In the Age of Kylie Jenner’s Fame, Madam C.J. Walker Reminds Us What Being ‘Self-Made’ Truly Means

Madam C.J. Walker (Sarah Breedlove), the first female self-made millionaire in the world, poses for a portrait circa 1914.
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives (Getty Images)

For those of us who know the story of beauty entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker, recent headlines about Kylie Jenner pale in comparison. This week, after much anticipation, socialite and reality television personality Jenner’s fortune became worth over a billion dollars. Featured on the cover of Forbes last July, the magazine dubbed her as on the way to becoming America’s youngest “self-made” billionaire.

After controversy ensued, Forbes later clarified “self-made” as being “someone who built a company or established a fortune on her own, rather than inheriting some or all of it.” Still, for many, this usage of the ever-contentious phrase “self-made” prompted a question: What does being self-made really mean?

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The story of a self-made beauty entrepreneur does not begin with Jenner’s static world—pre-business Instagram fame, a wealthy background, a modeling career and a twelve-year run of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, among other factors influencing Jenner’s success. Instead, that story begins on Dec. 23, 1867, with the birth of Sarah Breedlove, famously known as Madam C.J. Walker.

Breedlove was born into a world of picking cotton in the blistering sun, sharecropping alongside her family members. The woman who became Madam C.J. Walker surmounted great adversity to become America’s first female self-made millionaire of any race.

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Born two years after slavery ended in Delta, La., Walker was the first child in her family born into freedom. The start of her life during this era symbolized both the destitution and chaos, and the ambitions and promise of the new beginning presented by post-Civil War Reconstruction. By the time of her death, she had trained over 23,000 sales agents and workers to sell her pioneering black hair care products. But Madam C.J. Walker did more than teach us the importance of real self-sufficiency and enterprise. She taught us how to celebrate ourselves.

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It all began back in 1905, when she discovered a treatment to cure her hair loss, branding it the “Walker system.” Walker took a personal approach to her sales, traveling door-to-door to both sell her products and to recruit black women to become agents for the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. By 1910, she provided career opportunities and economic independence to thousands of black women who had previously served as maids, cooks, seamstresses and farmworkers. She traveled to countries including Haiti, Costa Rica, Panama and Cuba, training and employing thousands of Walker hair culturists across the world. Black women learned of entrepreneurship, property-owning and capital. When she died in 1919, her fortune was worth over $600,000, valued at over $8 million dollars in today’s currency.

What does being self-made really mean? For black and poor Americans, it does not mean being born into a wealthy, famous family. For Madam C.J. Walker, though, being “self-made” meant even more than using her own resources—it meant creating a society in which black women had the power to create themselves, too. While Walker did not begin her journey with money, she also did not begin her journey with affirmation of her own beauty. Beyond her fortune, she was burdened with a society that did not value or treasure her and attempted to define her. She was constantly bombarded with messages in the postbellum South that she was unattractive. In the wake of this reality, a question arises: How do we value ourselves beyond what even money can offer us?

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In a society that capitalizes off black culture and black features while diminishing their origins, Walker’s products held more weight than simply capital. These products meant the redefinition of black beauty standards, and the ability for black women to flourish. Walker’s entrepreneurial activism allowed black women to become self-made in their own right.

A photograph of Sarah Breedlove (second from left) driving a car. She was better known as Madam C.J. Walker, the first woman to become a self-made millionaire in the United States, 1911. From the New York Public Library.
Photo: Smith Collection (Gado/Getty Images)
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The burden of society’s gaze is one that, like Walker and others of the time, many black women still endure. The legacy of discrimination against black women bases its roots in the racist imagery of colonial history. Today, this legacy still rings true. Celebrities like Kylie Jenner continually appropriate black culture—in their branding, in their physical appearance and even in their products. In today’s age of technology and social media, black women are increasingly told who they are, what they are worth and who they should be.

Celebrating oneself means celebrating both the obstacles and the triumphs. Walker did not shy away from her past—she carried it with her. At the 1912 Negro Farmer’s Conference in Tuskegee, Ala., Walker spoke of her business ventures not simply in terms of her personal success, but also of her confidence in black farmworkers to themselves succeed. In the same year, at the National Negro Business League annual convention in Chicago, she stated: “I am not ashamed of my past … I am not ashamed of my humble beginning … I have built my own factory on my own ground.” She founded an empire. An empire that stood for community empowerment in an era of rampant misogynoir.

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Both an orphan and a widow, Walker’s accomplishments, in the face of a racially-charged America, are incomparable. Walker was troubled by what plagued the black community. Troubled by lynching. Troubled by segregated schools. She felt her first allegiance was to her community. With that, her entrepreneurship fell in sync. Years later, thousands of people still commemorate her contributions to society.

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In most recent news, her former home, Villa Lewaro, will be turned into an incubator space and entrepreneurial hub for women of color by Shea Moisture CEO Richelieu Dennis. And on April 1, Shea Moisture Products will be relaunching their line of Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture products. As I watch the growing number of black and brown female entrepreneurs today, I’m reminded of how Madam C.J. Walker’s legacy persists.

A view of the Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture booth during the 2016 Essence Street Style Block Party on September 10, 2016 in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Photo: Craig Barritt (Getty Images for Essence)
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While no one can deny Kylie Jenner’s billionaire status, we can take issue with Forbes’ “self-made” label. In the wake of Jenner’s recent dub, how do we honor Walker’s legacy? How do we continue to remember Walker not only for her wealth but for her invaluable dedication to her community? In teaching our history, we can honor Walker not only for her fortune but for her altruistic essence. We can practice self-care. We can support black-owned businesses. We can encourage our young, black girls to pursue their dreams—no matter how expansive. We can strive to uplift our own standards of beauty. And in spite of today’s obstacles, we can carry Walker’s history with us—remembering, in the face of adversity, what it means to love ourselves. As we face everyday challenges, we remember that defining our own beauty, self-worth and our own journeys, is still relevant today. We remember what “self-made” really means: building one’s self through their own efforts.

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So, thank you, Madam C.J. Walker. Today, we remember your goals, dreams and aspirations, as we remind ourselves of the importance of treasuring our own.

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About the author

Lindsey Norward

Lindsey Norward is a Philadelphia-based journalist and storyteller. She writes primarily about history and culture in America.