MasterGlam is thrilled to launch our new "Amazing Women" series to highlight the achievements of female pioneers in STEM and commerce leading the charge in the fields of STEM and commerce. Our inaugural post highlights the incredible story of Madam C J Walker, an early 20th century scalp care pioneer whose story is told through her great-great-granddaughter A'Lelia Bundles. Bundles is a leading American historian and a champion for cultural preservation.
Madam C.J. Walker's story serves as a powerful reminder that progress requires collective action and solidarity against systemic racial violence and injustice. Through the Lelia College of Hair Culture and Walker Manufacturing Company, Madam Walker developed a range of scalp care products that transformed over time into a medium through which she lifted up communities of Black-American women and families who were excluded from voting, education, healthcare, and economic access. In addition to her contributions to the beauty industry, Madam C.J. Walker donated significant portions of her wealth over the years to shore up the NAACP’s fight to hold lawmakers accountable for perpetrating the first-degree murder of thousands of young Black men. Madam Walker also funded scholarships for students enrolled at Tuskegee University and spoke out against the living conditions of Black soldiers serving abroad during WWI.
We would like to share with you 5 key lessons that we learned from reading "On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam CJ Walker" by A'Lelia Bundles.
Lesson 1: Keep Formulations Simple
Madam Walker's “Wonderful Hair Grower” was a scalp conditioning and hair growth treatment that contained just seven ingredients: petrolatum, coconut oil, beeswax, copper sulfate, carbolic acid, precipitated sulfur and perfume. In "On her Own Ground", Bundles highlights that sulfur was likely used to help soothe scalp sores, while violet was used as a scent to mask the smell of the sulfur.
Madam Walker featured her face on the yellow tins that she sold "Wonderful Hair Grower" in and sold people on her own transformation in ad buys that she placed with Black-owned newspapers throughout the country. "Wonderful hair Grower" was the first in a line of comprehensive hair and scalp care products designed specially for Black hair, including "Tetter Salve" and "Glossine"
TAKEAWAY: Include the ingredients that your product needs to deliver on its claims, and nothing more. When reverse engineering a product or basing your product off a stock formulation, use the “knockout method” to observe the effect that each ingredient has on its overall performance. By knowing what each ingredient adds to the overall experience, you can begin to eliminate unnecessary components.
Lesson 2: Strike hard and often
Madam Walker committed herself to the rights of Black Americans to receive an education and vote. Her donation to the NAACP in 1917 exceeded 10% of their annual budget - roughly $3 million in today's inflation-adjusted dollars. Madam Walker hired the first licensed Black architect in New York State to build her 1917 estate, featured in the New York Times
TAKEAWAY: Use your voice and your influence to call attention to injustices and advocate for change. Write a letter to your representatives in Congress and urge them to sign the CROWN Act.
Lesson 3: Empower those closest to you
Madam Walker gave 20,000 agents the ability to earn $30 a week during a time when the average teacher earned about $18 per week, amounting to roughly $26,000 per year. Madam Walker gave other women the power to own their destiny by providing them with the right tools to help them manage their personal finances as sales associates. These associates were trained as hair culturists and were trained to meet a standard level of service that was expected of them. New moms even enjoyed Walker Manufacturing Company-sponsored daycare privileges.
TAKEAWAY: Give your employees the tools that they need to succeed is key
Lesson 4: Communicate your unique selling proposition effectively
Before assembling a workforce of 20,000 direct sales agents, Walker traveled door to door offering customers a free scalp treatment with the purchase of her 10 cent Wonderful Hair Grower solution (approximately $2.92 in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars). This proved to be a winning strategy for Walker that allowed her to make her first strategic hires: direct sales agents that helped her multiply her sales and her reach. She worked faith-based networks and became a mainstay in Black communities in Denver, offering free scalp treatments with a 10 cent purchase of her Wonderful Hair Grower solution.
TAKEAWAY: Communicate your offer effectively. When designing your offer, consider target audience and survey your existing audience to make sure that the free item you are planning to offer is something that would appeal to them.
Lesson 5: Go door to door
In "On your Own Ground", Bundles writes about Walker’s experience traveling door-to-door canvassing her product with the tight-knit upwardly mobile Black community in Denver. Madam Walker handed out brochures at the local train station. When the Walker Manufacturing Company finally settled down in Indianapolis, the company sent out thousands of brochures to advertise her product and partnered with began partnering with nationally syndicated newspapers to grow her following.
TAKEAWAY: Pop-up shops and in-person interactions can make for unforgettable brand experiences. Leverage the power of platforms like TikTok and Instagram to multiply ROI.
Madam CJ Walker's journey from being a widowed windowwasher surviving on $1.50 a day to an early that demanded political accountability from our country's highest officials is a story that founders can learn from.
In an episode of Earned: Unlocking the Power of the Creator Economy. Conor Bagley of CreatorIQ mentions that starting a beauty business is in many ways a valuable exercise in how to run a business. Madam Walker's actions reflect her commitment to serving her customers, expanding into underserved markets, and the initiative she took to create her own opportunities.
Madam Walker actively attended the Poro school before launching her own school for women. She developed her first product after a chance encounter with the owner of a regional pharmacy after moving to Denver and worked nights at a boarding house to make ends meet. Opportunities weren't given to her- she made them for herself.
Bundles, A. L. (2002). On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker. Scribner.
A'Leila Bundles' "On Her Own Ground" recounts the life and legend of Madam C. J. Walker, a trailblazing African American entrepreneur and philanthropist who established a hair care empire that employed more than 20,000 women in the early 1900s. Drawing from in-depth research and family archives, the biography debunks falsehoods and promotes her social and political advocacy. A'Lelia Bundles is a leading American historian, champion for cultural preservation, and her great-great-granddaughter.