In America, we often think of an innovator as that lone genius tinkering in a garage who has an “Aha!” moment. And while that might make for good storytelling, the truth is that it’s very seldom how breakthroughs come to be. Time and time again, they come from people and organizations living with real frustrations, who get to a point where they realize, “There has to be a better way.” So they set out to create one.
In observance of Black History Month, I wanted to spotlight a story of an incredible African-American innovator that exemplifies this idea perfectly—Madam C.J. Walker. Hers is one of my favorite stories of fearlessness from my new book Be Fearless: 5 Principles for a Life of Breakthroughs and Purpose. Walker was an entrepreneur who lived over 100 years ago, and her entrepreneurial career started with the simple process of identifying a problem and making the “big bet” to find a solution.
When Walker’s hair started falling out because of a scalp ailment, she tried to look for products on the market to address her condition, however, she couldn’t find any that helped. She began experimenting with her own homemade concoctions to find the solution to her personal problem. When seeing that her hair grew back using her newly created formula, she began thinking about how her unique formula could help other Black women suffering from her same problem. She took her new product, “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower,” and hair treatment system, the “Walker System,” and began going door to door to teach women about hair treatment and the use of her products. Her products were a huge success and her business continued to grow, making her one of the very first American women to become a self-made millionaire.
While Walker was growing the market for her hair-care business, she was also doing something truly remarkable: she was training and recruiting large numbers of young Black women across the country as a salesforce. By teaching other young Black women about business and providing them with educational opportunities, she was empowering women with few opportunities to generate income for themselves. She continued to create opportunities for others through her philanthropic work and always inspired young entrepreneurs to get up and make their own opportunities. Her famous saying was, “I got my start by giving myself a start.”
Although Walker’s story shows that making a big bet is the first step to creating transformational breakthroughs, this first step can be difficult if aspiring entrepreneurs are placed at a disadvantage. In 2019, the data on the lack of venture capital for female founders and African-Americans is stark. Although the total funding of female founders is increasing, the percentage of venture capital going to female founders has stalled at a mere 2.2 percent. The statistics are even lower for African-American founders, receiving only 1 percent of venture capital. Recognizing that an unequal playing field may be stifling the creators of the next great innovations, it is important to equalize these odds and make sure that everyone has a seat at the table. To combat these disadvantages, platforms such as Black Girl Ventures, DigitalUndivided, and Camelback Ventures try to help with the entrepreneurial success of Black, Latinx, and/or female startups, however, we still have a long way to go.
Despite the fact that Walker’s innovations were created over 100 years ago, her fearlessness and philanthropic spirit still continue to inspire me. Not only was she a successful businesswoman, but she also recognized the importance of giving back to her community. Rooted in her mission to uplift young Black entrepreneurs in her community, Shea Moisture CEO Richelieu Dennis plans to turn Madam CJ Walker’s historic estate into a training center designed to support Black women entrepreneurs in their efforts to turn their ideas into successful enterprises. In my opinion, turning her home into a center for Black female entrepreneurs truly embodies what she would say was her real “big bet,” creating entrepreneurial opportunities for others.
I hope you take Black History Month, and every month, to recognize the African-American entrepreneurs who have been inspired to be fearless and who have helped to create the world in which we live today.