Updated: Dec 31, 2020
For this Black History Month, Black Girl Ventures went on a mission to research some of the most impactful Black women entrepreneurs and inventors from our past. These women didn't have to bring seats to the table; they built their own building then brought their own tables and chairs. Yet, another reminder of the incredible resilience and perseverance of our ancestors. Unfortunately, you won't read about these women in the history books so, we hope this list inspires you to propel your dreams forward relentlessly.
Madame CJ Walker
(December 23, 1867 – May 25, 1919)
Madam C.J. Walker created specialized hair products for African American hair care and was one of the first American women to become a self-made millionaire.
She invented a line of African American hair products after suffering from a scalp ailment that resulted in her own hair loss. She promoted her products by traveling around the country, giving lecture-demonstrations, and eventually established Madame C.J. Walker Laboratories to manufacture cosmetics and train sales beauticians.
As profits continued to grow, in 1908, Walker opened a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh. By 1910, the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company had become wildly successful, with profits that were the modern-day equivalent of several million dollars.
A relentless innovator, Walker used her political outreach to organize clubs and conventions for her representatives, which recognized not only successful sales, but also philanthropic and educational efforts among African Americans.
Walker contributed to the YMCA, covered tuition for six African American students at Tuskegee Institute, and became active in the anti-lynching movement, donating $5,000 to the NAACP's movement. Before her death, Walker changed her will and donated two-thirds of future net profits to charity, as well as thousands of dollars to various individuals and schools.
(August 15, 1818 – January 15, 1891)
Bridget Mason (aka "Biddy") was a black female slave who became one of the richest women in Los Angeles. She was a real estate mogul and a midwife. She later gained her freedom thanks to the help of her white son-in-law, Charles Owens.
Bridget birthed three daughters by her slave master, Robert Smith. After converting to Mormonism, Smith and his wife moved to Utah in a wagon, forcing Bridget to follow on foot. A church leader attempted to convince Smith to free his slaves, but Smith was unwilling.
The church leader did persuade Smith to move to California. Smith was unaware he had entered the Union as a free state. Bridget Mason became a free woman. She eventually saved enough money to purchase two estates, making her one of the first Black women to own property in Los Angeles. Over several years, Mason bought and managed more property. She leased some out commercially and sold portions of it.
As Los Angeles grew, so did the value of her real estate. In 1872, she financed the city's first Black church. Soon, Mason was "known by every citizen" as "Aunt Biddy." She was quickly beloved in the untouched town of Los Angeles, which numbered only 2,000 or so residents—less than 20 of whom were Black.
Los Angeles Times wrote:
She was a frequent visitor to the jail, speaking a word of cheer and leaving some token and a prayerful hope with every prisoner. In the slums of the city, she was known as "Grandma Mason," and did much active service toward uplifting the worst element in Los Angeles. She paid taxes and all expenses on church property to hold it for her people. During the flood of the early eighties, she gave an open order to a little grocery store, which was located on Fourth and Spring Streets. By the terms of this order, all families made homeless by the flood were to be supplied with groceries, while Biddy Mason cheerfully paid the bill.
By the late 1800s, Mason had acquired a fortune of $300,000 (approximately $6 million today), making her the wealthiest black woman in the city.
“If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come of it. The open hand is blessed, for it gives abundance, even as it receives.”
(September 16, 1861 – 1947)
Miriam E. Benjamin was a school teacher living in Washington, D.C. In 1888, Ms. Benjamin received a patent for an invention she called a Gong and Signal Chair for Hotels.
Her chair, as she stated in her patent application, would "reduce the expenses of hotels by decreasing the number of waiters and attendants, to add to the convenience and comfort of guests and to obviate the necessity of hand clapping or calling aloud to obtain the services of pages."
The system worked by pressing a small button on the back of a chair, which would relay a signal to a waiting attendant. Simultaneously, a light would light up on the chair, allowing the attendant to see which guest needed assistance.
The system was adopted and installed within the United States House of Representatives and was the antecedent of the methods used today on airplanes to signal flight attendants. When you're sitting on the plane, and you call for the stewardess, remember Miriam did it.
Mary Ellen Pleasant
(19 August 1814 – 4 January 1904)
Mary Ellen Pleasant was indentured early in life to a Nantucket shopkeeper from whom she learned the basics of running a business. She also learned about the abolitionist movement, since the shopkeeper's family were fanatic abolitionists.
Mary Ellen married a wealthy free landowner named J.J. Smith, who was also an abolitionist, both solidified her fortune and advanced the cause. The Smiths worked to help slaves escape to the North and funded abolitionist causes.
But after her husband died young, Mary Ellen found herself as a cook and a servant for wealthy White families during the Gold Rush. She began to train servants and placed them in several homes, and she used the information she gained from her being in wealthy homes to increase her assets. She invested her money and soon amassed a startling personal fortune based on stocks, real estate, boarding houses, and a series of businesses (including laundries and food establishments) that made her one of the growing city's notable entrepreneurs.
As Pleasant became a powerful woman, she continued her work for civil rights, often in the courts. She used her money to defend wronged Blacks and spent thousands in legal fees, becoming a hero to a generation of African Americans in California and was known as "The Mother of Civil Rights in California." She became known in the Black community for her philanthropy and very public support for civil rights, which was unusual for a woman and doubly uncommon for a woman of color. At her peak, she was estimated to be worth 30 million dollars.
