The amazing life of one of the first black American entrepreneurs

The amazing life of one of the first black American entrepreneurs

Although everyone does not know their name, CJ Walker has helped invent what has become the foundation of our modern country and modern economy: national sales, corporate social responsibility and even basic hair care. , Orphaned at the age of 8, married at the age of 14 and widowed at the age of 20, Walker became a millionaire entrepreneur in the great South around the turn of the century, against all odds. Professor Nancy Köhn describes the story of Walker’s inspirational life by realizing his own American dream.

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Brian Kenny: Orphaned at the age of 8, married at the age of 14, and widowed to a girl at the age of 20 – few would count on someone who takes on these barriers to become an innovative millionaire. Now remember that this woman was born in the Great South in 1867, the first of her family to be born free of the bonds of slavery. How do you like these opportunities?

Today we will hear Professor Nancy Koehn about her case “Mrs. C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur, Leader and Philanthropist”. I’m your host, Brian Kenny, and you hear Cold Call. Professor Köhn is an economics historian whose research and writing focuses on entrepreneurial leadership. Nancy, welcome.

Nancy Koehn: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

BK: It’s a fabulous case. We planned to coincide with Black History Month in February. When I read it, I was amazed at what Mrs. C. J. Walker could do about her time. Could you start by telling us how this case opens up?

NK: I think the opening scene is real when it starts in what we call Mature, 1906. She starts her own hair care business. She became a well-known entrepreneur and social activist. At the beginning of the twentieth century, she directed this platform in the early twentieth century. It takes a long slow burn to get there. It is a burning, as you said in your introduction, which is not only characterized by its social and economic circumstances. She is the first child to be released from her family. His parents were slaves in the deep south. She is initially illiterate and she is a single mother at the age of 21. She moved to the North as we know, as part of the first steps of the Great Northern Migration, and moved as housekeeper. This slow and slow burning is what I would like to call in my years of leadership in collecting. Each leader has years of collecting when he absorbs, learns, plays. Steve Jobs would later call this period his wild years and talk about joining the points of this experience.

The turning point really dates back to 1906 when, after a short while, as a shop assistant for another black entrepreneur’s hair care products, she decides she can do it herself. From then on, it is the story of a hawk that begins to recognize its wingspan, spreads its wings, removes the cliffs, and rides the current.

BK: I like this metaphor. Let’s go back to Sarah Breedlove. I would like to know a bit more about his context, about the situation in which he was born, about the political climate of his time. It is two years after the Civil War. How was it to be black in America?

NK: It was a moment of amazing change, a very good turning point. The war was over, slavery was over. Lincoln had been assassinated, but part of the work for the then nebulous reconstruction plans was in place, including the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, the 14th amendment that will then grant all African Americans the 15th Amendment, black American men the suffrage. It is a moment of great possibilities.

There are many obstacles for black Americans that White Americans have never met, but it is still a moment of happiness and new beginnings. It takes about 12 years. Then, through a series of political changes of the elite, great resentment, racism and fear in the south, many doors are closing. A period begins today that historians, in black and white, considered the nadir period, which lasts about 40 years, from 1877 to the 20th century – the closure of all these doors and what we now consider institutional, but informal. ,

This is the beginning of the rapid withdrawal of suffrage through all sorts of sly means, such as restricting access to ballots, closing polling stations, identifying some of the things we are still talking about in our time. With a multitude of high-level doors and on the street or floor, many options quickly became apparent before Black Americans disappeared or were taken away. It’s ironic, or maybe more interesting, when Mrs. Walker really starts to think about her life.

Meanwhile, Sarah Breedlove has joined a church. The Church, the Black Church, supported, understood and analyzed by many historians and others as this incredibly powerful social force, this inspiring gas cylinder, this coherent body, this high-level institution, became an important part of his life. Here she meets people. It is there that she feels that other black women are taking the opportunity. Here she has access to her own power.

BK: Let’s stop for a second. In these circles, she begins to become aware of the appearance of the people around her. It begins to realize that the people who will succeed will have a certain behavior and appearance about them. They note that women, because of health problems, are fragile and break their hair because of the situation they were in. This triggers an idea for her.

NK: She looks around, unlike Estee Lauder, a generation later, in New York and all the women who work in stenographic pools and department stores as employees, thinking, “Women who work will often show up or take one other kind of care in their appearance and are willing to spend for it, she looks around and says, “I think I can help these women. “Mrs. Walker, Sarah Breedlove at the time, looks around and says,” I can do better. ”

With a few other product ideas, including a woman named Annie Turnbo, who was a pioneer in this field several years before Sarah Breedlove (later Mrs. Walker), she conjures up what she calls her wonder maker and begins to sell him the door. Door. Shortly after, 1906 will be 1907, and it will start to gain ground.

BK: What I found really fascinating is that it is gaining ground. She really stuck to this idea that it’s not a question of appearance, but that it’s something much bigger. It’s about meaningfully rising. They talked about the tension that prevailed in society back then, especially about blacks trying to get white. Talk a little bit about the tensions around these things.

NK: Interestingly, not all hair care products are currently widely accepted by the black African American community. Booker T. Washington, whom many of our listeners will know, and W.E.B. Du Bois – activists, educators, black speakers at the time – were two opponents of hair staining, believing that blacks should not use tools or methods to whiten them. There was a wonderful quote from a well-known black speaker who said, “If black women spent half of their time raising their race by trying to look white, things would move quickly.”

