Madam C. J. Walker is known for developing a Black hair product early in the 20th century, but according to her greatgreat-granddaughter, her legacy also is that she developed businesswomen, part of her framework for philanthropy and political activism.
Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on a Louisiana plantation, Walker created her hair growth ointment out of her own need and experimentation, much the way modern businesses do, said her great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, in a presentation with YWCA Metropolitan Chicago CEO Dorri McWhorter. During the 1890s, Breedlove was losing her hair at a time most Americans didn’t have indoor plumbing. By 1905, she developed an ointment with sulfur (and a masking fragrance) and preached that washing hair more often was healthier for the scalp.
But besides healthy hair, she created job opportunities, Bundles said. In an era when most Black women could work only as farmhands or domestics, she took out newspaper ads with testimonials from Walker Agents saying things like, “you have made it possible for a Black woman to make more in a day than she could in a month working in somebody’s kitchen.” Literally thousands of women took her course in person or by mail order and traveled all over the United States and the Caribbean selling it.
Growing up, Bundles heard the myth about Walker inventing the hot comb (which was actually around when she was a girl on the plantation), but the bigger discussion was that “she provided jobs for women, helping them become economically involved,” Bundles said. “She was a political radical, a patron of the arts.”
It is noteworthy, she said, that Walker was the first generation out of slavery. For too many people, Black history has a huge gap between the end of slavery in 1863 and the Civil Rights Movement nearly 100 years later.
“But they were creating the NAACP and economic empowerment, fashioning their own citizenship rights,” Bundles said. Near the end of her life, Walker was part of a delegation that went to the White House to urge President Woodrow Wilson to make lynching a crime “She was part of that generation that included [journalist/suffragist] Ida B. Wells and [educator] Mary McLeod Bethune. They were the Black Lives Matter of their day.”
“Sometimes history gets wasted when we teach it so young,” Mc- Whorter responded. “We need to teach it again and again. The issues we’re fighting today look a little different, but they’re still there. What I really love about her legacy is that she used her money and her influence to make a difference. She helped women become independent, create generational wealth.”
Madam Walker’s story is so inspiring, McWhorter said, that the YWCA Metropolitan Chicago is collaborating on a women of color business accelerator with the DePaul University Women in Entrepreneurship Institute (WEI).
The YWCA Metropolitan Chicago’s mission is to eliminate racism and to close the racial wealth gap, so the women of color business accelerator will be a mechanism for achieving those goals, said Kelly Evans. As YWCA Metropolitan Chicago vice president of entrepreneurship and community economic development, Evans will oversee the business accelerator.
“The spirit we’re creating this in is her image,” Evans said. “Yes, Madam C. J. Walker was the first Black woman millionaire, but the more important story is not just that she created wealth for herself and her family, but for people who could have been domestic workers. She gave them other income-producing opportunities on a much higher level than they would have been able to get.”
As a pioneer in community development, Walker created an “ecosystem” for other women’s growth, Evans said. They could learn to read, to ask questions, to replicate her business model. “That’s what economic development is: to create an engine that enables not just women to be successful but to bring that to the communities they’re in.”
Everything she learned about Madam Walker has lessons for business today, McWhorter said.
Orphaned at age 7, Breedlove was married at 14. She became a mother at 17 and was widowed at 20, when she left Mississippi with her young daughter A’Lelia to settle in St. Louis. She worked as a washerwoman but joined St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, which had a long tradition of teaching African Americans to read and write, even when it was illegal, Bundles said.
“Sarah Breedlove the washerwoman had a good enough voice to be in the choir and she modeled herself after the more educated women,” Bundles said. She gave to their philanthropies, even if it was only a penny. Her first major gift was $1,000 to the building fund of the YMCA in Indianapolis, where she later located her factory.
“People learned of her because of her philanthropy, not just hair care,” Bundles said. By the time she had her first convention in 1917, she gave prizes not only to women who sold the most products, but to those who gave the most to charity. “‘As Walker Agents, I want you to know your first duty is to humanity,’” she preached.
“Her genius was in picking women who would be good leaders for the community,” Bundles said. In an era when motion pictures were still new, her method was to do a presentation of glass photo slides to a large audience and then to host a class to recruit sales agents in a smaller venue like a church basement. She watched to see who asked the best questions, who had the most magnetic personalities.
What about resources in starting her business? McWhorter asked.
There was no Small Business Administration to offer free advice and she was unsuccessful in getting investors, Bundles said. Initially, people still saw her as the former washerwoman, so she had to push herself forward. Even Booker T. Washington refused to recognize her at a 1912 National Negro Business League Conference.
Walker stood up and confronted Washington. “Surely you are not going to shut the door in my face. I feel that I am in a business that is a credit to the womanhood of our race. I am a woman who came up from the cotton fields of the South. I was promoted from there to the washtub. Then I was promoted to the cook kitchen and from there I promoted myself. I have built my factory on my own ground.”
