Lessons for women owned businesses from Octavia Spencer’s Self Made Series: The Life of Madame C.J Walker.

Octavia Spencer plays Madame C.J Walker

Self Made is a Netflix four part movie series that was released towards the end of March this year. The lead role is played by Octavia Spencer, Blair Underwood plays her husband C.J and Tiffany Hardish plays Madame C.J ‘s daughter. I found the series so captivating when I watched it during the first weekend of lockdown that I finished all the episodes in one go…(don’t judge me yet). I was ready to do an immediate review as soon as I finished watching it but I decided to wait and have more people watch it so this post would be more contextual.

There are lessons to be learnt from Madame ‘s life that are relevant especially for women running their own businesses. Here are some of the lessons I gleaned. Feel free to add yours in the comments section of this post.

1. Start with your own story – Madame had been trying to sell the hair grower made by her friend Addie unsuccessfully. The day she shared her hair journey story and how the product she was selling had solved her hair loss problem is the day her sales picked off. The only thing customers are looking for are solutions to the problems they have. They will pay what they consider a fair price. Your focus should be on how your product or service solves the customer’s problem. If this is actually your own testimonial then you have hit the sweet spot.

2. Hard work pays – you will agree that Madame C.J worked hard,really hard. She put in the hours and the results were visible. She started off washing clothes, became a hairdresser and eventually she became the first black American female millionaire. Working hard is about not giving up, not taking no for an answer and refusing to be stereotyped because you are a woman.

3. Don’t give up– this lesson literally runs like a thread throughout the series. Madame tried her formula several times until she came up with a product that she was happy with. Even when she didn’t get the funding she needed from the people she first approached she didn’t give up. She just kept at it. She reminded me of the widow in the Bible from the book of Luke 18 vs 3-7 who kept on coming before the judge to get justice against someone who had wronged her. The widow was so persistent that she wearied the judge. By the way the Bible says this was an unrighteous judge. It doesn’t matter who you are dealing with. Keep at it sis. (I always try and find an opportunity to preach)

4. Build a network– you need a network of people around you to support your dreams. Dr Sam Chand calls these people ladder holders. They literally hold the ladder for you as you climb. Even though their relationship eventually ended, C.J, Madame’s husband was initially very supportive. Freeman was also very supportive of Madame. He believed in her dream so much he borrowed money from his cousin Sweetness to become the first investor in Madame’s business.

What would have happened if Madame and Addie had collaborated instead of competing?

4. Watch out for the weakest link in your team – Madame’s son in law almost cost her the whole business. It was his carelessness that caused a fire that set the business back. He then went on to share company information with Addie who was Madame’s biggest competitor. Identify who the weakest link is in your team and manage them from the onset.

5. Collaborate instead of competing – for a greater part of the series, Madame and her former friend Addie were fierce competitors. Even though they started out as friends, somewhere along the way things got ugly. Addie even tried to “steal” some of the women who were working for Madame. I can only imagine what would have happened if Madame and Addie had actually collaborated instead of competing. Ladies, I believe the sky is big enough for all the birds t fly so collaborations are actually beneficial especially for small businesses.

6. Take those closest to you along with you – my own view is that even though C.J was initially very supportive of Madame, I got the sense that the vision for the business was not really shared. C.J was happy with the level of success they had achieved and yet Madame still wanted more. As a woman business owner, it’s important that your significant other is fully onboard with the vision and plans for your business. He might not be involved in the day to day running of the business but his full support makes your success easier.

7. Empower others – Madame’s success wasn’t hers alone. She had a team of direct sales women who were part of her distribution network. Her success allowed her to make a difference to women who would not have been able to provide for their families.

Madame and her husband C.J played by Blair Underwood

8. Get time to rest – this lesson comes from what Madame failed to do. She worked so hard so didn’t give herself enough time to rest. Hard work is important but so is rest.

9. Build on firm foundations – towards the end of the series we actually learn that Madame had stolen her friend Addie’s formula. Whether this is true in real life or it was a twist for movie purposes only, the lesson is to make sure your business is built on firm foundations. I shudder to think what would have happened if Addie had decided to take legal action against Madame. All the years of hard work would have been completely lost.

