Social consciousness among business leaders is not new.

I begin this part on corporate social responsibility (CSR) by paying tribute to Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madam C. J. Walker. In her time she was the wealthiest African-American woman and the “nation’s first self-made female millionaire.”1 She was also one of the first entrepreneurs in America to make social purpose and business work together. After having fought for civil rights for Blacks all her life, she donated a large part of her fortune to charity upon her death in 1919.

She was born in 1867, a few years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Her parents were former cotton plantation slaves, and Breedlove started with absolutely nothing—and with the odds stacked against her. Orphaned at the age of 7, married at 14, and widowed with a daughter at 20, she worked long and hard for a pittance, up until 1905. That year, starting from scratch, she created the C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, through which she developed and sold her own line of hair care products.

Her star products included a hair lotion and a pomade made from extracts of traditional African herbs. Her life took her way beyond her tough childhood and challenging early life, and she became a legendary entrepreneur and philanthropist. At the National Negro Business League Convention in July 1912, she declared, “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. I was promoted from ...

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