What Madame CJ Walker Taught Me About Marketing, Vulnerability and Being a Woman Entrepreneur

Two days after the horrifying Vizag Gas leaks, I sat in my apartment feeling shaken and lost. The morning of the leak, I had woken up feeling upbeat and optimistic. By 6:15 that morning, I had completed my cooking and planned to open my laptop within a couple of hours after finishing my exercises and breakfast.

Of course, the leaks changed it all. Within minutes my serenity morphed into an urgent chaos. The house slowly filling up with the heavy smell of paint, the boys and I rushing out with whatever we could gather, literally dragging my parents from their smug demeanour and finally all of us driving towards a nameless destination. It was surreal. It was scary. Finally we found succour in a friend’s place. However even though we knew we were safe, a sort of unease spread through me. How long were we expected to live like this? Watching the stats of COVID and the horrors of the gas leak at the same time?

Anyway 48 hours after we returned as I sat on my now spruced table, I felt listless and drained. The projects that I was working on just a few days ago seemed hazy and dangling in my mental space somewhere. Try as I might, I could not shine light on them, bring them closer. I felt hopeless. And lost. Inhaling deeply, I shut the laptop and walked out of my room. I promised myself that I would come back to my projects in some time.

 I needed time to re-group and re-frame. That was when I walked into my living room and switched on the TV. “Self Made” stared back at me from my screen. A Black woman with sparkling skin and eyes, hair stylishly coiffured, dressed in green robe, her chin up, a tiny determined smile playing on her lips, staring directly at me.

I wanted to know more about this woman. I wanted to witness her life journey, understand the subtler nuances therein, know how she transformed all the pain in her life into a victory song that was hers and hers alone and yet reached out to tens and millions of black women all over the world so that only did they feel safe in the ensconced circle of sisterhood but felt courageous enough to spread their wings into their own personal skies.

Nah this was not a story about a woman stepping from a smaller cage into a bigger prison. It was powerful and magnificent. And I wanted to listen to it. As a passionate NLPer, a Change Enabler, as a Mother and as a Marketer who was just beginning to love what she did.

So here goes my analysis:

1. Madam C J Walker’s Values: In NLP, values are not moral or ethical values. They are the criteria based upon which people make important decisions, choose one thing over the other, relate to others and themselves, and show up in the world in their own myriad ways. Values lie deeply embedded in the unconscious; this means they are outside of conscious awareness.

So how do you know a person’s values? Simple, through their actions and their language patterns. For example, a person who chooses to spend their weekends reading their favourite books might value solitude over fun with their friends.

Coming to Madame CJ Walker, long before she became the first Black woman millionaire of America, she was Sarah, the washerwoman who washed the clothes of the White people and lived on a  wage as low as $1/day. Sarah had known poverty, abuse, shame and violence all her life. But even in her bleakest moments, she never forgot to dream. And although she had not known even the tiniest hint of affluence until then, she valued the freedom that money promised. She was courageous enough to want that for herself and her daughter in a fierce, unapologetic way.

But did Madame C J Walker value only money and freedom? Nah she valued inclusiveness more. When she stood in the crowded market places to sell her hair grower to women, she embraced her vulnerability like no other. She told them her experiences of being “otherized”, of being excluded all due to her loss of hair and of course her colour. Women from poor and humble backgrounds who came to the market to buy meat and vegetables were drawn to her story because it was their own too. Because until that moment, they strongly believed that wanting to look beautiful was only for the rich and the privileged. In purchasing her products, they slowly began to reclaim their selves, their brilliance, and their creativity.

Madame C J Walker’s decision-making process was also clean and uncomplicated. By taking a particular decision, was she being inclusive? Did taking a particular decision spell freedom for her? If no, she would back off from the decision. Days before she finally breathes her last, Madame CJ Walker backs off from the famous Sanders deal because that would mean depriving many Black women of their livelihood.

To you my dear Reader, I ask you this, “What is the one thing that you value the most, be it your personal or professional life?”

“What is the common theme that emerged from the past passion projects that you completed/executed?”