The next year, Walker was the keynote speaker, Bundles told an audience at the Library of Congress.
A graduate of Harvard and the Columbia University School of Journalism, Bundles is a former deputy bureau chief of ABC News Washington. Her New York Times-bestselling book, “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker,” (Scribner 2001) was the nonfiction source for the March 2020 Netflix series, “Self-Made,” featuring Octavia Spencer, Tiffany Haddish and Carmen Ejogo.
Bundles has written of her pleasure in seeing her greatgreat-grandmother portrayed in an all-Black production, but she noted that while she had “script review” she was not allowed final “script approval.” She provided extensive notes to the script writer, producers and show runners, but could not veto their final decisions. She particularly objected to the “Self-Made” storyline that focused on a rivalry between Madam Walker (Spencer) and Annie Monroe (Ejogo) rather than the relationships with people like Booker T. Washington, Ida B. Wells, the AME churchwomen in St. Louis, her sales agents and her attorney, Freeman B. Ransom, who ultimately had a greater impact.
“People saw this former washerwoman, so she had to push herself forward,” Bundles said in the YWCA presentation.
“You can get 100 noes before you get your first yes. You have to push yourself. When she started to make $10 a week, her husband thought that was enough and so that’s when they parted ways.”
Charles Joseph Walker became her third husband in 1906 in Denver, where she had moved the previous year because she had a widowed sister-in-law and nieces there who could help make her product. She became Madam C. J. Walker in part to acknowledge Paris as the center of beauty and fashion, and because other businesswomen –seamstresses, boarding house landlords, Black opera singers – added the courtesy title. “It was a bit of an affectation but a way to give yourself some dignity,” Bundles said.
By 1910 Walker moved her business to Indianapolis because of its large African American population and network of railroads for distribution.
What advice could we glean from her life, McWhorter asked.
“That education is key,” Bundles responded. “She was a person who did not have a lot of formal education, but she really valued it.”
Once Walker was able to afford self-improvement, she hired a former dean of a girls’ Black boarding school as her factory manager and traveling companion, so that they could refine Walker’s presentations together. When Walker was at her headquarters in Indianapolis, she would read the newspaper every morning with her female office staff and they would look up words they didn’t know in the dictionary.
“‘There is no shame in not knowing,’” Bundles said. “She wanted them to know ‘we are all learning.’”
DePaul University’s Women in Entrepreneurship Institute has a goal of advancing women business owners, who typically have little access to investor funding or big contracts,
said WEI Director Abigail Ingram. Since its inception in 2018, 50 to 60 percent of WEI participants have been women of color. The partnership with the YWCA will allow WEI to serve more of this population.
“We live in a very divided city and if we are starting in Chicago and the goal is equal access to opportunity, we have to look at where that opportunity is most lacking,” said Ingram, who received both her master’s and law degrees from DePaul.
“During one of our strategic planning meetings, we asked the committee to describe why the institute is important,” Ingram said. “The No. 1 item that kept coming back was the idea of fairness and the fact that it is much harder to start, grow and capitalize a business as a woman than as a man. We know that the ROI [Return on Investment] on female-founded businesses tends to be higher than on male-founded businesses. We also know that there is nothing inherent in women that makes us less likely to run a successful business, but there are barriers put up to stop us from accessing success. If we can simply remove the roadblocks that are preventing us from being successful and follow a path of launching and scaling a business, be profitable, and add to the GDP, that’s really the motivation.”
Too often, businesses that pertain to women, such as childcare, are treated as “niche markets.” Just as in Madam Walker’s case, investors won’t touch them, she said. “But we’re more than half the population. If you take this hidden majority of people and empower them to start and run businesses, you’re going to see the GDP double, an explosion of job creation.”
Diversity is in DePaul’s DNA, she said. The university was founded by the Vincentian religious order in the late 1800s to educate immigrant and working class families who didn’t otherwise have an opportunity for education. “Vincentian values include making a high-quality education accessible regardless of background and recognizing our community benefits by having such a diverse community. The bottom line is realizing equal access to opportunity in our country and Chicago, and DePaul is very much focused on that equal access,” Ingram said. This year’s freshman class, for example, is 56 percent women, 49 percent people of color and 34 percent first generation college students.
Ingram initiated the partnership last October when she approached YWCA CEO McWhorter, who is a founding member of WEI. McWhorter in turn introduced her to Evans and to Robert Johnson, YWCA chief economic inclusion officer and general counsel, to determine where their two missions align.
“Our whole soul is in this,” Johnson said in a Feb. 24 video presentation with Ingram, Evans, and Alexandria Cummings, YWCA director of financial inclusion. “We want to create a community where folks can live, work, pray and play: have all the assets in the community.”
There is a $1 billion gap of restaurants and retail in Bronzeville alone, that people would like but that do not exist. Creating spaces for Black-owned businesses to grow here would create jobs for local people, Johnson said.
