Well before Mary Kay Ash built a billion-dollar beauty brand and her pink Cadillac came to be a symbol of financial independence for sales women, there was Madam C.J. Walker.
She was America’s first black woman to be a self-made millionaire. And she made a fortune selling her own hair care in the harrowing Jim Crow era.
After suffering from a scalp ailment and hair loss, she invented “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” in 1905. A combo of her lotions and iron combs became known as “The Walker System.” She traveled all over the country selling her products directly to black women and eventually taught women how to sell her brand, too.
“I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself,” Walker said in 1914. “I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race.”
Now, nearly 100 years after her death, products bearing her name have hit shelves at Sephora boutiques across the country. Sundial Brands, the company behind well-loved hair care lines Shea Moisture and Nubian Heritage, helped bring her name back to the beauty world with the Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture collection.
“The void that we are filling with Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture and the elevation of Madam C.J. Walker are long overdue,” says Richelieu Dennis, CEO of Sundial Brands. “When we think of beauty influencers like Coco Chanel, Estee Lauder, Helena Rubinstein, Mary Kay and others, we should also be thinking about Madam C.J. Walker.
“She truly defied the limitations of her time and did something that no woman had ever done in beauty or business,” Dennis said. “Her accomplishments have earned her a place right next to other beauty pioneers whose legacies are still being celebrated — both in history books and on-shelf.”
It’s true. Walker donated to the YMCA, the NAACP and funded scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute. She joined the campaigns to make lynching a federal crime. Her savvy earned her a spot in the National Business Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. The United States Postal Service commemorated her with a stamp in 1998.
But somehow, when we’re talking beauty brands, her name doesn’t come up. And it’s a shame. She was putting a black woman’s face on beauty products when we were considered anything but beautiful. In an era of oppression, Walker celebrated self-care, confidence and independence.
Amber McKinnon, a Kansas City beauty blogger (brownbombshellbeauty.com), says she was pleased when she saw the Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture collection. She’s already tried several products and is looking forward to testing more.
“When women were going through such racist times and their appearance was like a suit of armor, she helped them look their best,” says Amber, 33. “She employed them so they could earn their own money, sustain their families and feel powerful. I can’t emphasize how much that means.”
Walker also has Missouri roots. Born Sarah Breedlove to Louisiana sharecroppers in 1867, she eventually moved to St. Louis where she worked as a laundress. It’s there she met and worked for another black woman who would go on to make millions. Annie Malone was making and selling hair care products at the 1904 World’s Fair. It wouldn’t take long for Walker to strike out on her own and create her own formula. Walker’s work helped create today’s $600 billion black hair care industry.
A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great granddaughter and her official biographer and historian, says Walker deserves to be in the pantheon of early 20th century corporate visionaries.
“I’ve found that once people are introduced to Madam Walker’s story, they are inspired but also perplexed about why she was omitted from their history lessons,” Bundles says. “Whether I am helping a student with a National History Day project or speaking with graduate students at the Harvard Business School, I find they are eager to know how she achieved her success and developed her business.”
Back then, two black women — Walker and Malone — successfully running black hair care brands was major.
Because they persevered we now can see brands like Carol’s Daughter at Wal-Mart, Target and even on HSN. We also have Miss Jessie’s, Mixed Chicks, Camille Rose, Karen’s Body Beautiful, Hydratherma Naturals and the list goes on. We have nationally known beauty bloggers, such as Kansas City native Mo Knows Hair. Walker’s impact has created everlasting waves, curls, braids and blow-outs. Her story pushed economic empowerment and corporate responsibility before it was common.
“We are proud that she became a millionaire,” Bundles says. “But even prouder that she used her wealth and influence to provide jobs, economic independence and educational opportunities for others.”
Today, to see her brand on the shelves of Sephora alongside Josie Maran and Ouidad is a lovely thing.
“We’ve always taken a very inclusive approach to beauty,” says Priya Venkatesh, Sephora’s vice-president of merchandising. “We are thrilled to be the exclusive retailer partner for Madam C.J. Walker, a brand that celebrates cultural diversity, with a rich heritage and historical presence in the beauty business.”
The collection features about 25 pieces, catering to every hair type from kinky to curly to straight, with a $24 to $32 price range. Amaris Brady, an Overland Park stylist at Adorn Beautique, says she initially side-eyed the products until she realized Walker’s family was involved in bringing the collection to life. Upon trying the line, she loves it.
“If your family can carry on your legacy, it’s amazing,” she told me. “Madam C.J. Walker’s impact on black hair care was important and the products live up to her name.”
Having used the Coconut & Moringa Oils Curl shampoo, conditioner and hair milk, I am a believer. The products are light, leaving my curls moisturized and charmed into buoyancy. And the bottles are beautiful. More importantly, the products are free of parabens, sulfates and harsh chemicals. Great care has been put into the recipe.
“We’re bringing back more than a brand,” Dennis says. “We are introducing what beauty culture means to a new generation and building on what Madam Walker did more than 100 years ago.”
And hopefully, as people are introduced to her products, they will be willing to comb through her history and research our roots.