I don’t know about you but I have been waiting for the movie about Sarah Breedlove, aka Madam C.J. Walker for far too long.
I have patiently consumed the stories of great industrialists like John D Rockefeller and the Men who built America and have read the amazing books that tell of how Nike, Airbnb, Zappos.com, Walmart, Alibaba to name a few were started and built. While they are fantastic, inspiring and insightful stories, there was always something missing.
I learn a lot from all those stories and it’s essential but not once in any of those stories did I read that an entrepreneur tried to pitch an investor for funding and had to pull out a gun on him to avoid being raped. There are unique experiences that only a woman in business can tell. As a woman in business with my own personal doubts and fears and sometimes boldness, Madam C.J. Walker’s story was very relatable.
There are many angles I could have taken in reviewing her story, but so I don’t end up writing a thesis, I have decided to highlight a few things aspiring female entrepreneurs can learn from her story.
There is no guarantee you won’t get knocked down, what you do with setbacks is the most important thing and will determine what you walk away with. Never let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do, take every limit off. No one has a monopoly on any business idea.
See the 10 major excuses that young female entrepreneurs make and how Madam C.J. Walker blew them out of the park.
I don't have a business ideas/Someone else is doing that idea.
The first time we are introduced to the miracle hair grower product, we see that Madam C.J. Walker was just selling it. She had used the product for 2 years straight and was proof that the product worked but it was only after 2 years she spoke up about officially selling on behalf of the manufacturer, even though she had refereed customers in the past, she remained a washerwoman barely making ends meet.
She did not sit down and waste precious time brainstorming possible business ideas, the idea was always before her, she just had to open her eyes. The truth is we will have very few Nicola Tesla’s in the world, the chances of you coming up with a novel, never been seen before, ideas like Philo Farnsworth the 15-year-old inventor of the television is slim and that is not a bad thing. Rockefeller did not invent or discover oil, he just refined it ( he wasn’t the first person to refine oil either).
She could have said I can’t do the business because XYZ is doing it, let me go into another industry or type of product. She decided to improve upon Addie’s product, manufacture and sell it. The truth is it’s just business. I’m not one of those who believe that anyone industry is too saturated to play in or that because someone is doing that business, I can’t do it too. The market is big enough and as long as you improve upon an existing idea/product and make it better, the market is better for it.
Have you taken a look at how many bread manufacturers we have or how many bakeries, car manufacturers we have? The market is always big enough for whoever is ready to take a big enough slice. In the time of Madam C.J. Walker, there were about 3 million Negro women in America not to talk of the rest of the world. No one was catering for that market in any significant way, not even Addie Monroe (Her first and major competitor at the time)
I don't know how to start
Many times we stall starting cos deep down we are scared and instead of dealing with the most important thing head-on we major on the minors and waste valuable time. The most important thing at the start was the hair grower product, not branding, PR, legal, sales, marketing, renting office space, getting government approval things, hiring staff and a billion other things that can come up when starting a new venture. Madam C.J. Walker simply entered her kitchen and began experimenting. She started experimenting with the idea to not just copy what was already available but to improve upon it. The smell was a major issue with Addie’s hair grower and so she kept that at the back of her mind while testing and experimenting. She made use of her daughter’s hair and people she knew while she was perfecting the product.
I don't have money to start
Madam C.J. Walker was a washer woman who barely earned enough and she had a daughter to take care off as well. If she waited to have everything we needed to start, she would have never started. The truth is when God gives you an idea, you have everything you need to start, you just have to be creative and take a good inventory of the things, resources and people you have around you. She did not have branded bottles of her products when she started, just nameless bottles and customers paid for it nonetheless.
I have a day time job
Truth is we make time for what is important to us, we find a way. Even though Madam C.J. Walker washed clothes for a living, once she started on the hair product manufacturing path, she gave it 110%. If you have to come back from work at 8pm, sleep at 9pm, wake up at 3am everyday to get work done early on your passion you will make it happen.
No one will invest in my business/I dont know anyone
Absolutely no one has money lying on the floor waiting for you to pick it up. There is no free money anywhere. Even grants aren’t free money. You have to do something to get money, even free money.
