Madam C.J. Walker, one of the first self-made female millionaires in the U.S., paved the way for female African Americans in the business world. How does her legacy continue to empower and inspire African American women in business? Part 1 of a discussion with Natalie Madeira Cofield, Founder & CEO of Walker’s Legacy Foundation. (Part 1 of 2)
*Images of Madam C.J. Walker provided by Madam Walker Family Archives/A’Lelia Bundles
See a partial transcript of this interview below:
Traynham: Madam C.J. Walker, celebrated trailblazer, became one of the first, if not the first, self-made female millionaire in the United States. Born to newly freed slaves in Reconstruction-era Louisiana, Walker´s monumental rise continues to inspire new generations today. Natalie Madeira Cofield, founder and C.E.O. of Walker´s Legacy Foundation, is here to discuss challenges and successes of female African American entrepreneurs in modern day America. Natalie, welcome to the program.
Cofield: Thank you for having me.
Traynham: I remember as a kid, hearing these legendary stories of Madam C.J. Walker making her own hair products. Literally pulling herself up by her own boot straps. And I often wondered, to myself and to my history teacher, “Why isn´t she a household name? Why isn´t people talking about her?” Her face probably should be on some type of dollar bill. Walk us through her legacy.
Cofield: Sure. So, Madam C.J. Walker was born, first in her family to be freed, in Delta, Louisiana. Went on to get married at a very early age, became a widow, and moved to St. Louis to work with her brother at a barber shop. And there, she connected with a woman named Annie Malone, who taught her about the Poro System, which was a haircare company. And she mentored Madam Walker, and many people don´t think about Annie Malone in that way. And Madam Walker went on to build her own sales force of women. She was very notable and would say, “I´m not satisfied making money for myself. I won´t be satisfied until I´ve employed thousands of women of my race after me.” She was as committed to entrepreneurship as she was to her philanthropic efforts and to community engagement. She was a woman who was of the movement. She was very instrumental in writing checks and being a part of the Civil Rights Movement that formed the NAACP and the National Urban League. And she made her millions off of the haircare company that she built, which was the Madam Walker and Company business. But it was beyond that. It was also about a sales and distribution methodology that she innovated with her husband, and then she got divorced from him. But she turned her business into a global operation before the Internet, before major advancements in the postal service. So she´s a titan, in and of herself.
Traynham: Indeed. It sounds like she was way ahead of her time.
Cofield: She was.
Traynham: And then, it´s important, Natalie, to talk about the past to learn about the present and the future, but let´s fast forward to today. Let´s talk about Madam Walker´s legacy and how you apply it, as the President and C.E.O. of the foundation, to women of color today, in 2017.
Cofield: Absolutely. So, again, one of the missions that Madam Walker had was using her sales/distribution methodology to empower women in their local community. She had, at her peak, a team of about 20,000 women across the country who were sales and distribution agents for her. She coalesced these women into —
Traynham: So let´s pause there for a second. 20,000 mini-entrepreneurs. 20,000 people of color, women of color, that were out in their communities, if you will, making money.
Cofield: That´s exactly right. And so, she realized that they were entrepreneurs, they were entrepreneurs, they were women working for her. And so she started building them into these clubs. They were sales clubs. She was teaching women about business, she was teaching women about sales, she was teaching women about professionalism. And they actually ended up having a national conference for this. Walker´s Legacy Foundation is kind of picking up where that left off, I guess you could say. We have chapters across the United States. We actually represent a network of 20,000 women to this day.
Cofield: We´re in 20 citiesacross the nation, and counting,and we´re very proud to have A´Lelia Bundles,who is Madam C.J. Walker´s great-great granddaughter,as one of our board members for our foundationand advisory board members for Walker´s Legacy.So to talk about Madam Walkeris to talk about her as a businesswomanand a philanthropist,and not just to talk about her as a womanwho created a new formof haircare product distribution.While she is a botanist and a scientist,in that regard, it´s important for usto also recognize her contributions to business.