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What Madam C.J. Walker’s story (and Netflix series) means to black cosmetics entrepreneurs

Janell Stephens of Camille Rose and Tristan Walker of Bevel and Form Beauty talk about what the pioneering businesswoman means to them as her story takes the spotlight.

What Madam C.J. Walker’s story (and Netflix series) means to black cosmetics entrepreneurs
[Photo: Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons; LwcyD/Pixabay]

Madam C.J. Walker is one of the most storied business leaders in American history. Her life of philanthropy, entrepreneurship, and activism has empowered black women and families, and inspired black business owners for generations—even in the 21st Century. Despite her life being relegated to Black History Month bullet points, some of the most notable names in modern entrepreneurship have been inspired enough by her pioneering work to keep her legacy alive in elements of their own entrepreneurial ventures.

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Richelieu Dennis—cofounder, CEO, and executive chairman of Sundial Brands, perhaps best known for its SheaMoisture products—was so inspired by the Walker legacy that he purchased and revitalized the brand she created more than a century ago. Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture is now sold in Sephora, and Dennis uses his enterprise as an incubator for developing other black female business owners.

“Richelieu is my hero!” says A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great granddaughter and author of several books about Madam Walker’s life. “It’s like, a hundred years after Madam Walker died [and] there are all of these things happening, with the Netflix series as the cherry on top. There are two national historic landmarks: the Madam Walker Legacy Center in Indianapolis and the Madam C.J. Walker House in Irvington, New York. Forty thousand Madam Walker items have been digitized. We gave these papers to the [Indiana] historical society in the 80s, and they are now digitized and online, and there’s a new Madame Walker exhibit at the Historical Society. But the line of hair-care products just makes me feel so good to be able to say there are still Madam Walker products and they are of the highest quality.”

On Friday, Netflix premieres Self Made, a four-episode limited series starring Octavia Spencer. Self Made, based on the book On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker—written by Bundles—is inspired by Walker’s life. It’s only a snippet of the real journey, but modern-day business innovators whose core markets are people of color are excited for Walker’s legacy to become part of pop culture at large.

Janell Stephens, for example, had been inspired by Walker’s life and times before she entertained launching Camille Rose Naturals, her multimillion-dollar beauty empire that caters to natural hair and the clean beauty market. Stephens—whose story shares some parallels with Walker, as they both have Louisiana backgrounds and they’re both self-made by creating products born out of necessity—decided to re-create iconic photos of Walker in her car shot by celebrity photographer Will Sterling.

Janell Stephens, in the driver seat, in a re-creation of the iconic photograph of Madam C.J. Walker. [Photo: courtesy of Will Sterling]
“I wanted to pay tribute to her in my own way when I heard Netflix was coming out with her biopic. I wanted to re-create that one picture with her in the car, because I wanted to include my team, my right hands, like she did,” Stephens tells Fast Company. “I love that photo because this cannot be done alone. You have to have a solid team behind you. So that’s why I chose that to re-create those photos [and] I took it a step further. I re-created her original number-one product for hair growth. Her hair grower.”

Stephens’ version of Walker’s hair grower keeps the essence of the original product, but with updated ingredients, and will be available for a limited time starting 3/20.

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“We’ve started teasing the product and getting people excited about the series [early] since it’s Women’s History Month,” says Stephens. “I hope people realize how much of an advocate she was for economic independence for women and how she paved the way for social changes.”

Walker, who learned a lot of what she knew about hair from the barbering world, created her hair grower after her own hair began to fall out. She also figured out that many of the products that existed at her time simply didn’t have the right ingredients for black hair, so she created and marketed her products as the solution. Walker had a hard time getting people to believe in her at first, but the base formula for entrepreneurship is finding a problem that needs a fix and eventually she figured out how to get people on board by advocating for herself.

Those are concepts that Tristan Walker—no relation to Madam Walker—applied when he founded Walker & Company Brands and Bevel and Form Beauty.

“Madam C.J. Walker knew what was right, and when you know something is right, you have to persevere ’til everybody else realizes that it’s right,” Walker says. “I started my company, and up until the last days, folks continue to turn us down for fundraising because they didn’t understand what we were doing, what effect it would have, and that was primarily because the moneyed interests didn’t reflect the diversity of the consumers that I served. So that perseverance not only ended up raising the money that we did, but also got us to be acquired by one of the greatest legacy companies in this category [Procter & Gamble acquired Walker & Co in December 2018]. I am its first black CEO ever, and that was not without my own perseverance. But to make people realize that what we were doing was right—and that is, I think, the story of Madam C.J. Walker—that was special to me. [And for her] to have done that in the early 20th century is otherworldly. So. if she can do it and persevere, then I have no excuses.”

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