – the fact that she achieved such success over a century ago is hard to comprehend. The keys to her success, and the elements which made her a fearless brand are timeless, providing a great deal to learn.
Seize the opportunity – Madam C. J. Walker put it this way: “I got my start by giving myself a start!” Madam C. J. – then Sarah Breedlove – saw a need and set out to find a solution. Once she did so, there was no reason not to take it further. She saw an opportunity and seized it, not letting anything derail her plans. She developed a passion to save her hair and scalp. That led to her multi-faceted purpose of not only helping African-American women to enjoy great hair care, but also teaching them how to run a business, make their own money and live more independently.
Success demands persistence – “Perseverance is my motto!” said Madam C. J. Walker. That trait is as integral an element of building a fearless brand and achieving success as any. Her entire life was one of perseverance. Her business was as well. Perseverance, consistency, persistence, stick-to-itiveness – no matter what you call it, building a brand, achieving success, requires hard work.
Own who you are – At the core of every successful brand – every fearless brand – is authenticity. We can’t let our past define us, but we must embrace our journey because it’s why we’re the person we are today. A final Madam C. J. Walker quote puts it this way: “I am not ashamed of my past. I am not ashamed of my humble beginning.” She knew that it took her entire journey to make her the woman she became. The same is true for you and me.
Why worry about your personal brand? What’s important about building a fearless brand? Madam C. J. Walker’s story provides the answer. A fearless brand is built with the combination of embracing our passion, discovering our purpose, being persistent, and being authentic – and it’s those traits that are essential to realizing stratospheric success.