The growing impact of women entrepreneurs is evident today. Women-owned firms account for almost 30 percent of all businesses and one in five women-owned firms tout revenue of $1 million or more, according to research conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and its Center for Women in Business in 2014.
This development can be traced back to the inception of the United States through women who shaped its entrepreneurial landscape by starting micro-enterprises out of choice or necessity. Many of the women who have succeeded in business are examples of hope and encouragement for other women considering launching their own ventures. They are role models for women setting out to launch their own businesses in the 21st century.
Here are 15 women entrepreneurs who have left their mark on the United States —from the fight for independence to today.
Mary Katherine Goddard
Goddard was an early American publisher whose publications relayed details of events, like the skirmishes at Lexington and Concord, that led to the American Revolution. She is most famous for printing the first copy of the Declaration of Independence with the names of all signatories. Prior to printing the Declaration of Independence, Goddard was the first American woman postmaster, serving in Baltimore, Maryland, starting in 1775. She was relieved of her position as postmaster of Baltimore after 14 years, but fought to retain her position. While Goddard lost her battle, respect for Goddard became apparent when more than 200 of the top businessmen in Baltimore endorsed her petition to the Postmaster General.
Widely credited with sewing the first American flag in 1776, Ross is a patriotic role model for young girls and is one of the most recognizable women of post-revolutionary America for materially supporting our nation’s fighting men. She and her husband launched their own upholstery business, which President George Washington reportedly visited to commission the creation of the nation’s flag. Ross allegedly finalized the design for the flag, creating stars with five points instead of Washington’s suggested six points.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley
Keckley was a former slave who became a thriving seamstress, author and civil activist. In 1860 she opened a successful dress business in Washington, D.C., after buying her freedom from her owners in St. Louis for $1,200 that she made in part from dressmaking. In Washington, D.C., Keckley made dresses for first lady Mary Todd Lincoln. She eventually became Lincoln’s personal clothing designer and wrote about her experience in her autobiography, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. In her book, Keckley notes that she made $2.50 a day when she first moved to D.C. and worked as a seamstress for a dressmaker.
After the Civil War, Barton established Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army to help identify the dead and locate thousands of missing. Barton and her assistants received and responded to over 63,000 letters and identified over 22,000 missing men. In 1869 Barton was introduced to the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. She returned to the United States, called for a Red Cross presence in America, and in 1900 the Red Cross received its first congressional chapter. Barton officially founded the American branch of the Red Cross and served as the organization’s president for 23 years. During her tenure, she became the strongest advocate for expansion of American Red Cross relief to include victims of natural disasters in addition to wartime services.
Madam C.J. Walker
Walker is known for becoming the first black woman millionaire in America. After seeking treatment for hair loss — which was common at a time because women washed their hair infrequently — Walker took what she learned and founded Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing to sell her homemade hair products to black women. Walker’s business boomed because she had the foresight to launch a venture in a market segmented by Jim Crow. She capitalized during a time when blacks were excluded from most trade unions and were refused bank capital, but a company focused on the specific needs of black Americans was able to grow. She went from initially investing $1.25 in her first product, the “Wonderful Hair Grower,” to becoming a millionaire.
At the age of 30, Arden moved to New York City to pursue her dream of building a cosmetics line. She opened the first Red Door salon on Fifth Avenue in 1910, advertising her products as ones that instead of hiding the skin, improved it. She stood out from other cosmetics company competition by taking a scientific approach to her skin care lines and by developing products that women not only needed, but desired — like a red lipstick to match the uniforms of women serving in the armed forces during World War II. Arden was the first to introduce the concept of eye makeup to American women and was responsible for creating the idea of a makeover. Her company became what is now considered a cosmetics empire because of Arden’s idea to train traveling salespeople how to use and demonstrate her products.
While working for her uncle at his beauty products company, Lauder became fascinated by the chemistry he used to create his products. He taught her how to provide “the power to create beauty” to women. In 1946 she started her own business, The Estée Lauder Company, and began selling skin care products to beauty salons and hotels through a grassroots marketing approach — telephone, telegraph, tell-a-woman. She was her own publicist, traveling to beauty parlors around New York City to perform makeovers for women. Lauder’s brand name spread worldwide to retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue, which placed its first order of her product — for $800 — in 1946. Estée Lauder now employs 42,400 people and is worth $32.1 billion.
Wise is known for revolutionizing women’s marketing. She realized the effectiveness of selling products to small groups at home parties rather than in department stores, thrived in selling Tupperware at home parties, and went on to start a company of her own called Tupperware Patio Parties. When Wise began to outsell department stores, Tupperware inventor Earl Tupper took notice and recruited her to become vice president of the company. As an executive of Tupperware, Wise opened up new opportunities for women to earn extra money and be a part of an organization that valued them. She became the face of Tupperware at a time when female executives were rare. Her marketing tactics had a major impact on American business, with other large companies like Mary Kay Cosmetics replicating her formula.
