To celebrate Black History Month, we're focusing on the social importance of the black beauty industry and paying homage to three pioneering women who made revolutionary breakthroughs. As innovators and trailblazers, these three Black women set the standard not only in the beauty industry but also as examples of true entrepreneurship.
Through personal resilience, savvy business skills, creative branding, and innovative products, these businesswomen changed the face of beauty forever — and opened doors for countless others to do the same. Put simply, without these trailblazers paving the way; the beauty industry would not be what it is today. Because of these three women, and the tremendous gains they achieved, the black beauty industry was given a solid platform from which to elevate, and which other female entrepreneurs still take inspiration from today.
Annie Turnbo Malone
Annie Turnbo Malone is hailed as the first African American woman to become a millionaire. Born the tenth of eleven children on a farm near Metropolis in Illinois, Annie Malone was orphaned as a child and raised by her older sister. From a young age, she was interested in the creativity of hairdressing and frequently practiced on her sisters. In high school, she took a keen interest in chemistry, which spurred on a passion for creating her own hairdressing products.
Recognizing a lack of safe and effective hair products, Annie Malone decided to create a haircare line for African American women. She called her line "The Wonderful Hair Grower," which included an innovative straightener, specially designed oils, and a hair stimulant containing carrier-and-essential oils still in use today. Her products were an instant success, not least because they were much kinder to hair than the traditional home hair straightening products being used at the time.
After moving to Illinois, Annie began to sell her self-made hair care products door to door with three hired assistants — one of whom went on to become Madam C. J. Walker! She was so confident in her products, she perfected the art of the "live demo" by performing free one-on-one treatments for clients — and they loved it! Due to the high demand for her products, Annie opened her first store in 1902. It didn't take long for Annie to see the enormous impact her haircare line was having on African American women, and she decided to share her knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit with her community.
In 1918 she founded Poro College, a cosmetology school that taught African American women the chemistry of cosmetics. Due to Annie's instruction and vision, the college created almost 75,000 jobs for women, and Poro College became a pioneering example of the black beauty industry.
By the 1920s, Annie Turnbo Malone was a multi-millionaire, and in 1924 alone, she paid income tax of almost $40,000! Although extremely wealthy, Annie lived a modest life and donated thousands of dollars to the Howard University College of Medicine and the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home — where she also served on the board of directors for 24 years. For her contributions to the community, Annie was awarded an honorary degree from Howard University, and each year St. Louis celebrates an annual Annie Malone parade to support children's charities.
Madam C. J. Walker
Madame C.J. Walker was introduced to the world of African American hair care through her brothers, who all practiced as barbers. As a Black woman who had first-hand experience with the damage that unsafe hair products caused, Madame C.J. Walker was encouraged to develop a better alternative. While working as a sales agent for Annie Turnbo Malone, Walker gained invaluable knowledge and was inspired to create her own hair care line.
Madame C.J. Walker sold The Walker System hair products door-to-door. As part of their sales pitch, her employees also taught consumers how to safely and effectively care for their hair. Soon The Walker System was expanded to retailers and black beauty salons throughout the U.S. As an advocate of black women; Madam C. J. Walker helped thousands of her employees gain economic independence through her training programs in the "Walker System." Walker also taught other black women how to budget efficiently and build their own businesses. In 1917, she began organizing her sales agents and created the "National Beauty Culturists and Benevolent Association of Madam C. J. Walker Agents." Its first annual conference in the summer of 1917 attracted 200 attendees and is believed to be one of the first national gatherings of women entrepreneurs.
Sarah Spencer Washington
Sarah Spencer Washington was a successful businesswoman and philanthropist who founded the Apex News and Hair Company. Sarah's interest in developing beauty products began when she was studying advanced chemistry at Columbia University. She took her knowledge and used it to launch her cosmetics empire, with products such as pressing oils, pomades, hot combs, perfumes, lipsticks, and beauty creams.
The Apex empire grew to include eleven beauty schools across the United States, as well as international schools that specialized in teaching women to care for their hair with Apex products. Sarah also became a significant employer for her community, employing an estimated forty-five thousand sales agents across the U.S., in addition to 500 hundred employees throughout her stores.
Cementing her legacy as a pioneering female entrepreneur, Sarah Spencer Washington expanded her business to include the Apex Publishing Company, Apex Laboratories Apex Drug Company, and Apex Beauty Colleges. In 1939 she was recognized as the "Most Distinguished Businesswomen" at New York's World Fair. This brought Sarah international recognition, and she officially became one of the U.S's first black millionaires. Sarah used her success and fortune to give back to her community in various ways, including giving an endowment of a home for young girls and contributing twenty acres of farmland as a campsite for African American youths.
As of the 1980s, the Apex College of Beauty in Philadelphia became America's oldest black institution of beauty technology and is one of the country's most successful and long-standing cosmetology schools.