5 Self-made Business Lessons from Madame CJ Walker


If you watched the Netflix movie, Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madame CJ Walker and had an ounce of entrepreneurial spirit within you – you were inspired and motivated to new heights!

The movie brings the biography of Sarah Breedlove On Her Own Ground to life, as it documents the life of Sarah Breedlove (Madame CJ Walker), daughter of former slaves played by Octavia Spencer. After a few failed marriages and a daughter from one of her marriages, named A’Lelia, she moved to St. Louis and was employed as a washerwoman for many years. While beauty regimens were overshadowed by the daily hardships and work, many women began to work as beauty agent for Annie Turnbo Malone, an established black female entrepreneur. With her knowledge as an agent, Sarah would take Annie’s recipe and evolve it into a product that she sold door to door in Colorado.

In 1906, she married Charles Joseph Walker, an advertising salesman, whose name she adopted as her brand name. Sarah had little to no education but was a natural when it came to business. She used that savvy to enlist other women and take her brand to millionaire status, branching out to Central America and the Caribbean.

In the Netflix film, her tenacity and determination caused her to be resilient in her business after many upsets and downfalls. She even divorced her husband Charles Jones Walker because he could not understand her focus and drive and eventually got fed up with feeling as if he did not matter in their marriage or business.

This is a great movie that you should see a few times if you are a black female entrepreneur. There were some great takeaways from the film that you can keep in mind while building your brand or empire.

Some key points that I took away after watching were:

  1. Marry for your future

Sarah Breedlove married CJ after she had already begun her business. He was an advertising agent that helped her tremendously with marketing her products in the beginning. But, the business side of things were difficult for him to grasp and their marriage did not work because of it. I know that love is blind, but as a businesswoman perhaps she should have married for her future. She knew which direction she wanted to go in business, but did he? Not saying that it works for everybody – but it is important to marry someone that’s headed in the same direction as you in life so that you will not grow apart.  

  1. Make Sure Your Team is Tight

Have members of your camp sign non-disclosures or non-compete forms to ensure that they will not take your brand secrets and cater to your employees or clients. Without these agreements in place Sarah was able to do this to Annie, and Charles did it to Sarah when they divorced and he tried to re-brand with his new wife. Protect your brand at all costs.

  1. Tell Your Story – It Sells

That’s right, your brand story is important! Your brand story is the series of events that led up to the inception and launch of your brand. For Madame CJ Walker, her brand story revolved around her losing her hair to alopecia and what she did to make her hair grow. Every brand has a story, you just must find a way to tell it and make it go with the narrative of your brand’s mission and message!

  1. Remember, the best reflection of you is YOU.

Madame CJ Walker’s husband wanted to market the product using a visual that was not what she wanted. Madame CJ Walker wanted her brand to stay true to its mission and her brand story. She did not want to falsely advertise her product on a woman with long silky stands already coming from her scalp. It was something that she had to ponder over for a little while, until she finally realized that she was the best face for the brand. She was the face behind the story. Represent your brand and be present in it.

  1. Becoming self-made isn’t for the faint of heart.

When you are self-made, no one is paving the way for you. No one is investing in your journey like you; you must make every step, turn – right or wrong on your own. Becoming an entrepreneur is not for the faint at heart. There will be upsets, downfalls, roadblocks, no’s and rejections, but if you are truly in it because it is your purpose and passion, then you won’t be detoured.  Madame CJ Walker persevered through obstacles, fires, and then some – only to be one of America’s first black millionaires, along with her daughter A’Lelia in New York.

These are just a few takeaways and I am sure there are many more that can be found each time you watch this great film about black female entrepreneurship.