Ingram talked also of the lifestyle flexibility and leadership that entrepreneurship provides, since even job sectors traditionally thought of as feminine – childcare, beauty, fashion – have C-suites that are dominated by men.
The WEI, on the other hand, is taught entirely by successful women entrepreneurs, its “Founding 40” board members. They meet four hours a week for nine weeks, with outside assignments.
“We’re all sick of hearing statistics about how difficult it is for women to be entrepreneurs,” Ingram said. “We’re shifting the conversation about women growing our companies. Because we have such a strong board, we are watching this domino effect. When women have economic security and independence, they are more likely to create opportunities for other women and others in society at large.”
Four WEI participants say the experience was truly valuable. What’s more, they have already hired additional staff or plan to do so.
Cera Stan has been in business 28 years, but she says she still learned to look at her financials in a better way. “I also learned to work less and be more productive: the two things I enjoyed the most."
Stan has hired two more people for her business, the Stan Mansion on Kedzie Boulevard in Logan Square. The nearly century-old historic building is a special events and wedding venue with a luxury two-bedroom, two-bath bridal suite where brides can dress.
“I’ve taken a lot of classes over the years and this is the best,” Stan said of WEI. “The people you get to meet there. Everyone is passionate about what they do. They share experiences with you, give you advice. Two or three weeks ago I was asking for advice; everybody was jumping in: ‘Do this. Do that.’ They are all women, so you feel that power. I love all of them. They’re really cool and down to Earth people.”
Networking was likewise the most valuable thing that Catalina Bentz, founder and CEO of Catan Pisco, took away from WEI. The entrepreneurs and board members were generous with their time and “I see some of these connections being lifelong friendships,” Bentz said in a text.
Pisco is a South American spirit distilled from grapes. Bentz was born in Santiago, Chile and her website calls Pisco a “cornerstone of Chilean culture.” Pisco served neat or in sours was a prelude to every family meal.
Bentz is now in the final stages of closing her first seed round of funding, bringing on an active investor who will become a full-time partner in her business.
Mission Propelle is a gender equity consulting company that partners with corporations and nonprofits to create sustainable solutions for their employees and the company’s work culture. CEO and Co-founder Annie Warshaw said WEI offered networking opportunities otherwise constrained by the pandemic.
WEI taught Mission Propelle to package its product more strategically, which has meant more contracts and the need to expand its team in the next year, Warshaw said.
“The most important thing I learned at WEI was to step back as an entrepreneur and hire and allocate tasks for other people to complete instead of trying to do everything myself,” said Ashley Wallace-Peters, owner of Le’Flair Hair Lounge in Oakbrook Terrace. Le’Flair creates eye-catching coiffures for nights on the town, sedate cuts for day to day and “extensions that lengthen locks with aplomb.”
Wallace-Peters has hired people to do graphics and social media and to convert her website. As a result, she has brochures instead of just business cards. She is looking at a retail cabinet as a way of generating revenue and possibly even her own product line. She is proud to have accomplished a lot in a very short time. And as a wife and mother of a 16-year-old and a 2-year-old, she’s also grateful. “The body has to rest,” she said.
“As women, as leaders, as entrepreneurs, a lot of times we have this thing we want to be so hands on with everything that we have to take a step back, let go, say ‘It’s OK to lose money if you are reinvesting in your business.’ Do what you’re good at doing, seek help and allocate, delegate otherwise.
“You still have that oversight at the end of the day even though someone else is doing it,” Wallace-Peters said. “That was the problem. I was feeling like I was going to lose control, but I did not. That’s part of being a leader that you have to understand.”
Wallace-Peters paid it forward by hiring a part-time cosmetology graduate. The young mom cleans, does salon laundry and comes up with hair care tips and inspirational sayings to post. Besides getting behind a chair, Wallace-Peters says that she could consider a sales or administrative career in the beauty industry.
One hundred percent of the WEI’s first cohort was profitable by the end of a year. No businesses closed during the pandemic. In fact, 40 percent actually increased revenue and 75 percent remained profitable.
The YWCA women of color business accelerator is also open to women of all industries who have gained traction, with revenues of at least $500,000 who are ready to scale up their businesses but who do not have the resources to do so, Evans said. The cohort of eight to 12 women set to begin April 2 includes people in construction, PR, supply and food.
Black female entrepreneurs get only 0.6 percent of venture capital, while Latinas get .37 percent, which means women of color still get less than 1% of all capital funding, Evans said, citing Fortune magazine. The program will encourage networking and exchange of information around banking and even mergers & acquisitions.
Geography will be the main difference between the original WEI program and the YWCA women of color business accelerator. The accelerator will operate specifically in the communities the YWCA serves “so that we can be sure those resources are in the community,” Evans said. “That’s why it’s not only entrepreneurship, but community economic development.”