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Setting the Stage

The workplaces described in this lesson reveal a good deal about the philosophies and interests of two successful early 20th-century businesspeople who stuck by their principles as they pursued their dreams: Madam C.J. Walker and James Cash Penney. Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919) developed, manufactured, and sold formulas for hair care and other beauty products for African-American women. She began selling her homemade products door-to-door in 1905 in Denver, Colorado. She eventually distributed them nationwide (and even internationally) through mail-order and with the help of trained door-to-door sales representatives known as "Walker Agents." The business ultimately helped thousands of African-American women achieve financial success. In 1910, she headquartered her operation in Indianapolis, Indiana, a city with a thriving African-American community.

James Cash Penney (1875-1971) believed that working people in isolated regions in the West deserved to have dry goods stores nearby that would offer quality products at reasonable prices. He opened his first store, called the Golden Rule, in Kemmerer, Wyoming, in 1902. Soon he began establishing stores in other towns in Wyoming and then throughout the United States. He based his business on the principle, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This was unusual at a time when consumers often were faced with poor quality merchandise, fraudulent claims about quality, and deceptive pricing practices. Crucial to Penney's success were his associates (as he referred to his employees). He even helped many of his store managers become part owners of new stores. In 1913, the successful business was incorporated as the J.C. Penney Company. Today, J.C. Penney Company operates more than 1,100 stores in all 50 states.

Walker's and Penney's desire to provide people with high quality services and affordable merchandise may well have been based on personal experiences. Both grew up in small towns--Walker in truly poor surroundings in Louisiana and Mississippi, Penney in modest financial circumstances in Missouri. Both had to become self-reliant at very early ages and learned that hard work alone would not fulfill their aspirations. They both knew that their success depended on meeting the needs and desires of their customers, men and women much like themselves. They believed that part of their mission was to help others to succeed as they had done. Neither Walker nor Penney ever eased up on the prodigious amounts of work they performed. Both were still on the job when they died: Walker at the relatively early age of 51, and Penney at 95.

 

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