Tracee Ellis Ross & Black Beauty Founders Reflect On The Profound Impact Of Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walkerborn Sarah Breedlove, is most widely known for being the first female self-made millionaire — thanks to the namesake hair-care company she pioneered in the early 1900s. Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower, an elixir that healed scalp ailments and promoted hair growth, was just the start of her beauty empire — and a monumental step for Black female entrepreneurs who followed.

Since that time, Walker's name is still recognized as the gold standard in Black haircare, and her products are now available all over the world. Recently, she even inspired a Netflix mini-series starring Octavia Spencer. Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker, which premiered in March, has reminded many people of Walker's profound legacy.

Among them are Black female beauty founders who credit Walker for creating the blueprint for their success. From carving out economic opportunities for women to embracing their natural hair, we spoke to seven Black women on the lasting impact Madam C.J. Walker had on their lives. Read their reflections, ahead.

Tracee Ellis Ross, Actress & Founder Of Pattern Beauty

How has Walker inspired you and motivated you as an entrepreneur?
"Madam C.J. Walker created a space that did not exist and she used that space to grow the playing field for Black women.
I am inspired by her journey, her tenacity, her ability to think way outside the box and be a brilliant visionary during a time when Black people, let alone women, weren't supported as entrepreneurs."

What made you want to start Pattern Beauty? What problem were you trying to solve?  
"My journey to starting Pattern began 20 years ago when I couldn't find the products I needed to support my hair. I was looking for non-toxic, hydrating, curl-activating products in sizes that match how much we actually use. Pattern was created to satisfy the unmet needs of the curly community and to foster a loving relationship with our hair."

Walker faced many obstacles in her journey to success. What are some challenges you’ve faced as an entrepreneur? 
"I had no idea how to start a company, how to make products, or how to be an entrepreneur. People say to dream big, but they don’t always tell you how to make those dreams happen. I had experiential knowledge from logging countless hours on styling my hair, but I had to learn to articulate why the market needed what I was trying to create. Eventually, I forged my own relationships with chemists to begin ideating Pattern.
"The biggest obstacle was moving through an industry that didn’t always see the validity of this demographic. There was a lack of investment in this community and its potential spending power, and the gatekeepers were ignoring the void in the burgeoning natural hair market."

Mahisha Dellinger, Founder Of CURLS

What is your earliest memory of Walker?
"I learned about Madam C.J. Walker when I was five years old. She was someone that me and many other African-American girls aimed to be. She really defined success on her own terms and it was inspiring."

How has Walker inspired you and motivated you as an entrepreneur?
"Like Madam C.J. Walker, I bootstrapped my way up against all odds and blazed a trail that was unique to me. After working in corporate America, I decided to take control of my own destiny. I was a newly-natural mom, and I wanted to create a line of wholesome and organic products that women, like myself, could use during their transition to natural hair and on their children, too."

What are some challenges you’ve faced?
"The biggest challenge I faced along my journey to entrepreneurship was the lack of funding and business loans that were available for people of color. Despite having exceptional personal credit, I could not get a small business loan or credit line. Instead of launching on a much larger scale, I used my personal savings, cut our marketing and variable costs in half, and grew slowly and organically over time."

Lisa Price, Founder Of Carol's Daughter

What is your earliest memory of Walker?
"I was a young teenager watching 60 Minutes. The segment was about Mary Kay, and I remember her saying that MCJW inspired her. She talked about sharing similar feelings of empowering women and encouraging them to make their own money. That really showed me the importance of women looking out for other women."

What made you want to start Carol's Daughter? What problem were you trying to solve?  
"In the very beginning, it was a hobby suggested by my mother. At the time, I had a demanding job in television production, and I didn't know how or when I would have time to have a family. Creating my own line opened my eyes to the possibility of working from home and raising a family. At the time, I was able to make products that my friends and family needed. Today, after 27 years, I get to broaden the scope of what I do because of a changing industry."

