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Mommy Warbucks

Rad Women Of History: One Of The First Female Entrepreneurs Was Born To Slaves

Rad Women Of History is a series devoted to making sure your kids know that their mom wasn’t the first female badass, no matter what history books tell them. 

While it’s understandable if your kid thinks that Kim Kardashian is the first woman to earn millions through her own “talents,” it’s also sort of unforgivable — not when Sarah Breedlove Walker (1867-1919) has been largely ignored by history books for a century.

Widely (but not quite accurately) believed to be the first female self-made millionaire in the U.S., Breedlove Walker lived the kind of turn-of-the-century, up-from-her-bootstraps life of which American Dreams are made. She was the daughter of former slaves, orphaned by age 7, widowed at 20, and appeared destined for a life as a laundress — and if you think doing laundry sucks now, image doing it for a living in the late 1800s.

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Breedlove Walker’s nascent entrepreneurialism was inspired by dandruff. Seriously. Like many African American women of the day, she suffered from gnarly scalp conditions, due to the harsh ingredients used in hair products of the day. Unlike most of those women, Breedlove Walker’s brothers were barbers, which helped her get a job selling women’s haircare products for Annie Turnbo Malone in 1904. To be fair, it was Turnbo Malone who first had the idea of a haircare line formulated for, and sold to, African American women. So what did Breedlove Walker have that Turnbo Malone didn’t? Marketing genius and flat-out chutzpah.

She changed her name and built the Madame CJ Walker Manufacturing Company going door-to-door throughout the south selling hair products of her own formulation and teaching her customers how to use them. As the business took off, she invested in a comprehensive training program for her sales people; by 1910, in the company’s new home city of Indianapolis, she’d built a full-blown beauty “college,” her own factory, and an R&D facility. By the time of her death, Breedlove Walker wasn’t selling hair products; she sold “The Walker System,” which she aggressively advertised in African American newspapers and promoted through personal appearances around the country.

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The only thing more legendary than Breedlove Walker’s business acumen was her philanthropy. She helped build an YMCA for Indy’s black community; she funded scholarships at the Tuskegee Institute; she built schools in Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia. She was on the executive committee of the NAACP and, before her death in 1919, made the single largest contribution the association had ever received to fund its anti-lynching initiatives.

From Oprah to JK Rowling, there are no shortage of women these days who might inspire your own kid’s entrepreneurial instincts. Still, before they set up their lemonade stand, make sure they know they’re joining a tradition that goes back to 1904, when an ambitious black woman became fed up with her dandruff.