Entrepreneur Natalie Cofield is on a mission to provide black women, and other women of color, with access to the business world and to find them mentors who will help them navigate the inevitable challenges. By doing that, she aims to preserve the entrepreneurial legacy of Madam C.J. Walker, who became one of America’s first and most successful black businesswomen when she launched a hair care line in the early 1900s.
When Cofield founded Walker’s Legacy in 2009, she herself was seeking mentorship in a male-dominated field and thought that other black women might be as well. Walker’s Legacy, which combines a digital platform and a nonprofit foundation, seeks to inspire, equip and engage women of color in business. It hosts conferences, produces content and organizes programs to support the fastest growing entrepreneurial segment in the country.
During our conversation for Women’s History Month, Cofield explained the connection she feels to Walker’s story — which goes far beyond developing hair care products — as well as how her organization uplifts women of color and why providing black women with mentors is crucial.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about Walker’s Legacy. Where did you get the idea to start the foundation?
I came up with the idea for Walker’s Legacy when I was looking for a female mentor and I couldn’t find one. I had been having a hard time at 26 with navigating being a young professional woman who had started a company, who was looking for contracts and business opportunities, and who constantly found myself in a position where I was being propositioned a lot. One day, I went home crying and my friend asked me who my female mentor was, and I didn’t have one. I started reaching out to women. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t respond.
So I thought to myself, “Maybe if I built a platform where women could share their wisdom with more than just me, they may be more inclined to respond to my interest in connecting with them.” And that’s exactly what happened. The name came about because I would read biographies of women that I was very inspired by, and Madam C.J. Walker was one of them.
At the time, I felt that there was not much happening to preserve her legacy as an entrepreneur. We learn about her in the context of hair products only. We very rarely learn about the depth of entrepreneurship, community engagement and innovation that she was responsible for.
Whenever I learned about Madam C.J. Walker, I always learned about hair products. Why is it important for you to preserve her legacy as an entrepreneur?
You know, we’ve been doing this for nine years, and now we’re finding that the conversation — and the role that women of color play as the fastest growing entrepreneurial segment — has started to break into the mainstream. But at that time, it wasn’t. There were very few outlets that highlighted and discussed women of color as entrepreneurs. There are very few organizations exclusively focused on women of color and providing them with mentorship, inspiration and education. So I wanted to build something to close that gap.
Why is it important to not only provide mentors to black women and other women of color, but to give them a way to access the business world?
It’s important to do that for everyone. But because of the historical challenges that black women have faced with access to equitable economic and educational opportunities, we find ourselves with limited opportunity for mentorship from people who look like us and those who don’t. More black women need to see themselves reflected in every facet of entrepreneurial spaces — from technology to engineering, to science, to art — in order to increase the number of us who have the opportunity to succeed in those spaces.
Mentorship is critical because there are challenges that are very specific to black women. And being an entrepreneur requires that you are resilient and that you are persistent. But, in order to be both of those things, you need people to talk to and help you stay in the game. Mentors help to open doors. They help to soften the blows of the reality of life as an entrepreneur.
Regardless of whether black women have had mentors or not, we still persist. But there can be a hardening that can happen to us along that way, because of how hard things are for us, that with mentors ― maybe they can, and often do, help us to not internalize all of the challenges.
That makes perfect sense. It’s something that I struggle with being in journalism. Journalism can be a very elite field with lots of white people, a lot of people who went to Ivy League schools. And even though I went to a “good school,” I often found myself feeling isolated until I found community.
Mentorship helps us to know that we’re not alone. From the microaggressions to more overt forms of racism or inequality, it’s important to know that there’s somebody else who has had that same experience and they still moved forward. This goes back to my point about why I named the organization Walker’s Legacy. I felt that if Madam C.J. Walker could go through what she went through, that whatever it was I was challenged with, I too could get through it.
You know, for a decade, we’ve been one of the only organizations that has consistently and exclusively been focused on the preservation of her legacy from an entrepreneurial and economic perspective. Every year, Walker’s Legacy honors women across the country through our Power 150 Awards and through our Women in Economic Development and Civic Leadership Awards.
We’ve helped generate millions of dollars worth of public relations and marketing for firms owned by women of color and for professional women by writing articles and seeking and finding women of color to highlight. We are also responsible for more than $40 million in contracts, investments and loans for minority women-led businesses. We’ve taught people about how to do business with various forms of government and corporations. And every year we connect more than 200 women of color to mentors across the country.
We also have a program called Moms Who Enterprise through our foundation for low-income single moms. We teach them how to start businesses and about financial management. We provide them with free child care. We rolled that program out in six cities, graduated nearly 100 single mothers and awarded funds to their businesses.
Part of it was because Madam C.J. Walker was, at one time, a single mom and we wanted to continue to do things to honor her legacy.