When Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, was a gleam in her parent’s eye, Madame C.J. Walker had already made her fortune. A child of freed slaves, Walker is role model extraordinaire, not just for women and Blacks, but for anyone who desires to rise above their circumstances to achieve their dream.
That was the message Walker’s great-great granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles brought to Pittsburgh at the invitation of the Ujamaa Collective Oct. 11 at the August Wilson Center. “Redefining Business and Beauty: Lessons from the Life and Legacy of Madame C.J. Walker,” co-hosted by Women for a Healthy Environment, Center for Victims of Violence and Crime’s Enlightened Voices for the Environment and New Voices Pittsburgh, drew parallels with the self-made Walker and contemporary, grassroots women entrepreneurs.
Though much is known about Walker, little is known about the local connection to Walker’s history and her legacy. Bundles is a former producer with CBS & ABC news operations. While studying at Columbia University her professor and mentor Phyllis Garland (a former Pittsburgh Courier reporter and editor) encouraged Bundles to base her dissertation on her heritage and specifically, Walker.
An additional Pittsburgh connection dates back over a century. During her brief stay in Pittsburgh, Walker operated the Lelia College of Beauty Culturists at 2518 Wylie Ave. (Bundles found the school listed in a 1909 Black business directory), and Courier publisher Robert L. Vann was an advisor.
Because she reached her business apex before women got the right vote, Walker had to fight strategically to be seen, heard and taken seriously in what was truly a man’s world. Booker T. Washington reluctantly acknowledged her despite her accomplishments as an entrepreneur, manufacturer and wealth creator.
Walker’s example and legacy continues through the women of Ujamaa Collective, a non-profit that educates, empowers and supports women entrepreneurs of African descent, shared during a panel following Bundles presentation.
Founder Celeta Hickman shared that Ujamaa was based on a tradition of community empowerment she learned of when working on a local history project. “During segregation the business often served as banks, making loans that White-owned financial institutions would not. A dollar would circulate at least seven times before it left the community.”
LaKeisha Wolf, owner of Enjoy Yourself and an Ujamaa member, shared a journey of self-discovery that led to her business. She specializes in holistic and organic products that are made with natural botanicals and fair trade ingredients.
Michelle Naccarati-Chapkis of WHE overviewed an assortment of popular hair care products containing toxins. She shared information on pending legislation which would require chemicals to be proven safe before they are allowed for use in products.