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Business History

Abstract

It is difficult to underestimate Madam C.J. Walker’s contribution into business development in the United States. Walker has changed the historical vision of female business, and has ultimately become the first Afro-American woman millionaire in the U.S.

Introduction

Sarah touched as many as she could, distributing handshakes and hope with equal measure as she walked through the crowd. ‘That’s right’, she said, her voice pitched to rise above the din. ‘I started out just like you. My sister and I were here without a thing to call our own, in a shack not far from where we’re standing now. The Lord showed me a way through hard work and faith, and he can show you, too. (Stille, 2007)

Sarah Breedlove (also known as Madam C.J. Walker) has not simply achieved excellence in business. She has not simply become a successful business woman. Madam C.J. Walker has changed the American vision of female business. This case study will focus on Madam C.J. Walker’s contribution into the development of business in the United States. Walker’s achievements suggest that she has caused a real revolution in female business, having opened new business opportunities, and having ultimately become the first Afro-American woman millionaire.

Background

Sarah Breedlove (Madam C.J. Walker) was born on December 23, 1867 in Louisiana. She was the first child in the family to be born free from slavery. In 1874, Sarah lost her parents, and at the age of 20 a tragic accident killed her husband, leaving Sarah with a small daughter and without any means to support her living (Robinson, 2003). Sarah moved to St. Louis to work as a washerwoman. That was the time when she already displayed extreme diligence and pride, which later accompanied her in business. Despite her poverty, she made everything possible to help other community members in need. She was an organizer and an active participant of the community missions, which helped needy families with money and food (Stille, 2007).

Madam C.J. Walker’s pathway in business started when the woman faced hair problems due to poor and misbalanced diet. Her hair was brittle and was falling out faster than she could imagine. Sarah has created a miraculous mixture which brought her hair to life, and gave her an idea that she could help other Afro American women keep their hair healthy. “That was the beginning of Madam C.J. Walker’s beauty empire” (Robinson, 2003).

In the difficult social and even discriminative position of black women in the then society, Sarah needed to make a real revolution to realize her business ideas, and to achieve business success. In 1905 Sarah arrived to Denver to work as a cook. She had only $1.50 in savings. “She saved her money and before long she was able to quit that job and, taking in laundry two days a week to pay her rent, spend the rest of her time mixing her products and selling them door to door” (National Park Service, 2000).

Madam C.J. Walker: developing a new strategy in business

Speaking about Walker’s role in the history of the U.S. business, we should not neglect the importance of her strategic business thinking, which she utilized to the fullest. Without thorough economic analysis, Walker would hardly be able to reach business and financial highs. Walker’s contribution and merits are even more important to the American history, taking into account that Sarah was black and did not have any special economic education. In many instances, she has become the realization of the “American Dream”. In fact, Madam C.J. Walker can be considered the founder of the new type of cosmetic business strategy, which modern cosmetic giants use to attract and retain customers.

As the sales were growing, Madam had to think of the way to expand her business and to reach the hearts and the minds of those whom she could not reach walking from door to door. Advertising had to become the integral element of her business success, and all possible advertising means. Madam C.J. Walker has shown American businessmen that a black woman could have prudent business thinking and thorough analytical skills. Since that time, Colorado Statesmen has become the advertising solution for Madam C.J. Walker. Together with her new husband, she was developing marketing plans and advertising campaigns.

Moreover, Madam C.J. Walker has invested significant resources in organizing mail order business for her wonderful products (Lagace, 2007). That was a new small revolution in business, as mail order approach provided unlimited opportunities for expanding business nationwide and even internationally. The organization of mail order business has caused a two-fold effect on business visions of the American citizens. First, they have finally seen that women (especially black women) were capable of doing business and could successfully exercise their business thinking. Second, since that time women have been conquering the market in a new role of female consumers – the role which had been unavailable and unfamiliar to them before Madam C.J. Walker came into business.

As recently as the 1860s, it was not acceptable in all cities for women to shop by themselves, to be out on the streets actively spending money. So this is one important aspect of sea change. (Lagace, 2007)

Evidently, Madam C.J. Walker was familiar with the then customer cuisine, in which women did not hold any financial rights and could not realize themselves as consumers. By creating mail order business and walking from door to door, Walker avoided social conflicts, did not bring the female customers to the public, but gave them enough space and freedom to choose from the list of products she offered. This is how Walker has become the driver of female consumer evolution in the 19th century America.

“We should not think of the beauty industry as some kind of conspiratorial development that was imposed by manipulative entrepreneurs trying to make women feel a certain way” (Lagace, 2007). Walker has caused a major social transformation in the way the public took female consumers. She was looking far into the future and was predictive of the coming social revolution, when women would take leading positions in all business spheres. This is why she was doing everything she could to make that social revolution closer, more realistic, and more beneficial to women. It seemed that Walker was giving her female consumers enough strength to realize their consumer ambitions without being afraid of social condemnation.

Madam C.J. Walker: social values as a part of business identity

I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground. (David, 2008).

