Annie Turnbo Malone was an American businesswoman, inventor and philanthropist. She was the first female African-American millionaire, and made her fortune founding and developing a cosmetics business to provide products for, and educate and enable African-American women to become financially independent.
Malone was born in 1869 in Metropolis, Illinois. She briefly attended public school in Metropolis before moving to Peoria to live with her older sister. Malone was unable to attend high school due to ill health, and spent her free time practising hairdressing with her sister. She was interested in chemistry, and combine her interests to begin to develop her own haircare products. At the time, women used soap, goose fat, heavy oils or bacon grease to straighten their hair and all of these methods damaged both the scalp, and the hair itself. Malone was able to develop a chemical product that straightened African-American hair without damaging it, and is also credited with developing the pressing iron and comb.
Malone expanded her hair care line to include other products, including the hugely popular Wonderful Hair Grower which she sold door-to-door. In 1902, Malone moved to St. Louis where she was able to hire three assistants to help grow her business. She gave away free samples in order to increase her customer base, and two years later had achieved enough success to open her own shop. Malone launched an advertising campaign in the black press, held news conferences and toured the southern states where she both sold her products, and recruited others to sell them. One of the women she recruited, Sarah Breedlove, would later be known as Madam C.J. Walker and follow her into entrepreneurship. Walker forced Malone to copyright her products under the name “Poro” (a West African word for physical and spiritual growth) to stop Walker, and others from creating counterfeit versions of her products.
In 1910, Malone was able to move to a larger premises and four years later, she expanded her business once more when building a five-story multipurpose building which housed Poro College, a beauty school which employed nearly 200 people in addition to a manufacturing plant, a retail store, business offices, a 500-seat auditorium, dining and meeting rooms, a roof garden, dormitory, gymnasium, bakery, and chapel. The building became a religious and social centre for the African-American community and create jobs for almost 75,000 women in North and South America, Africa and the Philippines through it’s school and franchise program. Malone provided African American women the opportunity to improve both their own self-worth, and allow them to achieve financial independence.
By the 1920’s, Malone had become a multi-millionaire. She used her fortune to donate thousands of dollars to her local black YMCA, Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, DC, the Tuskegee Institute and St. Louis Colored Orphans Home. She served as president on the board of directors for the latter from 1919 to 1943 and with her help, enabled the purchase of a facility at 2612 Goode Avenue (now renamed Annie Malone Drive in her honour). The home still stands, although is now named the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center and has been upgraded and expanded.
In 1927, Malone’s business was put in jeopardy when her husband filed for divorce and demanded half of the business’ value. This forced Poro College into court-ordered receivership, but with the help from her employees and influential figures like Mary McLeod Bethune she was able to negotiate a settlement that would make her the sole owner of Poro College. In 1930, Malone moved her business to Chicago’s South Parkway, buying an entire city block. She was then plagued with financial setbacks, culminating in the government taking control of Poro in 1951. Malone’s business failure tarnished her image, and led to Madam C.J. Walker taking the credit for spearheading the development of the black beauty and cosmetics industry in the U.S. Malone died in 1957 in Chicago, the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Centre continues to honour her memory and her work in “improving the quality of life for children, families, elderly and the community by providing social services, educational programs, advocacy and entrepreneurship.“