Women in Philanthropy: Madam C.J. Walker

John F. Kennedy School of Government (Harvard)



Case Study Sector


One of four cases—on Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, Elizabeth "Betty" Bottomley Noyce, Madam C.J. Walker, and Mrs. Russell Sage (Margaret Olivia Slocum)—that provide essential histories of the lives and philanthropic motivations and choices of some of the most significant women philanthropists in American history. The cases provide useful material for those looking to enliven historical philanthropy courses with biographical materials. At the same time, they serve as points of comparison for understanding contemporary philanthropy.

Born to two former slaves on a Louisiana plantation, Sarah Breedlove’s early life was extremely difficult. Having no money and little formal education, she worked diligently and endlessly not only to achieve but also to survive. After marrying and giving birth at a very young age, Sarah moved herself to a more promising geographical area and continued to work to give her daughter a better life than she knew as a child. Her own inexplicable hair loss and a detailed dream led to the creation of a hair care product empire. Sarah tapped into a relatively undeveloped market that served African-American women at the turn of the century and subsequently became the first female millionaire of the 20th century. Madam C.J. Walker used her financial influence and social clout to benefit women, African-Americans, and her fellow citizens by contributing large sums to charitable causes. Her generosity and social concern established her as a well-loved philanthropist of her day. Although most renowned for her role as an entrepreneur, she established a precedent by incorporating philanthropy and community spirit into the workings of her business.



  • Field Building
  • Partnership
  • Strategy


  • Northern America

Blog Posts

More on time, value, and time limits

February 19, 2018

A new report applies a theory of time and value in philanthropy to three real cases, to see how a foundation could decide whether to operate with a limited life, based on the amount and kind of value it hopes to create.


Oct 05

Rip Rapson
President and CEO
The Kresge Foundation