The ground, on which Madam C.J. Walker was creating her factory, her preparations, and her business philosophy included fairness to all customers and employees; fair and open relations with church; and philanthropy. Walker was aware of the values on which the African American community rested. She also understood that she had to embrace those values in her business campaign, to attract more consumers, and to align her business strategy with other social benefits. Walker will be forever remembered for having turned her business into a social and political campaign (Lagace, 2007).

Her business was changing the societal attitudes towards women consumers and women businessmen. Walker was promoting her products without breaking close ties with the church, which was one of the basic pillars of the then black society. “Walker associated comfortably with churchgoing folk, and while maintaining her punishing schedule of business travel by train, she was invited to stay in the homes of local black leaders, such as doctors and ministers, who were steeped to their church communities” (Lagace, 2007). Walker’s approach to business has become the basis and the example of the way contemporary businessmen view their strategies.

Walker’s social policies were a part of her product and company identity. She initially performed according to the principles of community support. She understood that without giving back to her community her business would not last long: that very community was the source of her business ideas and was the source of the new customers who wanted to purchase her hair care products.

“Madame C.J. Walker did not indulge into a fanciful lifestyle; she did not make money at the cost of integrity” (David, 2008). Integrity has become the determining feature of Walker’s business. In current economic conditions, this integrity determines the success of a business. In addition, Walker has come to understanding broader social and political issues. Those issues impacted her business, her customers, and her social and business vision.

The book written by Walker’s daughter A’Leila, calls Madam C.J. Walker “an innovator and visionary […] who understood the power of the press and actively cultivated relationships with black newspaper reporters” (Madam C.J. Walker, 2008). Those relations with press were used to advertise Walker’s products, to discuss political agenda, and to shed the light onto Walker’s daily activities. Madam was promoting the principles of female openness with public. It was shocking and contradictory, but the public could not reject a woman who took stable financial and social position in the society.

As Walker was becoming more mature in business, she wanted to direct her resources at resolving other social issues. She was lending her voice on decolonization of Africa, fair treatment of black soldiers, and southern black oppression (Lagace, 2007). The list of her social achievements includes significant financial contributions into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; donations to retirement homes in Indianapolis and St. Louis; financial support of Bethune-Cookman College; employment to more than 3,000 people; opening a Pittsburgh college of hair culturists in 1908 (David, 2008).

By the time Madam C.J. Walker was approaching her death, she had already trained 40 thousand of the American sales women. Her hair care empire has become the prototype of the contemporary cosmetic giants similar to Avon or Mary Kay. Not only has Walker created an image of a female customer; she has provided women with opportunities to earn money without being tied to one workplace. That has caused a real revolution in the 19th century employment structure.

Madam C.J. Walker was earning more than any white man at that time could earn. Her female employees were given stable financial basis to become more socially independent. Her whole life has become an example for many black and white women who used Walker’s products. By 1919, Walker’s products were sold across the United States, the Caribbean, and the Central America (Stille, 2007). However, that revolutionary business expansion was just the basis for creating additional social benefits for those who surrounded Walker, but could not cross a poverty line.

Conclusion

Madam C.J. Walker is known for having become the first African American woman millionaire. Her social contributions are extremely important for the whole history of business in the United States. First, Walker has completely changed the American vision of female business and female consumers. As women were not even allowed to shop independently, Walker has developed door-to-door and mail order strategies for delivering her products to women. Second, Madam C.J. Walker has helped 40,000 women master the skills of sales agents. She worked for the benefit of her community, which responded with better sales and supported Walker’s social strategies.

Third, Walker was the first to align her business goals with the social values, on which her society rested. In many aspects Walker represents an early example of contemporary businesses which align goals with social values, change social opinions and attitudes, learn from people, and teach them to earn money. In the history of business, Madam C.J. Walker was the first to initiate active involvement of women into business. In our realities, business women are not unusual, but they have caused real social revolution at the beginning of the 20th century. Undoubtedly, Madam C.J. Walker remains the icon of style and strategic thinking, who has been able to make community an integral element of her business identity.

References

David, M.D. (2008). An example for us all: Madam C.J. Walker. Retrieved April 28, 2008

from http://www.truthinskincare.com/2008/02/example-for-us-all-Madamee-cj-walker.html

Lagace, M. (2007). HBS Cases: Beauty entrepreneur Madam Walker. Harvard Business

School. Retrieved April 28, 2008 from http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5662.html

Madam C.J. Walker. (2008). Entrepreneur, philanthropist, social activist. Retrieved April

28, 2008 from http://www.Madamecjwalker.com/

National Park Service. (2000). Two American entrepreneurs: Madam C.J. Walker and J.C.

Penney. Retrieved April 28, 2008 from http://www.nps.gov/history/nr/twhp/wwwlps/lessons/walker/Walker.htm

Robinson, J. (2003). Walker, Madam C.J. Retrieved April 28, 2008 from

http://www.learningtogive.org/papers/index.asp?bpid=132

Stille, D. (2007). Madam C.J. Walker: Entrepreneur and millionaire.

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