Social entrepreneurs and business leaders who want to promote equity in their workplaces have something to learn from the Black entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker. Reputed to be America’s first self-made female millionaire, Walker built her venture, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, during the turn-of-the-twentieth century Jim Crow era, in Indianapolis, and used it to lift up Black women amid a system of sexism and racial discrimination. You may have heard of her: She founded an eponymous line of hair-care products that’s still sold today, through Sephora, and she is the inspiration behind the recent Netflix series Self-Made.
One of us, Professor Tyrone McKinley Freeman, has written a new biography of Walker that explores her remarkable achievements. Walker built a socially responsible business, helped develop African American industry, created economic opportunity for women, and integrated the means to change fortunes, lives, and laws into her business model. These practices offer valuable lessons for leaders today.