Sarah Breedlove Walker: Single Working Mom and Philanthropist

“An illiterate, impoverished daughter of freed slaves built the largest black-owned business in America, made a fortune, and touched thousands with her philanthropy.” – PBS’s “Who Made America”.


One of my role models is Sarah Breedlove Walker, and the border between black history month and women’s history month is the perfect time to gush about her. Because she made her fortune in Indianapolis (where I grew up), she has always been a hero to me. She is a fantastic role model for women, especially a lot of the women who follow this blog and have their own small businesses.

Sarah was the first of her six brothers and sisters to be born after the Emancipation Proclamation and thus, was born into freedom. However, she married at the age of 14 to escape the tyranny of working as a sharecropper on the plantation her parents had previously worked as slaves. Unfortunately, Sarah was orphaned and had lost her husband by the time she was 20 years old.

She moved to St. Louis with her 2 year old daughter and eventually made her fortune as a single mom – first as a washer woman, then selling shampoos, and then, finally, manufacturing her own shampoos (in Indianapolis). Her second husband was an advertising professional and he helped her cultivate an image (Madam C. J. Walker). She managed a 3,000 person sales force and took courses in public speaking and penmanship to improve her professional image. Throughout her career, she taught other women how to own their own businesses (through a school she started and named after her daughter). She also spoke at conventions and conferences and made large donations to multiple charities.

Her story is inspiring. She came from nothing but pain and made an incredible life with a legacy to leave to her daughter. One of my favorite parts of her story is that she ultimately retired in an Italianate villa in New York next to the likes of John D. Rockefeller. Amazing!

Her story reminds me of a book I’m reading titled Maude (1883-1993):She Grew Up with the Country by Mardo Williams. It’s the true story of Maude Williams, who was born in 1883 and died at the age of 110. The book details all of the changes she experienced – from cars to microwaves. Who knows what we’ll see in our lifetimes. Me? I’d like to see and be the type of change that Sarah Breedlove Walker saw and was.

Who is your professional role model?


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