Annie Turnbo Malone
(August 9, 1877 – May 10, 1957)
There would be no Madame C.J. Walker without Annie Turnbo Malone. Walker got her start by working under Malone. Many believe Walker was the first Black woman millionaire, but she wasn't.
A chemist and entrepreneur, Annie Turnbo Malone became a millionaire by successfully developing and marketing hair products for Black women in St. Louis. Her products focused on scalp hygiene versus styling. Despite being denied access to regular distribution channels, the business grew steadily, and eventually, her products went national. Her businesses lasted through the Great Depression and a costly divorce.
Malone used her wealth to promote the advancement of African Americans and gave away most of her money to charity. When hair salons were still anomalies, Malone helped to popularize cosmetology schools, through her own Poro College and taught women about the importance of scalp health.
In the 2019 proclamation of Black History Month, Trump stated, "Annie Malone ... became one of the most successful entrepreneurs in America at the turn of the century and provided opportunities for African Americans to pursue meaningful careers."
Marjorie Stewart Joyner
(October 24, 1896 – December 27, 1994)
Marjorie Stewart Joyner was the inventor of the Permanent Wave Machine, thus ensuring her a prominent place in cosmetology history. Joyner opened a salon on South State Street in Chicago, where she met Madam C.J. Walker, an African American entrepreneur who owned a cosmetic empire. Joyner worked for Walker and became the national advisor to Walker's company, overseeing 200 beauty schools.
In 1928, Joyner created and patented her famous invention, the Permanent Wave Machine. A client would sit in the hood for a certain period, to set in the curls. She also invented a scalp protector to make the process less painful. Despite the popularity of her invention among black and white women, Joyner never saw any profit from the invention as Madam C.J. Walker owned the rights.
Joyner was passionate about helping other African Americans and particularly Black beauticians. She raised money for HBCUs and developed a relationship with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to fight racial segregation and discrimination. She founded the Alpha Chi Pi Omega Sorority and Fraternity to help raise professional standards for beauticians. Over her 50-year career, Joyner taught around 15,000 stylists.
Joyner expanded her reach and became the director of the Chicago Defender's charities overseeing food and clothing drives and fundraisers across the city of Chicago. In the 1930s, Roosevelt named Joyner to a women's leadership position on the Democratic National Committee, where she advised several New Deal Agencies reaching out to black women.
By 1935, Joyner helped found the National Council of Negro Women.
Marjorie Stewart Joyner was the inventor of the Permanent Wave Machine, thus ensuring her a prominent place in cosmetology history. She helped write the first cosmetology laws for Illinois and founded the United Beauty School Owners and Teachers Association with Mary Bethune McLeod in 1945. Joyner was also active in the African American Community, raising money for black colleges and working with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to fight racial segregation and discrimination.
Eunice Walker Johnson
(April 4, 1916, — January 3, 2010)
Eunice Walker Johnson co-founded Ebony Magazine with her husband John H. Johnson in 1945. Johnson became a force in the fashion world when she created the annual Ebony Fashion Fair in 1958. She produced and directed the fair for nearly 50 years, in which she raised a total of 50 million dollars.
The fashion tours showcased African American models and African American designers. She was also instrumental in establishing a line of beauty products, Fashion Fair Cosmetics, that were formulated for the complexions of women of color.
Her initiative prompted other cosmetics companies, such as Max Factor, Revlon, and Avon, to follow suit.
Marie Van Brittan Brown
(October 30, 1922 – February 2, 1999)
Marie Van Brittan Brown was the inventor of the first home security system. She was a nurse, and her husband was an electrician. Brown's security system was the basis for the two-way communication and surveillance features of modern security.
Her original invention consisted of peepholes, a camera, monitors, and a two-way microphone. The final detail was an alarm button that could be pressed to contact the police in case of an emergency. She filed her patent in 1966.
Brown's invention laid the foundation for later security systems. These systems used similar concepts such as video monitoring, remote-controlled door locks, push-button alarm triggers, instant messaging to security providers, and police, as well as two-way voice communication.
Her invention is still used by businesses, homes, and multi-unit apartments. The Browns' patent was later referenced by 13 other inventors, including some as recently as 2013. She is also credited for inventing the first closed-circuit television.
(1832 – 1904)
Sarah Boone was an American inventor best known for her patented improvements to the ironing board. She was one of the first African American women to receive a patent in United States history.
Boone's ironing board was perfect for ironing the sleeves and the curves of ladies' wear because it was narrow and curved. Her invention made it easier to iron both sides of a sleeve and various clothing that had curves and cuts to prevent creases.
Judy W. Reed
(1826 – ?)
Not much is known about Judy's life. Reed applied for a patent on her "Dough Kneader and Roller." This was before Sarah Boone submitted her patent. Her application detailed an improved design on existing dough kneaders. Reed's device allowed the dough to mix more evenly through two intermeshed rollers carved with grooved slats that would act as kneaders. The mixture then passed into a covered repository to protect the dough from dust and other particles.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney
(December 28, 1722 – May 26, 1793)