2. Madame CJ Walker’s Motivation filters

A person can be motivated either towards attaining a specific value and make it tangible/real or move away from the negative consequences of not attaining that particular value. For instance, early in my fitness journey, I was not just trying to “lose” weight but was also trying to “run away” from my past memories where I was shamed and humiliated for the way I looked and dressed. Be it a hug, or an office promotion, our brains think in terms of rewards. So when you hear someone say, “I am tired of running all the time,” you know in their minds, they have not created a specific stimulus for transformation. In their minds they end up running “away” from something that triggers them in a negative way. And they end up exhausted all the time.

I know I did until I realized the futility of it all.

Sarah the young woman was always on the run. Be it the abuse inflicted by her brother-in-law or penury inflicted upon her by the nature of her birth. Or simply the fact that she was a Black woman who dared to dream. But while she was escaping from everything that threatened to break and violate her, she was also in the process of creating something deep and meaningful every time she embraced her new role. For the young Sarah, the end that she chose  was rewarding and tangible and promised her a better  life as compared to her previous role.

Madame CJ Walker was predominantly “Towards motivated” with a little bit of “away from” sprinkled in.

“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.”

 To you my Dear Reader, I ask you this, “As you are in the process of reaching your goals, is there something you are moving away from? And if yes, what is there in the direction that you move? Is it something that is real and tangible? If yes, how far is it something from your eye level?”

And how did Sarah do this? She did it by embodying the identity of the future “Madame Walker”. Even when Sarah was broke and working out of her humble abode, she talked unabashedly about starting a factory, employing many women, enabling them by giving them opportunities and bringing about a transformation in their lives.  And when she does that, her chin goes up, a sudden light enters her eyes and to a discerning audience, it is obvious that at that moment, her identity has undergone a subtle but powerful shift.

“As if Frame” is a powerful frame. Be it Sarah or Madam Walker, they embodied this frame every day, every moment whenever they wanted to usher in a powerful change in their lives.

“As if frame” is very different from idle dreaming. In the latter, you are very dissociated from what you want to achieve.  In the former, you live, breathe and internalize your goal in such a way that you are already existing in that future moment and all you need to do is make shifts in your present life so that the both merge in a way that is aligned and congruent.

People talk about visualizations and affirmations, but tell me is it possible to have more of something if you are scared to embody what you aspire for? Or you don’t believe in your own inherent capacity to achieve?

3. Madame CJ Walker’s highest purpose

Once upon a time, quite long ago, I sat by a babbling brook in the forest surrounded by nothing but birdsong. It had just rained and the air was heavy with the fragrance of petrichor. As I sat there staring at the tiny pebbles, root and soil, time stalled, the boundaries between my inner world and outer world blurred and I became a tiny droplet on the leaf. Sometimes when I am in the process of coaching a client, I experience a moment like this. It is profound, deep and powerful and I experience a joy of the most intimate kind.

So what was Madame CJ Walker’s highest purpose? Was it creating hair products for black women? And also demonstrate to them how they had always been beautiful? And connect them to their innate courage and creativity? So that they felt emboldened to embrace their dreams on their own terms?

I think yes.

 Even when Madame C J Walker was making humble beginnings, she was connected to this higher purpose and that is what made her an exemplary decision maker, brilliant marketer and a powerful story teller. She embodied her higher purpose, believed in her innate brilliance, embraced her vulnerability and made bold strides towards her future.

Have you watched the web series, “Self Made?”

Have you ever lived in the “As if Frame”?

If yes, tell me your experience. I would love to know more.

Final Thoughts  

I have been writing this essay since the past two days. There is so much more I would like to say but I will keep it for another day. In the end, this is what I would like to say, “What we perceive in others is a reflection of ourselves.” And this perception of others could be a part of us that is just stepping out into light(after being in darkness for quite some time) or a part of us that we are re-connecting with(after losing touch), yet again. In the end, change or transformation does not happen overnight. It happens organically over time, through the stories that we tell ourselves, through the stories that we embody, the frames that we mindfully internalize and how we show up in the world in our own myriad ways.

(C): Sridevi Datta

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18 comments

  1. Aditya Guthey

    Love this. I too recently watched the movie and felt inspired. I love how you summarized her purpose statement. I totally agree. Very riveting to read your article.

