Sarah Breedlove should be as known a name in your household as Oprah or Bill Gates. Not only was she a talented business woman herself who built an empire, she was also incredibly philanthropic and used her wealth to enrich the lives of thousands of other women of color.
Sarah did not “start out on third base” as the saying goes. She had a difficult start at life and a number of challenges that could have derailed her entrepreneurial spirit and love of others. Sarah was the child of former slaves, orphaned at six, married at 14, and widowed by 20. A single mom with almost no savings, she worked as a laundress while enrolled in night school.
From her own challenges blossomed the idea for her future business. Sarah struggled with a scalp condition that caused hair loss. She began perfecting homemade recipes for lotions, brushes, and other hair products. From there, she began to travel the country demonstrating her products. She began to brand them as the Walker Method, named after her second husband whose name she took as Madame CJ Walker. Over the years, her business would be worth millions and many would later refer to her as the first American women to be a self-made millionaire.
What made Sarah’s success so notable was that she was the first black-owned business that created products for women like herself. She also employed and empowered thousands of saleswomen around the country to sell her products in their communities that were predominantly black and provided a meaningful income for these women and their families. She was so focused on empowering women like herself, that her company’s charter stipulated that its president must be a woman.
Her daughter also got involved in the business and between the two of them over the years, the women were heavily involved in the Harlem Renaissance and gave extensively to support black men and women. She endowed scholarships, founded homes for the elderly, and community organizations like the YMCA and NAACP. Sarah also advocated for the rights and wellbeing of others. She traveled to meet with President Wilson to demand that lynching be made a federal crime. When she passed, she left a third of her estate to her daughter, and the other two thirds were distributed to charities she loved.
Recently, a miniseries about Sarah’s life was made on Netflix, and to learn more, you can read about her on History or Biography. Keep in mind that it is incredibly important to share the stories of successful women as well as those of individuals of color. Role models from diverse backgrounds help break preconceived notions of success and implicit bias for both children and adults. One does not need to come from an established family, or a certain geography, or be a certain race, gender, ethnicity, age, or religion to be successful and talented. Sarah Breedlove is a beautiful example of this.
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