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7 Business Lessons From Self-Made Millionaire Madam C.J. Walker
If you’re a fan of TV series, especially those based on real life stories, then you might have already seen Netflix’s “Self Made: Inspired by the life of Madam C.J. Walker”. Born Sarah Breedlove, Madam Walker rose to become the first female millionaire in America. She built a beauty empire from her Wonderful Hair Grower. Her great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles, wrote Madam’s biography entitled “On Her Own Ground” from which the Netflix series was based. To date, the Madam C.J. Walker (MCJW) Beauty Culture still exists, and can be bought through Sephora.
Madam C.J. Walker built, not only a business, but a legacy that continues to inspire many entrepreneurs today. Want an empire as successful, if not more, as hers? Here are some business lessons her story has taught us.
“I’m not ashamed of my past. I’m not ashamed of my humble beginning.”
The Madam started as a laundry woman in an abusive relationship. She traded her services for one Addie Munroe’s Magical Hair Grower. She then sold the product by telling people her story and how the product helped her confidence.
A product doesn’t sell itself. Oftentimes, what entices customers about new products are the story behind it. Make sure you tell these stories to your consumers. A heartfelt story or platform will sell better than a random advertisement. Be creative, but still honest and personal. There are many ways to share your business and your story nowadays so take advantage of every available resource!
“It’s pretty hard for the Lord to guide you if you haven’t made up your mind which way to go.”
When Madam sold her first tins of hair grower, Addie Munroe was upset. She didn’t want “the likes [of Madam]” to be associated with her product. This is the kind of discrimination women of color faced. This is why Madam created her hair grower… at first. So they would be more confident with their hair, and not be othered because of their hair or skin. Eventually, she realized that it’s not enough that women are present in the workforce. They should be storming it! So she presented her employees with opportunities to be entrepreneurs and investors in businesses. Madam always had dreams bigger than herself.
Dreams are what fuels an entrepreneur. It’s what picks you up when things get tough. It could simply be to help your family. Your dream could be to share your story to the world, like what Madam had in mind first. It could be to promote environmental change, if you’re selling bamboo straws and organic products. You have to have a reason why you built a business.
Greatness takes time
The Wonderful Hair Grower was first produced in bulk in Madam’s basement. This burned in a house fire. She took this as a sign, not of giving up, but of working harder to produce her product in an actual factory. This wasn’t the beginning nor the end of her challenges towards greatness. But Madam was always ‘one step back, and two steps forward’.
Madam Walker first sold Hair Growers in 1904. In 1919, she died a millionaire.This doesn’t mean you’ll be a millionaire in 15 years. It could take more, it could take less. It doesn’t mean you’re not working hard enough if it does take more. Madam C.J. Walker simply found her niche from which she profited and became successful. It wasn’t an easy road for her, and it won’t be for you. But there are no shortcuts to success.
Listen to the market
“There would be no hair growing business today had I not started it.”
Madam C.J. Walker was her first customer. She suffered from a scalp ailment that resulted in hair loss. She invented the Wonderful Hair Grower to solve her own problem. Then she tested it on her daughter, and sold it to other African American women who needed it.. She even moved to where her target market is! Talk about commitment! When she saw that the Hair Grower was a success, products like Glossine and Vegetable Shampoo followed. She also started to offer hair care treatments in-house with her products and equipment. Customers always have something to come back to in her salons.
A business that constantly interacts with customers needs to listen to them. Take feedback and criticism seriously if you want to keep your customers. Does your product have a foul smell? Does it only work for certain skin tones? Innovation is key. This is what keeps your current customers and gets you new ones! And you definitely want that for your business.
Choose and keep people who care about your business
“Female enterprise is good for us all.”
Madam C.J. Walker initially made the mistake of looking for investors among men who frankly don’t care, at all, about her hair care business. Her investors turned out to be the wives of these men. Women support women.
Make sure you keep people who care close by. Your family, friends, investors, even employees. This is going to be your support system. They’re integral to you building a successful business. Don’t waste your time trying to appease people who will never have your back. If something or someone holds you down, this carries over to your business.
Give back to your community
“I want you to understand that your first duty is to humanity. I want others to look at us and see that we care not just about ourselves, but about others.”
Being the first in her family to be born free from slavery, she knew first hand the severity of racism and segregation in the U.S. After she has reached everything she aimed for, Madam C.J. Walker donated generously to the African American community – schools, clubs, and various organizations. She supported the anti-lynching movement along with other famous figures at the time. She donated $5,000 to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). This was the largest donation the organization received by 1919.
Know who you owe. After acknowledging your hard work, honor your most loyal customers and investors. Maybe host a giveaway for them. If you’re working for a deeper cause, donate to the community whose story fuels your business. Your community is a big part of you, as a person and an entrepreneur. Ask yourself what it has done for you.
Even Madam C.J. Walker made mistakes
Yes. Even her success story had (at least two) mistakes that we advise you don’t follow.
For one, Madam C.J. Walker took her name from her ex-husband Charles Joseph Walker. Fortunately, she was so successful people referred to C.J. Walker as “Madam C.J. Walker’s husband”, instead of the other way around. This became a problem when they divorced, when she’s technically not Madam C.J. Walker anymore. She had to make sure C.J. won’t use the name she famed for something else. By then, it’s already too late to dissociate her company with C.J. Walker, and change its name to “Sarah Breedlove Beauty Culture”.
Another mistake that almost came to ruin her brand is the fact that it was, well, unoriginal. In the series, she made her Hair Grower by mixing ingredients and comparing them to Addie Munroe’s product. Her finished product was essentially like Addie’s, just without the bad smell. Years later, Addie threatened her with a copyright lawsuit for her product. If Addie had pushed through, Madam’s brand would have been tainted forever.
When building a business, it’s important that people know it’s yours through and through. Secure your brand name and your product copyrights or patents. Owning a growing business, you should invest in a legal advisor to help with these things. If you have the cash for it, insure your business properties – company car, commercial real estate, and other inventory.
There is no rulebook to creating a multi-million dollar business. But you can always learn lessons from those who did before you. Madam C.J. Walker is a great inspiration to, not just entrepreneurs, but anyone who has a dream. She rose from the bottom, overcame abuse, racism, and betrayals to be where she is. If she can do it, whoever says you can’t?
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