Entrepreneurship lies at the heart of the American Dream. It speaks to one’s independence and drive to better one’s life. Few achieve such a lofty goal, especially those who come from marginalized groups of people. This is partly what makes Madam C. J. Walker’s story such an inspiration to me. She was considered America’s wealthiest self-made woman during her lifetime, and she serves as a model for other aspiring entrepreneurs with her quote, “I got my start by giving myself a start.”
To say Madam Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, started from humble beginning would be a gross understatement. She was born in 1867 to former slaves and was the first of her parents’ children to be born free. Orphaned at a young age, she received very little formal schooling and endured the hostile racism of the Deep South at the turn of the 20th century. Despite being given little opportunity to begin with, she took on what work she could, be that domestic servitude or working in cotton fields, so she could take care of herself and her daughter.
Her namesake company was founded in 1906. Walker herself had suffered with scalp ailments due to standard hair care products being too harsh. Seeing as many other African-American women suffered the same maladies as her, she began to develop her own line of hair care products. She started small, going door-to-door to sell her products. Within a few years, she had built a factory in Indianapolis, travelled the Western hemisphere.
Even at the height of success, Walker strove to help her community through philanthropy and social activism. She made contributions to establish a YMCA in Indianapolis and to fund scholarships to the Tuskegee Institute. When she moved to New York, she became more active politics, particularly supporting the NAACP’s anti-lynching movement. She encouraged her fellow businesswomen to be politically active, stating, “This is the greatest country under the sun. But we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice.”
While society is far more welcoming to female entrepreneurs now than it was one hundred years ago, I am still worried to be met with adversity when I enter the workforce with my dream to open my own pharmacy. I want to provide a valuable service to my community, and having admirable women such as Madam C. J. Walker to look up to gives me confidence in my ability to achieve whatever I aspire to do so long as I put in the hard work.