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Illustration by Marta Signori

What We Can Learn From America’s First Female Self-Made Millionaire

Now that we’re all mostly confined to our homes and Netflix is likely seeing more traffic than ever before, a name may have caught your eye as you scroll through the countless streaming shows and movies. Madam CJ Walker is the subject of a new Netflix series launching today called Self Made. As American’s first female self-made millionaire, Walker’s intelligence and conviction inspires us to tap into our own inner sage and make dreams a reality.

The word sage describes someone who has become wise through reflection and experience. If you give someone “sage advice,” you’re imparting insights gained through your own observations and personal experiences. Because experience comes with the passage of time, we sometimes assume that only an older woman can be a true Sage. But the Sage is not confined by chronological age, as even the young can be wise.

Below is a brief profile about this incredible woman as well as some guided questions and exercises to help you draw out the sage from within. For more trailblazing women and useful exercises, I hope that you check out my new book FOUR FACES OF FEMINININITY.

Illustrations by Marta Signori

“Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them!” – Madam C.J. Walker

For a woman who got famous by helping others feel beautiful, Madam C. J. Walker’s story is less glamorous than you might expect. But although she faced early struggles, this wise inventor and businesswoman was never ashamed of her humble roots. Addressing a business convention, she said: “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.”

It’s no exaggeration to say Madam Walker created a business empire from less than nothing. But it didn’t happen overnight; it took a winding path to earn her celebrated title of America’s first female self-made millionaire. Before she was Madam Walker, Sarah Breedlove was born the youngest of six children to Louisiana sharecroppers, the only one in her family born into freedom after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. By the age of seven, she’d lost both parents. By twenty, she’d gotten married, given birth to a beautiful daughter, and become a widow. With nothing left to lose, Sarah packed her bags and headed north with her daughter to St. Louis, where she spent many years working as a laundress.

When her hair began to fall out due to scalp conditions common to African American women of her time, she drew on her grounded, inner Sage. A logical woman by nature, she explored all her options, including a variety of home remedies. She even worked as a saleswoman for a hair-growth-serum company to continue her research. As it turned out, her breakthrough didn’t come from a bottle or beauty shop but, as she related the story, was delivered to her in a dream. When she woke up, she trusted her inner instincts and ordered the products she’d dreamed about. She crafted her own formula, tried it out, and before long her hair was growing faster than ever. She’d found her calling.

Soon after, she moved to Denver, where she met and married journalist Charles Joseph Walker. She took his name, also lending it to her product line. Dubbed “The Walker System,” it included shampoo, pomade, and a hot comb. To promote these products and showcase the sleek, shiny hair they created, Madam Walker did door-to-door sales and demonstrations. The Walker System was soon in high demand.

In the following years, Madam Walker split with her husband but kept his moniker, as the business was thriving. The company had factories, salons, and training sites all over the East Coast and continued to grow at an amazing rate.

It was during these years that Madam Walker began enjoying the benefits of her empire, driving luxurious cars and moving into a beautiful home outside Manhattan. Although she’d become dazzlingly wealthy, she always sought to spread her good fortune around. Even at the height of her success, Madam Walker remembered where she came from, donating time and resources to causes close to her heart and encouraging her legions of employees to do the same. She gave generously to up-and-coming musicians; donated to establish a black YMCA in Indianapolis, where her company was headquartered for many years; and funded anti-lynching efforts.

In just a few years, Madam Walker shattered the standards of what was possible for a black woman in America. This savvy inventor faced more obstacles than most and conquered them all with intelligence and conviction.

Here are some guiding questions and exercises that will help you understand and access the Sage within you:

  1. Who is the wisest person you know? We tend to associate wisdom with old age, and it’s true that people who have lived long, full lives are often insightful and observant, but sometimes younger people can be just as astute. Think of someone in your own life who is truly wise and explain how that wisdom manifests.
  2. Do you trust your intuition? Listen to your gut? If you get a bad feeling about a person or situation, do you allow yourself to bail? If you’re truly excited about a project or endeavor, do you dive in? Why or why not? How could you allow yourself to cultivate that trust even more?
  3. What aspects of your spirituality guide your life? If you don’t consider yourself a spiritual person, do you believe in concepts like luck, fate, or karma? How do these influence you and coexist with your rational side?
  4. Think about a time when you felt disconnected from your intuitive, spiritual, wise self. What happened that made you feel as you did? If you could hop in a time machine and advise your past self in that moment, what would you say?

Exercise:

Wisdom is different than intelligence. You can gather intelligence through study, but wisdom comes from time and experience, too. Write about something you know now that you didn’t know last year. And I don’t mean, “I learned how to poach an egg.” Pick something deeply personal, something universal, or both—something that speaks, “wisdom.” Then pick something you know now that you didn’t know five, ten, or fifteen years ago. If you enjoy this journey of discovery, consider interviewing women in your life and asking them to share the most valuable wisdom they’ve acquired over the years.

Exercise:

Tap your intuition by focusing on your inner life. Sit quietly with a pen and paper and meditate on these questions:

  1. What do I need right now?
  2. What should I let go of right now?

Don’t think too hard before you begin writing; just list anything that floats into your mind. Put your list or essay aside for five to seven days and then read it. What rings true? What was driven by something in the moment that distracted you? Use another aspect of your Sage self—wisdom—to sort truth from invention. Then, make a plan to add or subtract elements from your life, as your intuition advised you to do.


Excerpt from Four Faces of Femininity by Barbara McNally. © 2020 by Barbara McNally. She Writes Press, a division of SparkPoint Studio, LLC.

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