The hair care market is in some ways politically charged, at least in some contexts or in certain areas. Mrs. Walker enters this market with full awareness. She was fully aware of what was going on in black political circles. It’s another very interesting thing about this person. The importance that leaders have in gathering information to train themselves in each area is (in my experience as a leadership researcher) universal and extremely important to their subsequent impact on their careers. She recognizes, “I will not bleach, and I will not spend much time straightening up, my product was designed to give women beautiful, healthy hair.

P. S. – Many women at the beginning of the century, white and black, suffered from hair loss. Part of what she’s trying to do is give women good hair. It’s his size. It is his value proposition. But your argument, Brian, about self-empowerment is perhaps the most important or the most critical of all. What she did when she started her own entrepreneurial career was that she really invested in herself and discovered her own power. She spotted the highest road to go. The product was the way to do something better for yourself. For Walker it was, “I can help you to be a better version of yourself, I can help you get up.

They see how it’s done, their consumers, the idea of ​​selling their customers, getting up and being better and making their dreams come true. Then you will see it very strongly with its growing sales team.

BK: That was also very interesting because she and her sales team and model created precedents to develop this activity, which is still in force today.

NK: Absolutely. To remind our listeners of the birth of what we now call sales force, at the time Mrs. Walker began, there was a national sales organization. Singer Sewing Machines, Duke Cigarettes, Sears & Rehbock, IBM. Smith & Wesson. All sorts of companies tried to sell their products and wondered: how can we distribute our products in a country where communication and transportation are not yet fully consistent and completely reliable? We use a field service, so we have to train our sales force. We have to figure out how to do it. We have to find ways to motivate them. We have to find how to pay them. She is at the top of this kind of work.

I think of all the people I’ve studied, she’s one of the most progressive and resourceful. To give you some highlights, she decides to look for her up and coming salespeople, her representatives in places like Black Churches, where she herself has discovered empowerment. Later she will also go to black vocational schools and secondary schools. His value proposition for her, his internal value added or, if you like, the social contract is: “Come along, we will make a living for you, it will be very attractive to many women.” When she died in 1919, suddenly 40,000 people worked for her as a whole Country and in some cases in Cuba and other parts of Central America.

BK: By the way, she started at the age of 36. Then she started to spread her wings, as you described. How long did it take between death and death?

NK: She died in 1919 in her early fifties. The actual rise of his business really begins in 1907, 1908, 1909. In reality, it takes about 11 or 12 years for the situation to go quickly. It’s a little bit of time. You wonder to what extent the growth of this growth and this opportunity and impact are related to all desert years. It’s almost as if she has plenty of time to understand it, to think about it, but when she arrived, she was ready to go.

The circumstances you pointed out were correct. It is an essential part of a successful business, but the most important relationship in the first few years of the business is the relationship of the entrepreneur, the relationship of the leader to himself. Can I do that? What do I do with doubts? What should I do with setbacks? What I do realize when I think back to this woman is that when she has discovered the hair care and what she can do with it, she understands herself well enough, and the tools of awareness and awareness have proper management in the currents ,

BK: Now let’s focus on the other word of the title, the philanthropist. It was extremely important for her to be able to give something back. It was the company’s social responsibility at the turn of the century in the 1900s.

NK: Absolutely. It is interesting. Her philanthropy, which is to use a sophisticated word in the early years to describe what was a penny in the first few years, begins before she becomes a successful company. Even as a laundress and source of income, she donates money for things she considers important in her church. This feeling of “I want to contribute to society” is part of its essential motivation and character. With every chance she has, she does. In a very strange precursor to Oprah’s Angel Network, she creates an association for her dealer called The Benevolent Association to help women in need or with medical problems. As she grows up on the public stage, she will make gifts to war victims during the First World War. She will give gifts to other black causes. She will give gifts to black universities.

She is, as you know, a true social activist and benefactor, as well as an entrepreneur, a motivator and a leader. She has the strong sense of what she has left behind in the writings of her great-great-granddaughter, a woman named Lelia Bundles, who wrote about her – you have the feeling of Lelia, who knows the family tradition well, that it only was a woman who was a force of nature. She was beautiful, she was fiery. She loved driving her Ford model fast and often. She was an excellent cook. She loved to entertain. It has taken its place, if you will, and yet, in spite of all its humanity, its sense of commitment to others, its commitment to social impact and progress, it has remained absolutely unshakeable.

BK: She never lost the feeling of being part of the African American community. She did not do it by becoming white, so to speak.

NK: Not at all. Her social life and most of her life was completely and deeply rooted in the African American community, yet she was part of a group of black and white people who went to the White House to pressure Woodrow Wilson for certain types of war. Relief towards the end of the First World War. She lived comfortably. She could move comfortably in the white society, and yet her roots and identity were African American.

BK: How do students react when you discuss this in class?

NK: I’m always surprised how quickly the students kiss her. Every year I remember the power of this story with students in many ways. First and foremost, most white students, regardless of their country of origin, have heard nothing from her. All of my African American students have heard of her. Secondly, the women of the class, regardless of their nationality or ethnic origin, are stupefied by his stupefied wife, full of friendliness, kindness and humanity, his fashionable sensibility and his intelligence of the street. married with a serious leadership spirit. They are just stunned by her.

I think the most interesting and surprising thing – it reminds me every year of the social impact. People think, as you’ve suggested, Brian that corporate social responsibility is a relatively new phenomenon or commitment. It is not. More than 100 years ago, she was a leader in this regard. I think the students are inspired, impressed and committed.

BK: Count on me among those who were really inspired by this story. Nancy Koehn, thank you for coming to us.

NK: A real pleasure. I thank you.

BK: You can find this and many other cases in the HBS case collection at My name is Brian Kenny and you heard Cold Call, the official podcast at Harvard Business School.

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