4 Personal Finance Lessons I Learned From Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker, Wikimedia Commons
Madam C.J. Walker was America’s wealthiest self-made woman at the time of her death in May 1919. While she never achieved millionaire status, she overcame great odds to become one of the most astonishing entrepreneurs of the 20th century.
While other famous businesspeople of her era (such as Andrew Carnegie and the Vanderbilt family) gained wealth through special government contracts and a variety of advantages, Walker truly built her wealth from nothing. She was born Sarah Breedlove, the first freeborn daughter of slaves. By the time she was age 7, she had lost both of her parents and began working in cotton fields. She married at age 14 as a way to escape an abusive brother-in-law and later became a laundress.
Many people looked down on domestic workers like Walker, and she spent her teens and 20s struggling to get by. But nonetheless, she built up a massive cosmetics and hair care business. While I could certainly never claim to truly understand the disadvantages that Walker faced, I’ve learned a ton from her life. These are the top four personal finance lessons I’ve taken away life of Madam C.J. Walker.
1. Don’t Be Afraid to Set Audacious Goals
By age 20, she was a widow and had a daughter named Lelia. To make ends meet, Walker moved to St. Louis to live with her older brothers.
Walker earned just $1.50 per day as a laundress, but she wanted her daughter to have a formal education — an education that Walker herself never received.
Walker worked hard and scrimped to provide this education for her daughter. And in 1910, Walker famously set a goal to donate $1,000 to help build a YMCA for the black community in her adopted hometown of Indianapolis.
Whether funding an education for a single child or a building for an entire community, Walker wasn’t afraid to set audacious goals. Of course, she didn’t merely set goals. She worked ceaselessly to achieve them.
When talking about her success, Madam C.J. Walker said, “Perseverance is my motto.”
From Walker, I’ve learned that if I’m willing to work toward my goals, setting those goals is well worth it.
2. Learn From Everyone
Walker is one of the most famous names in the cosmetics and hair care industry, but her success was no accident. She made a point to learn from everyone.
Like many women of her era, Walker suffered balding due to limited bathing, as well as environmental pollution. To start taking care of her own hair, Walker learned about hair care from her older brothers while living in St. Louis. Her interest was initially sparked by wanting to care for her own hair.
By 1904, Walker started working for Annie Malone, a woman who sold hair care products for African-American women.
By 1905, Walker was still selling products for Malone, but she started to develop her own products. And when she married Charles Joseph Walker in 1906, she was ready to launch her own business. She learned about marketing and sales from her newspaper salesman husband (whom she would later divorce).
Despite never having a formal education, Walker was a consummate learner. And she didn’t even have access to the tools we have today. Now it’s easier than ever to follow her example. Online educational platforms like Coursera offer affordable classes on subjects ranging from writing to computer science. You can even join Coursera for free!
3. Marketing Matters
One of the most difficult personal finance lessons for me is that marketing matters. This isn’t just about marketing products (although that matters). Rather, marketing yourself matters just as much. Walker is a woman who really understood that.
She took the moniker “Madam” C.J. Walker as title of dignity and respect. Nobody bestowed the title onto Walker. Instead she borrowed it from the women in the French fashion and cosmetics industries.
Walker also famously marketed herself to leading business people in the African-American community. In 1912, Walker made a goal to address the delegates at the National Negro Business League. Its founder, Booker T. Washington, ignored her until the last day of the conference.
On that day, Walker famously told Washington, “I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the 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!”
Washington didn’t allow Walker on stage in 1912, but the next year, Walker was a keynote speaker who was welcomed by Washington and all the other delegates.
Of course, Walker didn’t just market herself. She also raised up a salesforce of thousands of African-American women who marketed her products. The importance of marketing the products correctly certainly wasn’t lost on Walker.
“Having a good article for the market is one thing, putting it properly before the public is another,” she explained.
Walker understood that her hair care products wouldn’t sell themselves. She had to help her customers understand the value she brought to them. Today, social media platforms like Facebook and sites like Groupon can help you spread the word about your business.
4. Money Isn’t the Goal
Of the many business and personal finance lessons I’ve learned from Walker, one lesson stands above the rest. Walker made sure that everyone understood that money for its own sake wasn’t her goal.
Walker was one of the premier black community builders of the early 1900s. She saw wealth-building as important for helping African-Americans gain respect in the broader society. However, she also used her money to become a civic leader and philanthropist. “My object in life is not simply to make money for myself,” Walker said.
Her business employed thousands of women. She was politically involved, personally urging President Woodrow Wilson to make lynching a crime.
And she didn’t hoard money, either. In her will, Walker directed two-thirds of her company’s profits to charity, including educational institutions and orphanages.
Walker worked tirelessly throughout her entire life. Her legacy wasn’t just a small fortune. Instead, her legacy includes the opportunities she created for so many others throughout her lifetime.