Madam C.J. Walker’s Home Will Be Hub for WOC Entrepreneurs

By Sameer Rao Dec 20, 2018

Hair care tycoon Madam C.J. Walker, the United States’ first self-made Black woman millionaire, used her immense fortune to support Black economic and cultural achievement throughout the early 20th century. New Voices Foundation now seeks to preserve that legacy in the Irvington, New York, mansion she built nearly a century ago. 

The National Trust for Historic Preservation announced yesterday (December 19) that the foundation acquired Walker’s home, dubbed Villa Lewaro. The foundation functions as the nonprofit wing of the $100 million New Voices Fund—which supports women entrepreneurs of color—and will spearhead its revitalization.

According to the National Trust, which holds a protective perpetual preservation easement on the property, Walker named her 28,000-square-foot estate after her daughter and corporate successor A’lelia Walker Robinson. Vertner Woodson Tandy, New York state’s first Black licensed architect and one of the founders of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, designed the property. Its construction made Walker the first Black property owner in an area dominated by White industrial titans including the Rockefellers and Astors. She turned Villa Lewaro into a social and cultural hub for Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and other leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance. The National Park Service deemed Villa Lewaro a National Historic Landmark in 1976. Harold Doley Jr., the first Black member of the New York Stock Exchange and executive director of the African Development Bank, purchased the property with his wife, Helena Cobette, in 1993.

Sundial Brands CEO Richelieu Dennis and his family purchased rights to the Walker brand of hair care products in 2013 and relaunched it via Sephora three years later. Dennis says in the acquisition announcement that the Foundation plans to turn the estate into "a learning institute, or think tank, to foster entrepreneurship for present and future generations."

"This includes utilizing Villa Lewaro as both a physical and virtual destination where women of color entrepreneurs will come for curriculum-based learning and other resources aimed at helping them build, grow and expand their businesses," he continues. "When people think of entrepreneurship services for women of color, we want them to think of the New Voices Foundation and Villa Lewaro.”

“No one at the time believed that a Black woman could afford such a place," adds Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles. “So, I can think of no better way to celebrate Villa Lewaro’s 100th anniversary than the vision of the New Voices Foundation and the Dennis family for this historic treasure as a place to inspire today’s entrepreneurs, tomorrow’s leaders and our entire community."

Bundles serves as a consulting producer for another legacy preserving project: an upcoming Netflix biopic series, starring Oscar winner Octavia Spencer ("The Shape of Water"), based on Bundles’ biography, "On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker."

Experience the property’s past and present: