New Voices Foundation Buys Walker Estate to Create School

A new learning institute for women of color will be made out of Madam C.J. Walker’s estate in Irving, New York. (Photo credit: David Bohl/Historic New England/Courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation)

A new learning institute for women of color will be created out of the former estate of Madam C.J. Walker, as the New Voices Foundation announced last week that it will purchase the site and repurpose it for women of color entrepreneurship.

Madam C. J. Walker was the founder of a hair care empire and a noted philanthropists of the early twentieth century, and is considered the first African-American woman to become a self-made millionaire. A daughter of a slave who once worked as a laundress for less than a dollar a day, Madam C. J. Walker became a civil society champion for organizations like the YMCA, the Tuskegee Institute, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Madam C.J. Walker’s estate, located in Irving, New York, about 30 miles from New York City, was sold to the New Voices Foundation for an undisclosed amount. The nonprofit foundation is part of the New Voices Fund, which seeks to invest $100 million in women of color entrepreneurship.

Great-great-granddaughter to Walker, A’Lelia Bundles, said in a statement: “No one at the time believed that a Black woman could afford such a place. 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.”

The Dennis Family, including Liberian-born entrepreneur Richelieu Dennis, facilitated the recent acquisition, and will spearhead the effort to revitalize and repurpose the property. Dennis is also the founder of New Voices Foundation. In 2013, the Dennis family acquired the Madam C.J. Walker brand with the intention of continuing her legacy of “creating a space of empowerment for Blacks,” according to a press release announcing the acquisition.

“We are excited to announce that the vision for future use of the property is as a learning institute, or think tank, to foster entrepreneurship for present and future generations,” Dennis said, in the statement.

“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. When people think of entrepreneurship services for women of color, we want them to think of the New Voices Foundation and Villa Lewaro.”

Walker’s 28,000 square foot property was designed and completed in 1918 by the first licensed Black architect in New York state, Vertner Tandy. Walker was known for hosting large social gatherings at her home with Harlem Renaissance figures such as Zora Neale Hurston, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes.

Entrepreneurship support as a way to grow gender equality is a relatively new and growing approach in feminist philanthropy, and focuses on women becoming empowered to own and run their own enterprises. Efforts such as this one from the New Voices Foundation will provided needed physical space and educational bandwidth for women-owned businesses, particularly those started by women of color. Other partners in the project include Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Madam Walker Family Archives, and Historic New England.

A historic photo of Villa Lewaro (Photo credit: A’Lelia Bundles/Madam WalkerFamily Archives/Courtesy of the National Trust for Historic Preservation)


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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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