A Conversation with Kristian Little Stricklen, President of The Madam Walker Legacy Center

The Walker Center President gets personal and reflects on legacy.
Exterior of Madam Walker Legacy Center

Kristian Little Stricklen Headshot

Created in partnership with our friends at Madam Walker Legacy Center.

How does one maven preserve the legacy of another? To find out, Indy Maven spoke with Kristian Little Stricklen, Madam Walker Legacy Center President.

The Madam Walker Legacy Center (MWLC) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the legacy of Madam C.J. Walker, the Black entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist whose line of cosmetics and hair care products made her the first female self-made millionaire. The MWLC uplifts Madam Walker’s legacy by providing cultural education, promoting social justice, supporting entrepreneurship, and empowering youth to become the next generation of entrepreneurs and civic leaders.

We knew we were meeting a true Indy native when Stricklen phoned-in to our conversation from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, witnessing the Indianapolis 500 practice with members of her team. Stricklen took a break from the Gasoline Alley to share her journey of leading the organization. 

“It is such an honor and so exciting to be here in Indy and to know that someone had made such an impact in the city, as well as being known by the world,” Stricklen said. 

Appointed by the MWLC Board in 2021, “president” is only one of the titles that defines Stricklen. Her most important role, she says, is mother. Her 15-year-old son is on the autism spectrum, and his journey inspired her to create the Jacob’s Ladder Foundation. Even though he has struggled with speech, her son is not only graduating 8th grade, but also received a language arts award from his teacher. 

Advocating especially for those of color on the autism spectrum, Stricklen said, “We want people to know that early intervention is key and that therapy definitely does not hurt.”

With the passing of her husband in November, Stricklen spoke of “still having to show up for all the other things that I am in spite of that.” 

“We do it and we move forward. That’s what we as women do. No matter what life throws at us, we keep moving.”

Her perspective is inspired by her grandmother, who helped raise Stricklen.

“She only has a 9th grade education, had 7 children and, with her husband, put all 7 through private school. She always taught us class and grace and prepared us to be our best selves.” Stricklen notes that her grandparents also lived in Indy and enjoyed entertainment at the Walker Theater.  

As many Hoosiers know, The Madam Walker Legacy Center operates in the building that was once the corporate headquarters and manufacturing plant of the Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company and features a main stage theater, among other amenities. The four-story flatiron building on 617 Indiana Avenue opened in 1927, eight years after the death of Madam Walker. Stricklen recalls being surprised when she learned that Madam Walker died at 51. 

“She probably didn’t get to enjoy her success as much as she should have. She lived such a short life and had an impact on so many.” 

That impact included her hair care products reaching international audiences in Jamaica, Yoruba, The Islands and elsewhere. 

For Stricklen, success is the impact one makes in the community. 

“The legacy one leaves is more important than any amount of money. Losing my husband recently definitely put things into perspective that if you have a life well lived and you’re good to people, that’s really all the success you need.”

Outside of theater with sign saying "Walker Theatre"

Much of Stricklen’s own success developed under the mentorship of Joyce Rodgers, Esq., MWLC board member and executive vice president of development for the IU Foundation

“I’m a PR expert by trade and transitioned from public relations and marketing to being a president–I owe all that to Joyce.” 

Before this role, Stricklen was previously the Chief Communications and Engagement Officer for Indianapolis Public Schools and served as a member of the IPS Superintendent’s executive leadership cabinet.

Stricklen reflected on the MWLC’s efforts during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the building already being shut down in 2018 for restoration, the MWLC was scheduled to re-open in January 2020 and even to host one of the showings of the Netflix drama series Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker (2020) starring Octavia Spencer. She says the pandemic opened up possibilities for the MWLC by allowing virtual programming. 

“Despite the pandemic, we and a lot of other organizations were able to very quickly transition to virtual programming. Our introduction back to the community was virtual. But what that did was it allowed us to reach a broader audience. We had people from as far away as Switzerland joining our programming.”

The Walker legacy continued to shine when comedian and Indy native Mike Epps chose The Walker as his mainstage for his latest Netflix comedy special Mike Epps: Indiana Mike (2022) 

Stricklen said that in some ways, Epp’s special became their re-opening to the community. 

“Arts and entertainment” is one of the four pillars of the MWLC (along with entrepreneurship, women’s equity, and social justice). Following that guiding principle, the center worked with The Arts Council of Indianapolis and local artist Tasha Beckwith to create a mural of Madam Walker on Senate Ave. last year. 

“Finding Tasha Beckwith speaks to what The Walker is about, which is uplifting local talent. That is what Madam [Walker] did,” Stricklen said. “She provided opportunities for a lot of people to be able to build out their dreams and businesses.” 

The mural was part of the Bicentennial Legends mural series, which will culminate with a mural to be created in Fall 2023 overlooking the Bicentennial Unity Plaza. Madam Walker’s likeness will also be featured alongside 42 other Indy legends in an upcoming Legends Mural as part of the City of Indianapolis Bicentennial Legends Series, developed by the Indy Arts Council, the Marion County Capital Improvement Board, and Pacers Sports & Entertainment. The mural will be painted by Chicago-based artist Anna Murphy with assistance by Indy-based artist Mechi Shakur


June marks an especially exciting time for the MWLC as the annual Legacy Fest quickly approaches. Presented by the Indianapolis Foundation, The Legacy Fest is the MWLC’s signature fundraiser, focused on supporting the organization’s year-round STEAM, entrepreneurship, women’s equity, social justice and arts programming. The 3-day celebration will take place over Juneteenth and Father’s Day weekend. This year’s theme is “The Renaissance Continues.”

“We’re keeping the renaissance theme this year because we feel we are continuing with that resurgence,” Stricklen said. 

A theatre with two levels of seats

The celebration will begin with the Legacy Ball and Concert on Friday, June 16, which is a seated dinner in an upscale, outdoor,  tented venue on Indiana Ave., followed by an intimate concert with Knight in the Historic Walker Theater. Stricken talked about the decision behind pulling Knight:

“We are about Black excellence. After Babyface went over so well, we wanted to continue to raise the bar and show that we are getting someone everyone can enjoy, and we were very intentional to get someone who is not already involved with our Black community all the time.”

The celebration continues with a free family-friendly Block Party, which Stricklen described as “our give-back to the community.” The Block Party is presented by Indiana University/IUPUI on Saturday and Sunday, June 17-18. 

Looking at how far the MWLC has come, Stricklen described the organization as “blessed.”

“I would like to thank the community for the love and support they’ve given us thus far. Continue to uplift us. Hold us accountable. We want to make a strong impact in this community. And stay tuned. We are now on the road to 100. We plan to do a lot of really exciting things to bring that space and that area back to life.”

Legacy Fest Schedule

June 16: Legacy Ball and “Empress of Soul” Gladys Knight Concert – tickets at Ticketmaster

June 17-18: FREE Block Party – registration at Eventbrite

June 18: Juneteenth Brunch – tickets at Eventbrite 

June 18: #DaddyDoDay Hairstyling Contest – registration at Google Form

Brandi Metzger is a writer, teaching artist, and production assistant. Find her on LinkedIn and WordPress.

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