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Friday, February 28, 2020

How the First Female African-American Millionaire Turned Adversity Into Advantage

Sarah Breedlove, AKA Madam C.J. Walker, was one of the most successful entrepreneurs of her time. But her business success is not the greatest part of her story.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Imagine being born an African-American in Louisiana two years after the end of slavery.

Imagine being born a woman in a Victorian era, widowed at the age of 16.

Imagine working as a laundress for most of your young life, with a(nother) husband discouraging you from your entrepreneurial dreams.

Then imagine losing most of your hair.

Enter the life of Sarah Breedlove, AKA Madam C.J. Walker, a woman who had better excuses than most to give up, climb into bed, and call it a life.

She didn’t, and so we know her as the first female African-American millionaire. From a difficult background and the trauma of hair loss, she launched a hair care empire that made her a fortune.

Walker’s business employed thousands of other black women, and her wealth funded important African-American institutions, from the Tuskegee Institute to the NAACP. Walker’s home became a center for the thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance. Through her wealth and influence, she helped create havens for African-Americans in a time of resurgent racism.

How Adversity Generates Innovation

Madam Walker didn’t just overcome adversity: she made adversity her inspiration. The rest of us could learn from her.

Walker already knew a thing or two about the challenges of being a black woman in 19th century America. Her experience of hair loss gave her an even more personal insight into the difficulties imposed on her fellow women of color. This helped to lead her to the entrepreneurial idea that made her famous.

As legendary startup investor Paul Graham says:

“The way to get startup ideas is not to try to think of startup ideas. It’s to look for problems, preferably problems you have yourself. . . The verb you want to be using with respect to startup ideas is not ‘think up’ but ‘notice.’”

Those who have seen suffering often know best how to solve suffering—for themselves and others. Madam Walker’s care products helped many of her women feel the dignity and beauty Walker desired.

But adversity gives more than just insight. It provides the clarity and motivation needed to turn that insight into action.

We tend to work harder when we know our enemy, and we tend to get stronger when we train under resistance. People who have come from adversity are often braver, more savvy, and more skillful because they have trained on the hardest courses life has to offer.

Tapping Into Adversity

Not all adversity is created equal. Some people experience true injustice—suffering which can seem crippling.

Some of us may feel like lightweights in comparison. But we all suffer. The question is what we’ll do with that suffering.

While Madame Walker didn’t receive justice in her lifetime (she died before the end of Jim Crow), she did create some amazing realities out of her adversity. You can do the same, and you can start at any size of challenge.

Identify your problem

What has held you back, scarred you, or even just annoyed you? Once you know, you can turn it into your inspiration.    

Start “noticing”

What about this adverse experience has made you different? You might realize that your adversity lets you see things that no one else has noticed, just like Walker saw through her own hair loss to build a hair care empire.

Maybe you have lived near the poverty line, but maybe that experience has given you just what it takes to teach financial skills. Maybe you have suffered through health problems, but perhaps you have seen how hospitals could make patients feel more at home.

What better source of innovation than solving your own problem?

Then get mad

Personify your adversity. Imagine a bully you must defeat, or a critic you must silence. With every action you take, you’ll silence that critic and put the bully’s muscles to work for you. Don’t let your adversity go until it serves you. Your own revolution starts when your adversity becomes your advantage.

Your Adversity, and the World’s

Most history classes underrate the importance of Walker’s legacy and her gifts to the early institutions of African-American culture and civil rights. In Madame Walker’s story we see not only how she overcame her own adversity, but also how innovation played a role in social equality in the United States. Adversity and innovation share the same relationship today. And by facing your own adversity with the courage of a Madame Walker, you may be surprised what problems you can help to solve in the world, too.

  • James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, intellectual explorer, and perpetual apprentice. He is an alumnus of Praxis and a FEE Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow. He writes regularly at