10. Build a good brand– Madame’s success was a result of an excellent marketing strategy. Being a marketer myself, i was impressed. Her formula was excellent as it solved the problem the customer had. Her distribution strategy using other women as a type of direct sales force was spot on. She was clear what type of woman she wanted to appeal to and didn’t go with fads of what everyone else thought sold. Her brand name which she built very carefully and tied excellently to her as a person was a stroke of genius. Even when C.J married another wife and tried to use the same brand name, it just wasn’t going to succeed. The world already new “the real” Madame C.J Walker. Her name was actually Sarah but she insisted on being called Madame C.J Walker because she was building a brand. Don’t underestimate the power of building a great brand.

So what are some of the lessons that you learnt from Self Made? Do share them in the comments section.

Are you starting out on your own trying to build your business?

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If you answered yes to any of the above questions and you are ready to take your business to the next level send us an email at muminstilettos@gmail.com

Published by Mum in Stilettos

I started blogging when i became a mother. I was struggling to manage the demands of being a working mom and being present for my baby's key development milestones. Initially this was a rant about my experiences in the office and at home. Over the years it has evolved into an online support community for mothers who are growing their families as they grow their careers. I am a wife and mum to 3 amazing children. The girl who introduced me the "mother" title is 8 years ol and our twins are five years, 6 months. During the day I am have a job i love as marketer for a multinational FMCG company. When i get home, I have another equally rewarding job called being a mother. When everyone is tucked in bed, I find time to blog about my journey as a mum in stilettos and build this community for us working moms so we can thrive at home and at work.

8 thoughts on “Lessons for women owned businesses from Octavia Spencer’s Self Made Series: The Life of Madame C.J Walker.

  1. I loved watching the movie and best of all reading the review from your blog. I would like to give a different perspective on the firm foundations bit where you talk about Madame ‘stealing’ Addie’s formula. I think there are different ways of identifying or sourcing for business ideas. It could be that Madame indeed copied her friends formula but she developed it and adopted her own ideas and made the product her own. That is the reason maybe throughout the movie it was not discovered that it was stolen because it was not a copy and paste of Addie’s. Most business ideas are similar but not identical. There is that unique element or concept that makes each product unique to it’s brand. I’m not encouraging anybody to steal because it is wrong and the legal implications are painful and messy to deal with. However, nobody has to reinvent the wheel. Identify gaps in the existing ideas and develop your own unique brand to fill those gaps.
    Something else that stood out in the movies is how Madame belittled CJ even in the presence of other men bearing in mind that those were times when men really dominated in society. I wish she could have given him more assurance that he matters to her and in the growth and development of the business.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My biggest concern was that when confronted by Addie about stealing the formula, Madame did not refute the allegations. The only thing she mentioned was how she tried to work together with Addie and how much they could have done together. I must say this made me very uncomfortable. Product formulations are always one of the things that give businesses their competitive edge. That is why most big companies protect them properly.
      I totally agree with you on the way Madame treated C.J. It was really wrong and I bet I real life the divorce settlement must have cost her a lot.
      I really appreciate your engagement with the post 😊😊😊.


  2. Hello. I actually found out what NOT to do in a business from the series. Addie should have patented her formula. MADAM put her name and face on product this hasnt helped its continuity right now it seems like a historical product. The pharmaceutical deal she cancelled didnt help her brand because the sales woman route has limitations unless they own businesses. Her aggression and need for women to take a role in building wealth is inspiring and she got women investors on board which is great…crowdfunding was a great way of describing it. She sidelined Mr CJ which wasnt fair because he helped her move to Atlanta (I think) a lesson is to have stakeholders have some shareholding or important roles to avoid resentment within a company. I am building a business brand so I admire her story…sadly would love it if her product was still around big enough


    1. You are spot on. Addie really should have patented her formula. I however also read somewhere that in real life her business wasn’t as small as presented in the movie and she was also actually a millionaire in her own right. I will research further on this.
      I have a different view on the distribution deal. What she might have beed trying to do was a model similar to Tupperware or Avon which are not sold in retail but through a network of sales ladies who don’t necessarily have shareholding in the company. You just need to balance scaling the number to sales women with making it attractive enough for those who are part of the team to actually earn a living.
      I also agree with you regarding the way she treated C.J. She kept on referring to the business as “my business” and I bet CJ might have felt resentful and insecure.
      I would love to read the book for a deeper insight.


      1. I read that she was almost a millionaire but did not realise the million mark. Mainly due to the fact that she funded a lot of her own money to Civil Rights movements for her black community…which is another important lesson that she was part of Black Excellence and empowerment in a time her race was discriminated against. Again I am not so obsessed with her financial wealth but her global impact is commendable.. black hair is big business too


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