The Woman Who Lost Everything

This is The Story… of a woman who lost her family, her husband, and her hair. She hit rock bottom, but she didn’t stay there. She clawed her way up and out, and built an empire in the process.

This article is a written version of Episode 3 of The Story Podcast: The Woman Who Lost Everything.

Season 1 features twelve women trailblazers who changed the world, and it’s brought to you exclusively by Salesforce.

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And now… onto The Story

Her scalp was burning.

She ran her hand through her hair, wincing in pain. Slowly, she glanced down at her palm. It was covered in hair.

Sarah was only 20 years old, and her hair was falling out in clumps every day.

She blinked back tears and stared at her balding reflection in the mirror. She tried to contain her emotions, but finally, she broke down crying.

Thankfully, her daughter was in another room, and couldn’t hear her.

Sarah wiped her tears away and wondered why everything was a struggle. It had been a horrible month. Her husband had died. She couldn’t find work. Now, she and her child were going hungry.

This pain was bad, but it was nothing compared to what she faced as a child. At seven years old, both of her parents had died, and she was on her own in a world that couldn’t care less.

And, on top of all of this, her head hurt and it seemed like she was losing hair each day. The hair problems added insult to her injuries. In those days, the only shampoo for women caused dandruff, baldness, and sometimes skin disorders. An inconsistent diet and infrequent opportunities to bathe made these issues worse.

Sarah took another deep breath. She had no money or nearby family to offer support. It was overwhelming but her daughter was counting on her. With her head bowed, she prayed for help.

When her thoughts focused on her daughter, she gained the strength to look outward. She looked out at the city around her and realized she wasn’t alone. In the city she lived in, she noticed a common thread amongst the women. Their hair was in shambles, and their scalps hurt. They were miserable, too.

Instantly, she knew what to do. She would find a way to solve her own problem. Maybe in doing so, she could solve the problems of those around her.

She wasn’t sure where to start, but she got to work anyways. Her extended family in St. Louis were all barbers. Maybe she could start there?

After scraping together a few dollars, she took off on a cross-country trip. She packed up a handful of belongings, and her daughter, and left for St. Louis.

When they arrived, she found a bustling town. She met up with her family, and after asking around, she landed a job earning $1 per day doing laundry. Instead of crying at night, now she was breathing sighs of relief. She could provide for herself and her daughter. They would be okay. It wasn’t a glamorous job, but it paid the bills.

Soon days turned into months, and months turned into years… Eventually, Sarah turned 35… and she was still doing laundry.

At work one day, she met a woman who was selling hair care products. They struck up a conversation, and the woman offered to hire her.

Sarah jumped at the chance and learned what she was selling inside and out. The job was demanding. It was door-to-door sales and a hundred percent commission. One painful conversation after the other. Most doors got slammed in her face.

Slowly, Sarah began to recognize a pattern. For every one hundred doors she knocked on, ten people would listen to her pitch. And of those ten… one would buy.

The work of getting to that one person who would buy was tough, but like clockwork, the numbers added up. She revealed in the predictability of the pursuit. If she put in the work, around one person in a hundred was guaranteed to buy. On those rare days where she heard a “YES” amidst the seas of “no’s”, her heart would leap. Life wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t as dark as it used to seem.

She was still making around a dollar per day. But now she was learning skills. She knew how to sell.

Next, in her spare time, she began to brainstorm ideas for her own products. How could she invent something even better than the hair and skincare products that she was currently selling?

She kept working and trying to figure out how to make a better shampoo.

Not long after, she met a man. Soon, they were married and she had another daughter. With a growing family and more financial resources, they moved to Denver, Colorado.

It’s been said that no one can become a prophet in their hometown.

Now that she was in a new town, she reinvented herself.

She marketed herself to the community as an “independent hairdresser and retailer of cosmetic creams.” At their home, she developed her own line of hair care products. They weren’t perfect, but they were far better than anything currently on the market.

Her new husband helped. He had a knack for advertising and promotion, and soon the two of them had their own line of hair products.

After that, she hit the streets and was no longer selling just a product. She was selling something she had put her heart and soul into. It was something that was working and personally helping her.

Soon, she was teaching the other women in the community how to groom and style their own hair. She taught them what to avoid and saved many from the harsh chemicals that resulted in the hair loss and pain that had plagued them.

As the business grew, so did Sarah’s daughter. At 21, her daughter began running the mail order division of their business and managed the Denver operations. She held down the fort at home so that Sarah and her husband could travel around the southeastern US to find places to expand further.

A few years later, the family relocated to Pittsburgh. There, they opened a beauty parlor and salon, and a college to train new team members.

The couple also created a new salon in Indianapolis and another in New York City. They began building or acquiring houses, factories, salons, labs, and schools to train a large group of salespeople.

No, Sarah wasn’t just selling hair care products that worked. She was leading a movement.

By this time, her company employed thousands of women as sales agents. And they created jobs for over 20,000 women.

This all happened back in the early 1900’s. And maybe you can’t figure out who Sarah was… That’s because back in those days, when a woman became so wildly successful, people often gave her a new name; They would call her “Madam”. Sarah Breedlove took the name, Madam CJ Walker.

Madam CJ Walker came from nothing and became one of the most successful entrepreneurs in history.

Just a fraction of these trials would crush most people.

But not Madam CJ Walker.

She had faced the dark night of the soul and triumphed.

She learned how to love and care for a single person, her daughter. In doing so, she had learned to love and appropriately value herself. By valuing herself she created a product to stop the ways in which she was hurting. Now she was in a position to reduce the suffering of everyone else facing a similar problem. She had gone through the proving fire of circumstance and mastered fate.

Her business continued to thrive 62 years after her death and sold to Sephora in 2016.

Madam CJ Walker blazed a trail and left a path for others to follow. Along the way, she would repeat one of her favorite sayings to anyone she met who was struggling or aspiring to greatness.

That saying is simple, powerful, and still rings true today:

“Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. Get up and make them.”

That’s her story, what’s yours going to be?


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