What are some challenges you’ve faced?
"I began very small and grew organically. I have gone through every phase of business, building brick by brick. I went from working alone in a kitchen to having a staff of nearly 15 people in my home, to taking on investors and, ultimately, selling to L'OrĂ©al. I've seen it all: lack of capital, distribution issues, and scaling up production. The most challenging thing, honestly, was my insecurity and lack of confidence at times. You have to learn to push past those moments and not allow fear to rule you."Photo: Taylor Hill/WireImage.
Karen Young, Founder Of Oui The People
What is your earliest memory of Walker?
"My mother gave me a book about Black inventors when I was in junior high school. She felt it was important for me to know that I was more than the media's assessment of my culture."

What made you want to start Oui The People? What problem were you trying to solve?
"I wanted to bring the efficacy and formulation that you find in skin care to products below the neck. I wanted to deliver it in a way that celebrated women rather than degrade them under the guise of perfection. I started with a razor to address the inflammation, razor burn, and ingrown hairs I'd experienced for years as a result of shaving. Nothing on the market worked for me, and I saw a need for shaving products that were equally effective."

What legacy do you want to leave behind?
"I want to succeed for future women-of-color entrepreneurs who'll need the courage to push forward. I want them to see that I was one in a long line of women to have the audacity to launch. "

Jasmine Lawrence, Founder Of Eden Bodyworks

What is your earliest memory of Walker?
"My earliest memory of learning about her was during Black History Month in middle school. She was one of the few female inventors who was highlighted in Black History."

What made you want to start Eden BodyWorks? What problem were you trying to solve?  
"I decided to create Eden BodyWorks due to my desire for affordable natural products. After a reaction to harsh chemicals, I lost a lot of my hair. This was devastating for me because it changed the way I saw and valued myself. I realized how much of my self-esteem weighed on my looks. I did research to create natural solutions at home for nourishing my scalp and growing healthy hair. I wanted to provide others with products and information they could use to live healthier lives."

What are some challenges you’ve faced?
"Getting my business started was the most significant obstacle. As an underage, minority female, I wasn’t exactly the image that came to mind when people considered what an entrepreneur looked like. I had to be very mature and prove to people why my business was going to be successful. I demonstrated this through thoughtful elevator pitches, an organized business plan, and a strong work ethic. "

Lorraine Beraho, MD, Founder of GlowRx

How has Walker inspired you and motivated you as an entrepreneur? How do you relate to her journey?
"Similarly to MCJW, I took a grassroots approach to set up my business. I set up booths at expos and community fairs to teach customers about the benefits of my products. This in-person communication is a throwback approach that benefitted me greatly."

What made you want to start GlowRx? What problem were you trying to solve?  
"As a practicing physician, I realized that many skin-related frustrations my patients described were related to complicated skin-care routines. These routines are particularly damaging to those with melanin-rich skin. I wanted to make products powered by multi-tasking botanicals and non-toxic ingredients that support the specific needs of melanin-rich skin."

Walker faced many obstacles in her journey to success. What are some challenges you’ve faced?
"I still work full-time as a physician, and juggling my brand is a learning process. I take things one day at a time and try to view entrepreneurship as a journey and not a race. MCJW faced multiple obstacles before becoming successful; there is no overnight recipe."

Lacy Redway, Celebrity Hairstylist

How has Walker inspired you and motivated you as an entrepreneur? How do you relate to her journey?
"I've always been skilled and passionate about doing hair. Once I learned to manage my skills and business, it became a pursuable career path for me. Her legacy is inspiring because she had to overcome obstacles while carving out her path. She was always striving to find products to improve the health of textured hair, which is something I practice daily with my work. I think any dreamer would be able to identify with her determination."

What legacy do you want to leave behind?
"Similarly to Walker, I want to make sure that I can create more opportunities for people of color and generational wealth for my bloodline. I want to encourage other Black women to believe in themselves and in the paths they choose."

from refinery29