Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker - Movie Review & Business Lessons Learned

Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker - Movie Review & Business Lessons Learned

Last week, I watched the Netflix miniseries Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. These are my key takeaways.

Admittedly, I went into it with low expectations, but ended up binge watching all 4 episodes, which is about the maximum amount of sitting still and binging anything that I can take. I was highly impressed with the story, and it encouraged me to do more of my own research on her life.

Self Made is based on the true story of Sarah Breedlove, who, despite being born to enslaved parents in 1867, went on to became the first self-made female millionaire in the United States.

Important note: when I first read the above statement, I mistakenly read it as “the first black female millionaire.” It didn’t sink in until the end of the movie that she was the first self-made female millionaire in America. Period. Across all races. This is a very important distinction, because to my knowledge there were no special programs or government assistance for minority-owned businesses in the early 1900’s. She truly paved her own way.

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations….I have built my own factory on my own ground.”

– Madam C.J. Walker

I won’t bore you with a recap of the entire series, but will instead share the key business takeaways from my notes (this may be the first time I actually took notes while watching a Netflix show).

Warning: spoilers ahead.

My notes:

  1. Growth business vs lifestyle business. Sarah Breedlove and her husband, C.J. Walker, couldn’t see eye-to-eye on the direction of the business. She wanted to reinvest the profits, raise more money from investors, and keep scaling up the business, whereas he wanted to slow down and enjoy the fruits of their labor.

    Most business owners I know experience this same conflict, whether it’s a disagreement between founders, or an inner battle in the entrepreneur’s head – do I keep risking and growing? Or stay small, play it safe, and live a good life?

    There’s no right or wrong answer, but the latter probably won’t get a Netflix series made about you.

    Spoiler alert: They ended up divorced (plenty of entertaining drama in these scenes). She aggressively grew the business, and in a scene on the lawn of her massive estate, hosting a party for her 10,000 employees, she realized her dream.
  2. She studied the successful entrepreneurs who came before her. I talk a lot about the importance of reading, and of having mentors. As the Jim Rohn saying goes, “you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.” If you can’t meet your mentors in person, you can read about them, watch videos, listen to interviews, and spend time with them, virtually.

    In the era of slavery, fresh off the heels of the Civil War, it would have been highly unlikely for a white man to mentor a young black woman in entrepreneurship. So instead, young Sarah took it upon herself to study the business titans of her time – Rockefeller, Carnegie, Edison, and Henry Ford to name a few.

    In fact, the movie references how she modeled the production flow in her factory after Henry Ford’s assembly line.

    In a climactic moment, Sarah Breedlove/Madam C.J. Walker eventually built her sprawling estate next door to John D. Rockefeller’s estate. In real life, they are about three miles apart in Westchester County, New York.
  3. She franchised her business and empowered others. Her strategy was more akin to training sales agents and licensing her brand, but very similar to franchising. This resonates strongly with me, as we are now offering franchises of our Zeus’ Closet stores and memberships in our Greekpreneur program, training others how to sell products, and grow their own businesses, with our support.
  4. She had multiple channels of revenue – retail, mail order, manufacturing, and wholesale. Why just be dependent on one? She made the product in her own factory, sold it in her own stores, through sales agents, salons, and got it placed in other major store chains. A key to massive wealth.
  5. She had a product business, not a service business. Madam Walker could have easily become an independent hairdresser with a secret cream that she used only on her clients. She could have kept it to herself and tried to corner her little piece of the market, but that would have been thinking small, and would have trapped her in a business where she is the one doing the work. Instead, she sold the tools and products to empower others.
  6. Her right hand man was an attorney. Freeman Ransom, the person with whom she consulted with and trusted the most, was an attorney. He later became general manager of the company. When you’re scaling up a business, having someone well-versed in law on your side is critical.

    A friend of my dad recently suggested that I get a law degree, just because of how much it will benefit me as a growing business owner. I’ve had my fair share of legal battles and have learned a lot from them, but perhaps I should consider his advice.
  7. Death is the great impetus. Sarah was diagnosed with high blood pressure, which led to hypertension, and ultimately kidney failure. When the doctor told that she only had a year to life, Sarah’s intense sense of urgency kicked into high gear. Not knowing her diagnosis, her advisers would suggest that she could put off some business goals until later, but she persisted on making everything happen now.

    What if we could manufacture this same sense of urgency in our lives, without needing to have a death sentence hanging over our heads? The reality is that we all have that death clock over our heads whether we realize it or not.

    In his famous Stanford commencement speech, Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs, said “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

    Here’s a related video where I explain one way to stimulate this sense of urgency:
The Mansion of America's First Black Female Self-Made Millionaire ...
Villa Lewaro circa 1924 | Credit: A’Lelia Bundles, Madam Walker Family Archives

Above: Madam Walker’s estate in New York.

Below: Being able to afford a car was a major sign of wealth in the early 1900’s.

Wikimedia Commons, Author Unknown

In conclusion, I’d recommend every entrepreneur watch this series. Whether you are just starting out, or you’re an established business owner, there’s a ton of inspiration and a wealth of lessons to be learned.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.