March 4, 2021 6 min read
The opinions expressed by the entrepreneur’s contributors are their own.
Another month of black history has come and gone, but according to the results of a new study commissioned by Groupon and the National Black Chamber of Commerce: We NEED to find out about the adversity African Americans have always faced in the workplace MUST be a year.
Depressingly, 80% of black business owners surveyed said their race made them more challenging to get their business going, while 85% said they had more obstacles to overcome than their non-black counterparts. Fifty-nine percent said they were victims of bias or racism when they started their business.
All the more reason (also in March) to become aware of the franchise scholar, philanthropist and one of the country’s first African-American millionaires, who was Ms. CJ Walker. She still has a lot to teach us 101 years after her death.
Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in the Louisiana Delta in 1867. Orphaned at a young age, she worked as a laundress for more than a decade to support her young daughter. One day she looked down at her hands in the tub and thought, what should I do to support my family when I can’t scrub this laundry anymore?
That question, along with the fact that Walker felt her follicles were thinning, led her to work as a sales clerk for the hair product brand Poro Company. Walker also worked as a cook where she learned even more about the chemistry behind beauty elixirs and eventually created her own line of beauty aids.
Walker was a phenomenal brand builder. Her hair care business and signature “Walker Method” provided career opportunities and economic independence for thousands of African American women. Your company has trained around 40,000 “Walker Agents” in their specific product strategy.
The story of Walker’s success is full of life and leadership lessons.
Related: How to Bridge the Black Entrepreneurship Gap
An underprivileged background doesn’t define you
The idea that you are more than your circumstances is the foundation of my podcast. It is women like Walker who inspire me to develop Code Wiz further and to share this message.
Walker was born on a plantation where her parents were enslaved, and although she was free, her life was full of struggle, turmoil and heartache. But if, like Walker, you believe that your circumstances do not determine your shine, then you can pursue your goals and dreams with determination and break new ground.
Believe in yourself and your product
The truth about business is that you will face tough battles. Hearing things like, “You will not succeed” and feeling overwhelmed by the obstacles can sometimes feel too much. Your own black brothers and sisters may tell you that you won’t succeed because African Americans just don’t make it that far. But you cannot allow the words and actions of others to diminish your belief in yourself and your product.
Walker faced many criticisms of their products, including claims that promoting straight hair for black women would internalize white standards of beauty. But Walker knew that her vision of using ingredients of African origin to give black women the opportunity to love their hair was a strong goal. She didn’t lose trust in her company, her vision or herself.
Every endeavor makes you wiser
Walker worked as a laundress, cook, lived with her brothers who worked as hairdressers, and learned sales from the Poro Company before selling their famous products.
She used this experience to start her business and apply her chemistry and sales experience skills. We can view painful aspects of our past as obstacles or view them as assets. There is always something to learn in every phase of our life.
Don’t just build a business, build a brand
Walker not only sold hair products, she also sold a lifestyle. She created an entire brand around the idea that African American women should look good, feel good, and encourage themselves to create better lives. Walker embodied her brand. She sat on the labels and used her own photos in print advertising. Positioning herself as a “hair culturist,” she empowered thousands of salespeople to do their best, feel best, and make a living doing the same to other women.
Related topics: This is how black employees at Apple and Amazon rate their job satisfaction
Take advantage of love
Walker was one of the ways she pioneered the franchise model. She was a brilliant saleswoman at turning customers into brand ambassadors. Walker not only sold their products to women, but also took advantage of the lifestyle and dream of being part of their brand. She trained women in the “Walker Method” and gave financial incentives to agents who did well in sales and who embodied the brand.
As you build your business, remember to leverage those who already love your brand. They are an important part of your business, and strategies like reward programs and referral perks are an important part of growing it.
Make room at the table
As an advocate for the economic independence of black women, Walker initiated training programs in the Walker System for her national network of licensed sales representatives. She paid healthy commissions and employed hundreds of black women in her company.
Our fate will not change unless we enable our tribe to thrive. Don’t forget to look for ways to get more votes on the table and use your success to create even more seats.
Walker was a well-known philanthropist and we can all take inspiration from her generosity. There are many ways you can give back to your community and causes important to you and your business. Having philanthropy as part of your mission statement means that you create motivation and unity in your team.
Walker is a real inspiration and it is invaluable to look at incredible black women throughout history and to find lessons from their lives and accomplishments.
Related: Maggie Lena Walker made history as the first woman to own a bank in the United States