In honor of Black History Month, we will be profiling four prominent Black entrepreneurs from American history. Throughout February, we will celebrate the contributions Black Americans have made in business and look for insight into how we can be more successful in our own enterprises.
Annie Turnbo Malone was a chemist, a business mogul, a philanthropist, and a mentor. She revolutionized hair care for African-Americans by developing and manufacturing a line of products tailored specifically to their needs. There are a number of lessons that we can learn about growing a business, being an entrepreneur, and community leadership by studying Annie Malone’s accomplishments.
Annie Malone was born to former slaves, Robert and Isabella Turnbo. Her father fought for the Union in the Civil War and her mother escaped to Kentucky with her children. Annie was born later in Illinois, one of eleven kids. Her parents died when she was still very young, and the orphaned girl went to live with her older sister. In high school, Annie was particularly interested in chemistry. Annie was frequently sick when she was young and it eventually caused her to withdraw from school.
Annie grew up at the turn of the 20th century and she loved to play with her sisters’ hair. It was fashionable for women to attempt to straighten their hair using heavy oils like goose fat and bacon grease. The previously popular braided styles had come to represent the fields of slavery, while straight hair represented equality and freedom. Unfortunately, these products were very damaging to the hair and scalp of the women who used them. There were simply no products on the market designed to straighten African-American hair.
Identifying A Potential Market, and Filling A Potential Market
With her knowledge of chemistry, Annie Malone began to develop her own line of products specifically focused on the hair care needs of African Americans. Her products helped African-American women straighten their hair without the extensive damage that other methods caused. She opened her first shop in St. Louis in 1902 and capitalized on a growing trend among American women: the door to door saleswomen. Her product was developed, manufactured, marketed to, and sold by African-American women, including one Sarah Breedlove Davis, also known as Madame C. J. Walker. Annie was a multi-millionaire by the 20’s, and she paid the highest income tax in the state of Missouri in 1924: $40,000.
Annie founded the Poro College in St. Louis in 1917. This first-of-it’s kind institution was dedicated to teaching cosmetology for African-Americans and employed 200 people. The building was demolished in 1965, but the industry had taken off.
With her success, she was able to give back to her community significantly. Annie Malone was a revolutionary woman in both industries of chemistry and business, in addition to her contributions to the African-American community where she found her market and inspiration. Annie’s wide-ranging philanthropic efforts are still giving back to the community today. Her $25,000 donation was the funding behind the St. Louis Colored YMCA. She raised the cost for and sat on the board of the St. Louis Colored Orphan’s Home, renamed the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center in 1946.
What Can We Learn About Running A Business From Annie Malone?
Annie was bold. Even though she was, by all accounts, an orphaned high school dropout, she had the confidence and the persistence to build an empire that changed the lives of countless African-American men and women. She pioneered an entire segment of the hair care industry as we know it today. There are many different lessons we could choose to draw from her story, especially on strategies for growing a small business, but let’s look at the message about being an entrepreneur with a great idea.
It all started from seeing a real need in her community and being able to step forward and provide the solution. What need does your small business fill? Have you taken the time to understand the problems that your customers are facing? Annie Malone filled in a need in a community that she knew, in a market that she understood. How well do you understand your market? By positioning yourself as the best solution to your customers needs, you might find yourself pioneering your own market segment!