January 4, 2019

Madam C.J. Walker’s legacy inspires new generation of entrepreneurs

Here are three stories on how local innovation can make a difference in everyday lives

Villa Lewaro, Madam C.J. Walker's estate north of New York City, served as a retreat for some of the most innovative thinkers of the Harlem Renaissance. Now it will be home to a nonprofit that supports black female entrepreneurs who take after Walker herself. Courtesy Historic New England/Photo by David Bohl

Each week, The Renewal Project shares three stories from around the country that highlight the innovative solutions people are creating in their communities. In this edition, see how one of America’s first black female self-made millionaires is still inspiring entrepreneurs today, how an Ohio school is blending STEM class with a lesson in community outreach, and what civic engagement can look like in person. What are the innovative ideas in your hometown? Tell us at info@therenewalproject.com.

Madam Walker’s legacy lives on: Sarah Breedlove, known by her brand name of Madam C.J. Walker, was the daughter of slaves who went on to become an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and activist for racial equity. Through her brand of wellness and beauty products, Walker is remembered as one of the most successful African-American business women in history. Today, through the purchase of her sprawling mansion north of New York City, Walker’s legacy will live on to inspire the next generation of women of color entrepreneurs.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently announced that the New Voices Foundation purchased Villa Lewaro, Walker’s 20,000-square-foot mansion built in 1918. The nonprofit provides education, leadership development, and networking opportunities for women of color to help them grow their businesses. Founder Richelieu Dennis is himself a self-made entrepreneur, whose company purchased and relaunched the Madam C.J. Walker brand in 2016.

“To be able to steward something so rich in our culture, history, legacy, and achievement through the New Voices Foundation and guide it into its next phase of impact and inspiration is an incredible honor that my family and I welcome with tremendous responsibility and humility,” said Dennis.

Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976 and a National Treasure by the Trust in 2014, Villa Lewaro was designed by Vertner Woodson Tandy, the first African-American architect registered in New York. The Italianate villa became a gathering place for Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes. Today the home is part of a growing portfolio of African American historic sites protected through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, an initiative designed to raise the profile of African-American sites of achievement, activism, architecture, and community.

Tiny home yields big lesson: Students enrolled in Tippecanoe High School’s Homebuilding class get a lesson in construction—and community. The Tipp City, Ohio, school has been offering the class for the last three years, each year building a tiny home and selling it at auction to benefit the program. This year, the students are building an additional three homes that will be donated to a New York nonprofit that provides therapeutic services and support to veterans and first responders. “From a philanthropic standpoint, this is great for the kids to work beyond just the goal of building a house and selling it,” Homebuilding teacher James Kitchen told the Dayton Daily News. “It is teaching giving back to the greater community. You are really doing it for someone who needs the help.” The class is one of the most popular at the high school and even has its own Twitter handle, which you can follow @TippTinyHouse.

Get up, show up: Social media has created many new avenues for civic discourse—and many new ways to spread hate-filled language anonymously. San Francisco resident Manny Yekutiel was looking for a way to counteract that, and so in 2017 he founded Manny’s, an event space where locals can share ideas, engage in thoughtful conversations, and create community bonds. In a recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, Yekutiel wrote about the community atmosphere Manny’s is cultivating and how the business is able to give back: The kitchen is staffed with formerly homeless individuals run by a local nonprofit, and so far he’s offered event space to more than 25 nonprofits for free or a reduced fee. In the op-ed, Yekutiel challenges readers to go beyond voicing opinions on social media: “How can you fight back against what’s happening to our civic life? Show up. Go to real, live civic programming. Discuss the news with your friends, don’t just post about it.”

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers if the editor of The Renewal Project. You can reach her at Margaret@therenewalproject.com.