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The other Ms. Walker

3/23/2018, 9:58 a.m.
Nine years ago, when she was just 26, Natalie Cofield was looking for a mentor. A young woman with entrepreneurship ...

Julianne Malveaux

Nine years ago, when she was just 26, Natalie Cofield was looking for a mentor.  A young woman with entrepreneurship hard-wired into her spirit, Ms. Cofield was discouraged that people did not take her seriously and was disheartened that she could not make the connections she needed to further her entrepreneurial mission. So she started reading biographies of businesswomen, hoping to find inspiration on the pages that she could not find in real life.

Ms. Cofield found a kindred spirit in Madame C.J. Walker, whose life jumped off the page. Madame Walker was the first African-American woman millionaire, it is said. The woman who used herbs, hair knowledge and a hot comb to create an empire. The woman who funded civil rights activity, and also boldly admonished the men of her era for their exclusionary attitudes. 

Because many people dismissed her as a mere hairdresser, her business success did not get the attention it deserved. Thus, she disrupted Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League Convention in 1912 by demanding the microphone.  She boldly told the gathered men that she “promoted myself” from the washtub to the kitchen to manufacturing. “I have built my own factory on my own ground,” she told the National Negro Business League. 

Ms. Cofield founded Walker’s Legacy to fill the gap she found when she looked for mentors and connections. It started as a quarterly lecture series and has evolved to “a digital platform for the professional and entrepreneurial multicultural woman. We exist to inspire, equip and engage through thought-provoking content, educational programming and a global community.”

Along the way, Ms. Cofield has attracted the strong support of established business leaders and thinkers, especially the endorsement of A’lelia Bundles, the great-great-granddaughter of Madame C.J. Walker, her biographer and the keeper of the Walker flame. “Every step of the way she has impressed me with her ability to organize, ramp things up, create partnerships,” Ms. Bundles said. “Every step of the way as she has tried to expand, she has met my expectations.”

Marie Johns, former deputy administrator of the Small Business Administration met Ms. Cofield when she was leading the Austin Black Chamber of Commerce.  “Austin was hardly a hotbed of black business activity,” said Ms. Johns, “but Natalie impressed me with her energy and her acumen.”

Ms. Johns places the Walker legacy in a contemporary context. “Black women open businesses more rapidly than other groups,” the Obama appointee shared. “We need the kinds of support that organizations like Walker’s Legacy provides.”

The organization has grown from a one-person operation to four full-time employees, a number of consultants and directors in Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, New York, Houston and other cities. The website gets around 40,000 unique views each month, and the number is growing. Its networking events sell out.

Ms. Cofield also created the Walker’s Legacy Foundation, providing entrepreneurial training to young girls, low-income women and single moms. Last fall, the organization collected business suits for Howard University students to wear for job interviews. 

“We are a go-to organization for women of color who are looking for motivation, connection, education, personal finance and career advice,” Ms. Cofield says. 

If you want to enjoy Madame C.J. Walker’s legacy, you can visit the Walker Legacy Center in Indianapolis, Ind., the national landmark to which the Lily Foundation has just committed $15 million to renovate the space that was part of the original Walker company office. Or you can peruse the Walker papers, now donated to the Indiana Historical Society. Villa Lewaro, the Madame Walker estate, has been restored and is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It is a monument to the spirit and tenacity of black women’s entrepreneurship.

When asked what she is most proud of about her work, Ms. Cofield says she is proud that she never gave up on her vision and that she put her whole heart into the work. She sounds like her mentor, Madame C.J. Walker, who said that steadfastness and persistence are the keys to success.

The writer is an economist and author of several books.