Groundbreakers

A Million Dollar Idea

Just north of New York City, a grand Italianate mansion in Irvington, New York welcomes guests to its lavish interiors and surrounding grounds. This exquisite abode is the Villa Lewaro, a 34-room 20,000-square-foot home – built by the first female self-made millionaire in the U.S., a Black American woman named Madame C.J. Walker.

Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Louisiana, Walker made millions developing and marketing beauty products for Black women. The young entrepreneur first found success in Colorado, selling beauty products for Annie Malone’s Poro brand. Through her marriage to Charles Walker in 1906, she became Madame C.J. Walker. Breaking away from Malone’s corporation, she founded her business, Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, that same year—quite the busy twelve months. 

Walker’s business quickly boomed through door-to-door selling, training, and establishing beauty salons. She moved to Pittsburgh and opened Leila College which trained hair culturists. She taught employees the “Walker System”– a method designed to promote hair growth and to condition the scalp using her products. In 1913, her daughter A’lelia convinced her to open a beauty salon in the up-and-coming NYC neighborhood of Harlem.

In 1918, the Villa Lewaro was born. Designed by Vertner Tandy, the first African American architect registered in New York, the home is considered one of his greatest works. For the estate, Walker requested Tandy intentionally position the front of the house to face the road, so that passersby could better see its grandeur.

Madame C.J. Walker passed away at Villa Lewaro only a year after its completion, but not before hosting the likes of Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois. The home was often used as a meeting center for race relations issues, and continuing that legacy it is today owned by the New Voices Foundation, helping women entrepreneurs of color discover their own million-dollar ideas.

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