The First Female Millionaire

By Ronald Court

It’s fitting that my first entry in the “Opportunity” category would be about a first, the first female to become a self-made millionaire. She did it in the cosmetics business. I’m not talking about Mary Kay, though her story too is inspiring. This is about the first self-made female … black or white… to reach the millionaire milestone. She did it with integrity & character and against all odds.

Madam C. J. Walker
with thanks to author Brian Souza, for permission

“..I did not succeed by traversing a path strewn with roses. I made great sacrifices, met with rebuff after rebuff, and had to fight hard to put my ideas into effect.”


Born to freed slaves and sharecroppers in rural Louisiana in 1867, she was orphaned by age ten. Illiterate, she was forced to start working six days a week picking cotton, cooking, and cleaning in white households. Married by fourteen, a mother at sixteen, and a widow by age twenty, life for Madam C. J. didn’t start out in a promising way. But despite adversity most of us will never know, she went on to become the first self-made female millionaire-white or black-in the United States.How? By taking an introspective look to discover who she really was and by deciding that she could-and would-transcend her roots to achieve her dreams. In short, by tapping into the very same powers that lie dormant within you right now.

For starters, after she was widowed, she took her daughter to St. Louis, Missouri, in search of education and a better way of life. At first being a washerwoman was tough going, but then Walker had a moment of self-revelation. As she later described it to The New York Times, she was a thirty-five-year-old single mother who “was at my tubs one morning with a heavy wash before me. As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds, I said to myself, ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’ This set me to thinking, but with all my thinking I couldn’t see how I, a poor washer-woman, was going to better my condition.”

But she was committed. There was no turning back. Like all successful people, she took a chance and bet on herself. In 1905, with only $1.50 in savings, she moved to Denver, where she started a business making and selling a hair-straightening and beautifying product for African-American women. She eventually built a nationwide sales force numbering in the thousands. It wasn’t until she took a chance at she discovered her gift wasn’t doing the wash but the ability to spire women to take pride in themselves and to refuse to live with- the stereotypical confines of the times.

A century ago, few women-let alone African American women-traveled by themselves. But Madam C. J. crisscrossed the country almost continuously to spread the word about her products.

She first sold them door-to-door, then through the mail, and eventually in pharmacies. She was relentless in her marketing efforts. She stuck steadfastly to her goal-and never quit working on ways to improve her business. She realized that if she was going to make something of herself, she would have to develop her gift into some- thing of value. She had no formal education, but that didn’t stop her from hiring tutors to improve her vocabulary, teach her proper grammar, and broaden her horizons.

Similarly, she created jobs for thousands of black saleswomen, not only paying them well, but also setting up philanthropies and foundations to help educate them. In short, she built and ran a national cosmetics empire based on the highest principles-a feat that would have seemed remote when she was a shoeless orphan chopping cotton in Louisiana.

Her journey from poverty to wealth, from obscurity to fame, and from having the most menial of jobs to being a leader for women’s rights and economic freedom was remarkable to say the least.

Perseverance is my motto,” she told one interviewer. “It laid the Atlantic cable, it gave us the telegraph, telephone, and wireless. It gave to the world an Abraham Lincoln and to the race, freedom.” In her determination to live her dream, she defied long odds. And by the time of her death in 1919, she had become, as her biographer Beverly Lowry noted, “an icon, a legend, and an exemplar.”

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