Monday, February 25, 2019

The Only Direct Sales Success Story I'll Ever Post

In 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  Four years later, Sarah Breedlove was born on a cotton plantation in Louisiana.  She was the sixth child in her family, but she was special because she was the first one to be born free.  That didn't afford her as many opportunities as you might think; her parents died (probably from cholera) when she was 7, and she went to live with one of her sisters, working as a domestic servant.  She received only three months of formal education, in the form of Sunday school literacy lessons.

I first learned about Sarah Breedlove from a plaque at the National Auto Museum in Reno.  You might be puzzled as to how she ended up there, or why.  I'll get to that in a moment.

Sarah Breedlove married at 14, had a child at 18, and was widowed at 20.  Being a single black woman with a two-year-old put her in... not such a great position.  She worked as a laundress, earning somewhere between $1 and $1.50 a day, and scraping by in order to ensure her daughter got a proper education.  Meanwhile, she joined the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she sang in the choir; through the church, she made contact with various community leaders and members of the National Association of Colored Women, where she herself was able to continue her own education.

 You go, girl!
Also this phrase has its own interesting history, here.
But this post isn't about that.  
Let's get back to Sarah...

You probably think this is where her story turns around, but you're wrong.  At the age of 35, she was still working as a laundress and cook, barely scraping by; she was widowed a second time, and, thanks to the stress she was putting on her body, began losing her hair.

This actually wasn't uncommon for Black women of the time.  Products to make naturally thick, kinky hair soft and luxurious usually contained sulfur and lye.  Combine the harsh products with a lack of access to warm, clean water for bathing and cramped working spaces filled with bacteria and lice, and you end up with dandruff and hair loss.

 This is not the first or the last time you will see this meme on my blog.

In an interview with the New York Times, she described staring down at her hands in the washboard and realizing her situation was unsustainable.  ("I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’")

In desperate need of money and searching for a solution to her hair loss, Sarah discovered Annie Turnbo’s "Great Wonderful Hair Grower" at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.  She not only began using the product, but joined Turnbo's team of direct sales agents.  Turnbo herself was a Black woman and her team was mostly Black women; Turno had a background in chemistry.  Sarah had two older brothers who were barbers and had an interest in the perming and straightening technology of the time, most of which was extremely damaging to Black women's hair.

Sarah moved to Denver in 1905, seeing a business opportunity: the dry air in the Rockies was notoriously awful for hair and she could sell more products there.  Or, alternatively... create her own.

This is the look of a woman who isn't fucking around.

Investing $1.25 into her own formula, Sarah Breedlove married a third time, changing her name to Madam C.J. Walker.  (C.J. Walker, her third husband, was an ad man she'd met in St. Louis.)  Her formula contained sulphur and petroleum jelly, a mixture that had been around for ages; sulfur has natural antibiotic and antiviral properties, and keratin (the stuff your hair is made of) is extremely high in sulfur.  Sulfur powder for hair growth is sold even today; the petroleum jelly acted as a pomade and moisturizer.

Armed with business experience from her Turnbo sales career, and backed by a husband who knew a thing or two about marketing, Madam Walker's business exploded.  

Awkwardly similar name to Turnbo's "Great Wonderful Hair Grower" but okay.

By 1908 her door-to-door and mail-order business was doing well enough for her to open a brick-and-mortar hair parlor and establish Leila College in Pittsburgh, where she trained other women.  Calling herself a "beauty culturalist," Madam Walker developed what she called "The Walker System" for promoting thick, healthy hair.  She expanded her product line to include pomades and hot combs for straightening.  (Hot combs were not, contrary to popular belief, invented by Walker; she did, however, improve the design, creating a hot comb with wider teeth that was more effective than other iron combs of the time.)

Wait a goddamn minute.
Why wasn't she featured in my dandruff-and-toothpaste article?!

In 1910 she incorporated her business, and invested $10,000 of her own money, making herself the sole shareholder of the new Walker Manufacturing Company, headquartered in Indianapolis.  It included a factory, a beauty school, and several salons.  Her marriage fell apart, but not her business; she was unstoppable, hyper-aware of brand awareness, her face on every one of her products, and her team of direct sales agents (numbering anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 women) wearing recognizable Madam Walker uniforms: a starched white shirt, a respectable black skirt, and a black satchel filled with hair care products.

The only direct sales team I will ever support.
Side note to everyone: don't join MLMs.

In 1917, Walker began organizing her sales agents into state and local clubs. The result was the establishment of the National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents (predecessor to the Madam C. J. Walker Beauty Culturists Union of America).  In the same way, she organized the National Negro Cosmetics Manufacturers Association in 1917. "I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself," Walker said in 1914. "I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race."

 Here's our homegirl smashing the patriarchy.
She is likely the richest person in this picture, 
and you just know at least a few of those guys are FURIOUS about it.

She didn't merely talk the talk; she walked the walk.  (She didn't call herself Walker for nothin'.) (When she dumped her third husband, she kept the name, since that was what was on all of her products; she considered it "her" name as she had been the one to make it famous with her business.)

As an activist and philanthropist, she donated $1,000 to establish a YMCA in Indianapolis as well as to the Tuskagee Institute's scholarship program, personally covering the tuition of six students here. She was a member of the executive committee for the NAACP's New York Chapter and marched in the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, donating $5,000 in 1919 to the anti-lynching fund.  (That's about $73,574.14, nowadays.)

She got a 32-cent stamp.  Lol.

On the subject of social justice and activism, she said, "This is the greatest country under the sun.  But we must not let our love of country, our patriotic loyalty cause us to abate one whit in our protest against wrong and injustice. We should protest until the American sense of justice is so aroused that such affairs as the East St. Louis riot be forever impossible."

Walker’s sales exceeded $500,000 in the final year of her life and she owned properties in Harlem, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. Sher personally bequeathed nearly $100,000 to orphanages, churches, and educational institutions; her will directed two-thirds of future net profits of her estate to charity.  Her main home was the famous Villa Lewaro, a 34-room mansion in New York which is today a protected historical landmark.

I could write a whole post about Villa Lewaro because it is DOPE.
Google some pictures; you will not be disappointed.
It's an architectural masterpiece.

Often dubbed the "first female self-made millionaire," Walker's personal estate was worth about $600,000 at the time of her death in 1919.  Adjusted for inflation, that's worth about $8.8 million nowadays.  Walker was the wealthiest self-made woman in America at the time, and is to date considered one of the most successful women of color in America.  

"There is no royal flower-strewn path to success,” she said of her empire. "And if there is, I have not found it, for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard."

Her rags-to-riches story is the most American dream story I can think of... and I learned about it in an auto museum. 

Here's the plaque!
Apparently, Madam Walker really liked driving around Harlem.  I like to imagine her waving stacks of bills at shocked white men, cackling and shaking out her head of luxurious hair. 

This is why we need Black History Month.  For people like Madam C.J. Walker, who teach and inspire us, who leave remarkable legacies that would fade from our history if we did not repeat them.  And they are worth repeating, because people like Madam Walker did what we should all strive for: she built herself up and then used her power to build up others.  She grew more than simply hair; she grew her community, and demonstrated a grace and dignity that all of us should try ourselves to emulate.

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