Race, Gender & Entrepreneurship: IP Lessons in "Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker"

On March 20, 2020, Netflix released the Emmy-nominated miniseries Self-Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker. Loosely based on the biography On Her Own Ground by A’Lelia Bundles (the great-great-granddaughter of Madam Walker and series co-writer), the show goes back in time about 100 years to tell the story of Sarah Breedlove. Sarah Breedlove, also known as Madam C.J. Walker (and played by Octavia Spencer), was America’s first woman self-made millionaire. Her success was a result of the hard work she put into building her empire selling hair products and services to Black women. Sarah struggles to find personal and professional support in the face of adversity. Knowing how much her hair meant for her own identity, she connected with customers who faced similar struggles and used her company to empower other Black women to be self-sufficient.

While establishing her business, Sarah encounters a number of IP-related issues. Sarah is first driven to create her own hair oil after Addie Monroe, a fictionalized and villainized version of Sarah’s real life mentor Annie Malone (played by Carmen Ejogo), refuses to hire her as a sales representative because of how she looks. Once Sarah was satisfied with her product, she and her husband C.J. (played by Blair Underwood) move from St. Louis to Indianapolis to establish her business. While Sarah states that the move is to avoid competing with Addie for customers, it is clear that she is also establishing her product first in a different jurisdiction to avoid selling a similar recipe in the same place. The move would prove to be in vain when Addie follows her to Indianapolis.

At first, Addie plots to take down her competition by stealing Sarah’s recipe. She reveals that this is not for her own use, hinted at by her earlier efforts to rid of her own product’s sulfuric aroma, but so that she could publish it in the newspaper. By publishing Sarah’s recipe in the newspaper, Sarah’s creation would become publicly available, potentially impacting the patentability of her recipe. Addie did not succeed, but found out later that Sarah’s recipe is a modification of her original recipe. This prompts her to threaten legal action against a now-successful Sarah.

However, the scope of IP-related issues reaches farther than this. For most of the series, Sarah brands her product under the name “Madam C.J. Walker”. She continues to do this after she ends her marriage upon learning that C.J. was having an affair with a traitorous former employee. During a confrontation, Sarah presses C.J. about his new wife passing herself off in Indianapolis as the Madam C.J. Walker behind the now million-dollar brand.

Throughout the series, Sarah displays many qualities of an entrepreneur. She vigorously sells her product. She works day and night to keep her business afloat. She tirelessly pursues investors and opportunities to grow her business. Even when her colour and gender seem to limit her options, she refuses to accept defeat and does what it takes for her business to thrive. While the show does not shy away from Sarah’s personal and professional struggles, you never sit in her misery for too long. Sarah always picks herself up and gets the job done. No episode sacrifices an optimistic end in favour of building drama.

Though critics have noted some artistic license, Self-Made is creative and well-made. I highly recommend this series, whose four 45 minute episodes can easily be binged over a weekend. Self-Made was directed by DeMane Davis and Kasi Lemmons, two Black women. In fact, all but one of the show’s credited writers are Black women (the exception being Tyger Williams, a Black man, who co-wrote every episode), exemplifying Sarah’s message of empowering Black voices. Although access to resources for marginalized groups has improved over the last 100 years, we still have a long way to go. As discussed during our panel, Navigating the IP Innovation Ecosystem, women and racialized minorities, particularly Black and Indigenous innovators, often struggle to access IP law resources and protection in comparison to their male and White counterparts. We, as a legal community, must strive to ensure that everyone can access the tools that they need to succeed.

Written by Ashley Moniz, Lawyer and Assistant Director of IP Osgoode.

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