Madam Walker was a master marketer. But her brilliance was in taking it to another level by training women, by traveling, by making very motivational speeches and by providing independent income for women who otherwise would have to be maids and sharecroppers.
She was born Sarah Breedlove on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, where her parents had been slaves. At 14, she married to get a home of her own, to get away from a cruel brother-in-law with whom she was living. At 17, she had her only child, A'Lelia, who I'm named after.
Madam C.J. Walker was born in 1867, two years after the civil war ended. She was a daughter of a slave. She had no formal education. Both her parents died by the time she was seven. Yet, by the time she died in 1919 at age 51, she was one of the most successful businesswomen America had ever seen.
From the beginning, Madam C. J. Walker's message was as much about hair and beauty as it was about empowering other women. She knew that confidence and self-assurance are key ingredients to success, and that true beauty comes from within.
For some people, success is a zero sum game. They think that if they push other people out of the way, fewer people can compete with them. That's one way of seeing the world. It's dog eat dog. It's, sadly, always going to be there.
Both my parents worked at the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, with my dad eventually being hired by another company called Summit Laboratories that made chemical hair straighteners.
I began to discover that, in addition to her stunning achievements, there were flaws as there would be in any person's life. I wanted to tell Madam's story in an honest, frank way.
Madam Walker was a woman who transformed herself in a very American, rags-to-riches way.
There is a core of people who know and love Madam C.J. Walker, but there's a much larger audience who don't really know about her. I think 'Self Made' will give people a window into her life.
I wrote my first report about Madam Walker when I was a senior in high school in 1970.