Mattel is honoring Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire, with her own Barbie doll.
Walker, a hair care magnate from the early 1900s, is the latest influential figure to join Mattel’s Inspiring Women Series, which celebrates courageous and innovative women. She joins other prominent women like Maya Angelou, Ida B. Wells and Ella Fitzgerald, who also have had Barbies made in their likenesses. Barbie’s Carlyle Nuera, who designed Walker’s doll, says he was familiar with the hair care pioneer’s work as an entrepreneur, activist and philanthropist.
“She’s been on my dream list of icons to add to our Inspiring Women series,” Nuera said in a statement on the Mattel Creations website. “She created opportunities for herself, and uplifted other Black women, making her truly an inspiring woman.”
Nuera said he made sure to capture Walker’s essence with his design by incorporating her favorite colors into the doll’s clothes, along with incorporating Walker’s hair care products. Walker’s Barbie wears a ruffled purple blouse paired with a blue full-length skirt and holds a miniature Wonderful Hair Grower accessory in her hands. Nuera said he also collaborated with members of Walker’s family during the design process.
“We worked directly with A’Lelia Bundles, the great-great granddaughter and official biographer of Madam C.J. Walker, and an author and journalist,” he said. “My research into what Walker wore, as well as what was typical of the early 1900s, was supplemented by access to the Walker family archives. A’Lelia sent us rare photos, as well as cultural insight for what was ideal for Black women at the time and insight to what Walker herself loved.”
Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 to former enslaved sharecroppers on a cotton-plantation in Delta, Louisiana. She was one of five children and the first to be born free. By the age of 18, Walker had her first and only child, also named A’Lelia, and would lose her husband two years later. She then moved to St. Louis and married Charles J. Walker, who helped promote her business.
After experiencing hair loss from a scalp condition in the 1890s, Walker experimented with at-home treatment remedies and developed her first hair product in 1906. By 1908, Walker successfully established herself as an entrepreneur when she opened the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in Pittsburgh, where she trained future beauticians and created beauty products. When she transferred the company to Indianapolis in 1910, her business had already generated millions of dollars in profits, making her the first Black woman to become a self-made millionaire. Walker also donated money to philanthropic organizations, including the St. Louis Colored Orphans’ Home and the Flanner Settlement House in Indianapolis, which became the first settlement house for Black people in the city. Walker died in 1919 at the age of 51 from hypertension and kidney failure.
In 2002, A’Lelia Bundles, Walker’s great-great granddaughter, wrote “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker,” which became the inspiration for the 2020 Netflix fictional series “Self Made” about Walker’s life played by Octavia Spencer. She said it was a joy to work with Mattel in designing her great-great grandmother’s doll.
“Their design team graciously welcomed me throughout all steps of the process — from hair development to packaging — to capture and celebrate the legacy of this trailblazing Black businesswoman,”Bundles said in a statement given to NBC News. “I can’t wait for a new generation to be inspired by her story and to tell their own stories through a role model who came before them.”