Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Against All Odds: The Rags to Riches Story of Sarah Breedlove Walker

“You got a dream, you gotta protect it. People can’t do something themselves, they wanna tell you, you can’t do it. If you want something, go get it. Period.”
-–Will Smith, The Pusuit of Happyness

"Success Motivation" seems to have become a cottage industry in this country. It didn't start with Tony Robbins. The list of familiar names in this genre is a long one: Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich), Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie, and the seed corn for many of these -- Horatio Alger. Nowadays with social media we've got a whole new generation of self-empowerment gurus tooting the horn for blogging and social media as the new avenue to bank vaults of revenue.

Whereas it's fairly easy to poke fun of get-rich-quick hucksterism (as P.T. Barnum observed, a sucker is born every minute), in truth this country has from its earliest foundations been built on dreams. The Pilgrims and other early settlers saw America as a New Eden, a land of opportunity and possibilities. The Founding Fathers risked all they had to wrestle this unformed body of people into an independent land of opportunity. If you were a negro slave, however, the American Dream was not quite the same experience.

Horatio Alger published 100 books about poor boys who achieved success and riches through hard work, determination and integrity. Though the later books became caricatures of the foundational narrative (Ragged Dick) the "Horatio Alger story" became so much a part of the American culture for the next century that you never had to read any of the books and you knew the story.

ALL THESE THOUGHTS came to mind at once when I read the PBS account of Grassroots Saleswoman Sarah Breedlove Walker. Born to freed slaves just after the Civil War, she was poor, illiterate and a woman, the most unlikely candidate for a Horatio Alger rags-to-riches adventure that you'd ever encounter. Walker became one of the wealthiest women in America and a major fountain of philanthropic influence. She did this at a time when women could not own property, did not have the right to vote, and women were pretty much prevented from being in management.

Walker began her "career" as a washerwoman, bringing home a buck and a half a day to support her and her daughter. Over time she found inspiration from Booker T. Washington who encouraged blacks to learn skills and lift themselves up by hard work and "emphasizing good character."

The message resonated and Sarah Breedlove Walker pursued her dream. I can imagine that there were ample quantities of nay-sayers telling her that she'd never accomplish what she set out to do, making a small fortune in beauty products. The PBS account states:

By 1910, Walker had moved the Mme. C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company to the railroad hub of Indianapolis, Indiana. Advertising and marketing became the keys to her success. One of the largest employers of African American women, she carefully screened, groomed, and trained a 3,000-person strong sales force that was motivated by working on commission. In addition to door-to-door sales, Walker sold via mail order, and personally demonstrated her products in churches, schools, and other gathering places. She took lessons in public speaking and penmanship, and cultivated a striking persona, in fine clothing and a chauffeur-driven electric carriage.

Her contributions to African American orphanages and a new fledgling organization called the NAACP made her one of the best known women in America during her lifetime.

What is your dream? Don't listen to the naysayers. Nurture it.

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“The vision that you glorify in your mind, the ideal that you enthrone in your heart, this you will build your life by, and this you will become.” –James Allen

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