    1. Sridevi74

      Thanks a lot Aditya. I am glad you were able to connect with the movie and to my blog. Lovely having you on my blog. Welcome 😉

  2. Poorna

    Oh I loved it! The way you wrote about values and inclusiveness, and it gave answers to so many questions, answers to which I was seeking.

    1. Sridevi74

      Yay! fabulous. Thank you so much Poorna <3

  3. Chakra Incognita

    ‘“As if frame” is very different from idle dreaming. In the latter, you are very dissociated from what you want to achieve. In the former, you live, breathe and internalize your goal in such a way that you are already existing in that future moment and all you need to do is make shifts in your present life so that the both merge in a way that is aligned and congruent.

    People talk about visualizations and affirmations, but tell me is it possible to have more of something if you are scared to embody what you aspire for? Or you don’t believe in your own inherent capacity to achieve?”
    I love this. Lately I had become disconnected from living in these future frames and it took this pandemic to shift me into that mode again.
    Lovely, inspiring post!

    1. Sridevi74

      Thank you for reading my posts from a space of openness and curiosity Chakra. Thank you for connecting with me at so many levels. And mostly thank you for who you are. Hugs <3

  4. Parul Chopra Buttan

    Absolutely brilliantly written Sri!!
    I savoured every word and every thought.
    I realised I use the ‘As if’ frame extensively in my work as a doctor/surgeon. And it works like a charm, continuing the virtuous cycle of using it more and gleaning more powerful results.
    In my personal life, there is a state I’ve been wanting to embody for quite a while now. It’s too far away and above my eye level. I look up to it like a little girl with dreamy eyes and don’t find it within reach. I am strongly drawn to people who I perceive to embody it. And the ‘as if’ frame, I’ve not applied to it till today.

    Just a few hours ago, while contemplating a situation that’s arisen, I was toying with the idea of approaching it ‘as if’ I was that goal state.

    Your article helps me dare.
    Thank you so much.

    1. Sridevi74

      I am glad that my article made you dare. Thank you for all that you do Parul. My best wishes <3

  5. Vijaya Lakshmi

    I love this post and would like to watch the movie soon.

    1. Sridevi74

      Amma, please do and thank you!

  6. Jyothirmayi Mukthineni

    Pure brilliance in expression Sridevi ! Loved it all through ! Thank you for engaging us readers to connect with self and introspect as you wrote. The one thing i value most is “connection” . The theme that emerged from my past projects is inclusiveness & compassion . In the direction i move …, i see the future state, totally lit up … bright , a little above the eye level . I so want to apply “as if” frame … and i am working on it. Thank you for reminding me of my own goal while reading this beautiful article on an intense , bold , determined, realist, as i percieved her through the movie!

    1. Sridevi74

      And that compassion, connection, and inclusiveness shine through in everything you do Jyo. Thank you for reading this post with an open, discerning mind. My best wishes in all that you choose to do <3

  7. Rucha Awati

    Loved your post. I could soo relate to the ‘As-if’ frame as I am living in that frame lately to achieve a goal. And this post not motivated me but inspired me to be more in this frame. Just like Madame CJ Walker I have embodied my higher purpose and am taking bold strides towards future.

    A powerful read!!

    1. Sridevi74

      Thanks a lot Rucha <3 My best wishes in all that you endeavour and create <3

  8. Chitra Nagesh

    A very precise and analytical arrangement of thoughts – thank you Sridevi for it brought back my sessions with Bhavana. Your blog has come at the right time to reinforce the goal setting activity which we all did.
    I have not watched the movie but with your views it would be a great experience to do that.

    1. Sridevi74

      Thank you so much Chitra. I am glad you were able to connect with my post. My best wishes for all that you choose to do. <3

  9. Sangeeta

    Sree! I felt the serene flow in this writing. I love the way you use the words ❤️. The highlighters are just perfect, straightly addressing me(the reader-your inclusion).

    Presently, I’m making perfect portioned life kitchidi. So working on all areas that you have mentioned in the article.

    I am looking forward to see you reach hights which you are aiming for Sree. 😍

    1. Sridevi74

      Thank you so much, Sangeeta. May you also reach all that you are aiming for. Hugs <3

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