Articles celebrating the accomplishments of women entrepreneurs nearly always mention Oprah Winfrey and Belinda Gates. Given the size of their fortunes, phenomenal impacts on industry and notable philanthropic contributions, their place on these roll calls is no surprise. But there are many more women entrepreneurs whose innovative thinking and risk-taking in the world of business deserves our attention. All of these women are part of an illustrious tradition and expanding field of women business leaders in the United States and abroad.
Women Entrepreneurs who are Already Household Names
With an estimated net worth over $3 billion, Oprah Winfrey’s fortunes are difficult to ignore, but her story also remains one of the most compelling stories in the history of self-made American entrepreneurship. Winfrey was raised in poverty by a single mother in rural Mississippi and later in Milwaukee. Despite her early hardships, by the time she graduated from high school, she had already launched her career as a talk show host at a local radio station. By her early 30s, she was hosting the Oprah Winfrey Show, which would run for 25 seasons and transform the talk show form with its confessional content and inspirational message. Today, Winfrey continues to grow her fortunes as the Chairperson and CEO of OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network and Chairperson of Harpo, Inc. Oprah’s media empire includes television stations, magazines and film production companies, all of which are closely aligned with the familiar and popular “Oprah brand.”
While most people know Melinda Gates as the spouse of Microsoft Chairperson Bill Gates, on her own accord, Melinda Gates is one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the world. With a net worth estimated at $70 billion, Gates’ fortune is unprecedented among women business leaders, but her vision is also expansive and inspiring. Beyond her contribution to the development of several early Microsoft products, in recent years, Gates has emerged as the public face for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which the couple co-founded in 2000. Since the foundation’s inception, it has distributed more than $30 billion dollars worth of grants worldwide. In 2014, Forbes ranked Gates the third most powerful woman in the world behind only German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen.
Women Entrepreneurs Under Age 35
Today, a growing number of young women, some still in their teens, are becoming entrepreneurs but few are as notable as Elizabeth Holmes. As most people know firsthand, getting results from a blood test, typically requires several vials of blood and waiting anywhere from a few days to several weeks. Holmes, now age 31, is transforming the laboratory diagnostics industry with her company Theranos. Guided by the motto that “A few drops is all it takes,” Theranos performs lab tests on blood samples as small as 1/1,000 the size of a typical blood draw and does so in a fracture of the time without increasing costs. If you think this sounds like a great alternative to established approaches to laboratory diagnostics, you’re not alone. Since filing a patent for her sampling technology in 2004—just before she dropped out of Stanford as an undergraduate—and starting Theranos, Holmes’s personal fortune has risen to $4.5 billion.
Like Holmes, Catherine Cook wasted little time starting up her first company. At the age of 15, she co-founded MyYearbook.com with her brothers. By the time Cook graduated from university at the age of 21, she had sold MyYearbook.com for $100 million in combined stock and cash. Since then, Cook, who never had to worry about paying back student loans, has helped turn MyYearbook.com into MeetMe.com, a social networking site for an older demographic. Cook is currently Vice President of Brand Strategy at MeetMe, Inc.
Women Entrepreneurs in a Global Market
While the U.S. may be home to a higher number of successful women entrepreneurs, today, women around the globe are gaining traction as business leaders.
Taiwanese entrepreneur, Cher Wang, is the Chairperson of HTC Corporation. While HTC first focused on the development of notebook computers, the company soon became a major player in the touch and wireless phone market. Among other innovations, HTC is responsible for the Android. Since founding her company in 1997, Wang’s fortunes have grown to an estimated $1.6 billion.
Like Wang, Folorunsho Alakija of Nigeria is a self-made entrepreneur with a global reputation. Alakija’s net worth is estimated to be close to $3 billion. In 2014, Forbes listed her in their top 100 most powerful women in the world. While Alakija first business ventures were in fashion, in the early 1990s, she shifted focus from women’s apparel to oil when she acquired a prospecting license. Today, she owns more than half of Famfa Oil, which pumps over 200,000 barrels of oil per day.
Leila Janah, 33, the founder and CEO of Samasource, may not be worth as much as many of the women noted in this article, but she has already established herself as a model in social entrepreneurship. Shortly after graduating from Harvard University with a degree in Development Studies, Janah launched Samasource. Using proven business methods and new technologies, Samasource is revolutionizing how business is done in the U.S. and abroad and demonstrating how social and economic justice can be gained through effective business practices. In a nutshell, Samasource is a platform that connects workers in developing countries, especially women and young people, with corporations abroad, including Google to Microsoft. With Samasource, workers once relegated to poverty are making living wages in a global market and companies are tapping into the expertise and power of workers previously overlooked. And with the rollout of SamaUSA, Janah is now bringing her social entrepreneurship home.
Women Entrepreneurs in American History
While women continue to be underrepresented in business leadership positions, in the U.S., there is a long history of women starting up companies on their own and in partnership with family members. In fact, women have been making their mark in the media, technology and beauty industries since the mid-18th century.
In 1766, Mary Katherine Goddard became the first woman publisher in the U.S. Originally from Connecticut, Goddard moved to Providence, Rhode Island in 1762 to work with her brother, a local printer. When her brother moved to Philadelphia in 1765, Goddard continued to operate his press, publishing the Providence Gazette. Later, she joined her brother in Philadelphia where she eventually took over as publisher of the Pennsylvania Chronicle. Subsequently, she followed her brother to Baltimore and assumed responsibility for the publication of two more local papers. However, Goddard may be best known for printing the first signed copies of the Declaration of Independence in 1777.
Unlike Goddard, as an African American woman born in 1867, Sarah Breedlove Walker did not have much on her side as a young entrepreneur. Prior to starting her own beauty business, she worked for dismally low wages in a backbreaking job as a washerwoman. In the early-twentieth century, decades before the Black beauty business industry took off, Walker started to experiment with the development of hair products for African American women. By 1917, the Madame C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, a name she adopted to help market her products, had become the largest black-owned business in the U.S. with revenues reaching approximately $500,000 per year. Breedlove Walker was not the only person to benefit from her fortunes. In a highly segregated workforce, she also offered stable employment to other African American women around the country who sold her products door-to-door. Finally, Breedlove Walker, who died in 1919, was a philanthropist who was known to have supported many African American causes, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Born to recently freed slaves, Breedlove Walker died one of the wealthiest women in America.
Finally, there is Olive Ann Beech who co-founded Beach Aircraft Corporation with her husband at the height of the Depression. Over the coming years, the Beech’s business grew from 10 to 10,000 employees. During the World War II, Beech manufactured aircrafts for the U.S. Army. Shortly after the war, Beech’s husband and co-founder passed away. For the next 20 years, Beech served as President and CEO, turning Beech Aircraft into a multimillion-dollar aerospace company. First with her husband and later on her own, Olive Ann Beech transformed American aerospace history and set an example for women entrepreneurs at a time when few women held jobs outside the home and even fewer occupied leadership positions in business.
Learning from these Extraordinary Entrepreneurs
As the women featured here remind us, successful entrepreneurship doesn’t follow a template. Each of these extraordinary entrepreneurs comes from a different socio-economic and cultural background. While some had notable advantages getting started, others are entirely self-made. And despite prevailing stereotypes that successful women entrepreneurs are concentrated in traditionally female industries, such as fashion and home design, these stories suggest that women are just as likely to become industry leaders in male-dominated fields from engineering to medicine. Finally, these women’s stories serve as a reminder to all of us that successful entrepreneurship is by no means divorced from social and economic justice and may even be its driving force.