There was a level of growth Madam C.J. Walker wanted to achieve that required money she didn’t have. Even if she mortgaged her home again, she still needed investors. She was turned down when she approached investors; she even found a way to pitch to the most influential black business man at the time (an influencer) and he ridiculed her and turned her down as well. She even tried fraternizing with the wifes of the business men’s association, she did their hair for free and shared her vision with them.During one of her pitch rounds, she almost got raped by a potential investor. She did not sit down sulking and she never let a ‘No’ keep her down. She knew what she wanted and was bold enough to ask for it. In the end investments came from the most unlikely places including a donation from the wives she had made free hair for and shared her vision. She was orphaned at the age of 7 and went on to live with her elder sister; she quickly went on to become a domestic worker. If she can come out of all of that, so can you.
I've tried selling, no one is buying.
First there are many many reasons that could be the case. I’m not of the school of thought that if you build it they will come. If you build it, you have to sell it. According to Madam CJ, “you don’t just plant a seed and expect fruit the next day” As long as your product is good and in the case of CJ Walker she knew she had a proven hair product that worked, so she did 2 things once she had relocated to new city with her family she left the comfort of her shop and when to where her customers were (the market) and she changed her strategy of selling by sharing her WHY. Her WHY resonated with people and her products started flying off the shelf figuratively. She stopped selling her product and started selling wonderful opportunities and confidence.
I don't have a business partner
Life is already complicated and we honestly do not need to complicate it any further. She owned the company fully legally and received help from her husband and some family and friends. They were all on her payroll and for the most part there was no issue with that arrangement. Just start, those who God sends to you will come to you in time.
I did not go to school/finish school or study in school the business I’m about to start
Madam C.J Walker did not go to school either and it is reported that she only had 3 months worth of formal education. what she lacked in formal education she made up for in boldness. Though she did not go to school, she did not stop seeking knowledge. A few times we heard her quote Rockefeller and she was credited with using the Toyota assembly line system on her factory floor. There was scene of her reading a book called ‘the negro in business’. In this information/google age, there is no excuse for ignorance.
Madam C.J. Walker in front of her School
How do you go from not going to school to building a school of your own? truly there is no disadvantage in your background. you can achieve anything you set your mind to no matter your background.
The Idea is not a big one
The vision always gets better in the doing. there was a phase where her vision was making black women feel beautiful, later on as she got deeper into the business, t became much more than that, it became about financially empowering black women and the upliftment of the entire black race. From humble beginnings of just making her products she developed a new industry and employed thousands of people “her own small army”.
Madam C.J. Walker and her own small army (sales agents and staff) at her first national convention held in her home on 1917
I have husband and children commitments
No family is perfect and no marriage is perfect and if you sacrifice your dreams purely because of family, you will only be left with regret at the end of the road. We have all been placed on the earth to fulfill God’s agenda and for women his agenda doesn’t end in the kitchen. For the sake of generations coming behind, we need to show that this isn’t just a man’s world, it belongs to all of us. It won’t be easy but if you make up your mind that you wont use family as a crutch, it won’t stop you. Madam C.J. Walker obviously had to make that decision early on in her life. And unfortunately when her marriage fell apart and she eventually went to rest at the young age of 51, she literally left an empire to her only daughter. Ironically it is her great great grandchildren who are still keeping her legacy alive.
I could write a whole thesis about what I loved about her character, from her courage, boldness, no nonsense/no sentiment, rags to riches to influence/power story. I could write about how she dealt with competition and her work/life balance.
Her story shows you do not have to have it all figured out, you might not even make all the right decisions too but in the end all things work together for good..
I am sure there are many more hidden stories of amazing women like Madam C.J. Walker buried in history, I hope that with the success of this Netflix series, many more will be encouraged to bring other similar stories to life and to the big screen as well.
Madam C.J. Walker was self made because against all odds she believed she could and she did, not because she wasn’t helped along the way. To husbands that help their wives shine, I salute you, to men/employees like Ransom who faithfully held up his bosses hands at a time when black women didn’t really have a say, I salute you.
There is no guarantee you won’t get knocked down, what you do with setbacks is the most important thing and will determine what you walk away with in life. Never let anyone tell you what you can and cannot do, Take every limit off. No one has a monopoly to any business idea.
We are all children of God (Men and Women wonderfully and beautifully made) and we are all meant to shine.
Thanks for reading & remember to live your best life intentionally everyday.