Handler created an American icon when she dreamt up the Barbie doll. During World War II, she started a company with her husband to sell toy furniture. By the mid-1940s, Mattel had recorded revenue of $2 million. After being inspired to create her own doll following a trip to Europe, Handler followed through and “Barbie” made her debut. Barbie sales positioned Mattel to go public in 1960 with a valuation of $10 million. Today, Mattel still brings in $1 billion annually from sales of Barbie dolls and merchandise. The company is worth $8.1 billion and employs 31,000 people.
The co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post began her career as a nationally syndicated columnist, radio host, and political pundit. She launched The Huffington Post in May 2005 as a news and blog site that soon after became one of the most frequently cited media brands on the Internet. The Huffington Post was the first online news outlet to win a Pulitzer Prize and, as of 2014, draws in 79 million unique visitors every month, according to comScore. In 2011, Huffington sold her company to AOL for more than $300 million, but remains at the helm of The Huffington Post Media Group. She was named No. 61 on Forbes’ list of “The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women” in 2015.
Having lived in poverty throughout her childhood, Winfrey caught her big break hosting a morning talk show in Chicago in 1984. Called “A.M. Chicago,” Winfrey turned around the show’s low ratings and within months beat out a popular talk show, which resulted in her show changing its name to “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” On September 8, 1986, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” was broadcast nationally for the first time and it went on to become the highest-rated talk show in TV history. Winfrey’s career continued to skyrocket. Her accomplishments include President Clinton signing into law the “Oprah Bill,” which created a national database for child abusers; becoming the first African-American woman on Forbes’ “World’s Richest People” list; opening The Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa; and being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Winfrey is worth an estimated $3 billion.
Lerner launched Cisco Systems with her then-husband Len Bosack after the duo had difficulty emailing each other while working in different office buildings. They designed the multi-protocol router — the platform that made Cisco the tech giant it is today — to overcome disparate local area protocols. By inventing the multi-protocol router, Lerner transformed how people connect, communicate and collaborate to this day. Lerner was ousted from the company shortly after Cisco went public in 1990, but she persevered and went on to cofound cosmetics company Urban Decay in 1996. Urban Decay challenged traditional cosmetic colors with more alternative makeup tastes and was later acquired in 2012 by L’Oréal for between $300 million and $400 million.
Margaret C. Whitman
Whitman has been at the helm of a $112 billion tech company since 2011 as CEO of Hewlett-Packard. While she has been chairman of Hewlett-Packard’s board since 2014, much of Whitman’s $2.2 billion fortune came from her decade long term as CEO of eBay. She grew the online auction house from 30 employees to 15,000 employees, and took the company from $5 million in sales to $8 billion in annual revenue by 2008. Prior to joining eBay, Whitman worked at Hasbro, The Walt Disney Company, Bain & Company, and Procter & Gamble. She remains on the Procter & Gamble board today. On more than one occasion, Whitman has been named among the top five most powerful women by Fortune magazine, and was named No. 14 on Forbes’ list of “Power Women” for 2015.
Fields built her company (literally) from scratch. She founded Mrs. Fields Chocolate Chippery at the age of 20 and turned her chocolate chip cookie recipe into a thriving business with little money, education or experience. Fields opened her first store in 1977 in Palo Alto, California, after securing a loan with an interest rate of 21 percent. What began as one storefront turned into 700 stores across ten countries. Fields’ company earned a worldwide reputation as a premier cookie and baked goods chain, and she became one of the few entrepreneurs to have their name recognized as a product brand symbol. Fields’ bakery was acquired in 1996 by Connecticut-based investment firm Capricorn Holdings for $100 million. Mrs. Fields is now a $450 million company.
From a Disney World ride greeter to the sole owner of a successful shapewear company, Blakely is now a self-made billionaire. She came up with the idea for Spanx while trying to find something flattering to wear under white slacks. To find a solution to her apparel problem, Blakely invested her $5,000 life savings. Six months later, her new line of shaping underwear was named a “Favorite Product” by Oprah Winfrey. That feature led to a significant rise in popularity and sales for Spanx, which Blakely capitalized on by signing a contract with QVC in 2001. She sold 8,000 pairs during the first six minutes on the home shopping channel and, according to The Wall Street Journal, hit sales of $8 million that year. Spanx can now be found worldwide in more than 50 countries. Blakely was named the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire by Forbes in 2012 and one of TIME’s “100 Most Influential People.”
These 15 women have been recognized as bold thinkers, both in business and in life. Looking toward the future, we’ve identified six women blazing their own innovative paths. They are the women to watch in the years ahead.
Alice Brooks: Only one-sixth of engineers are women, but Alice Brooks intends to change this statistic. She is opening the world of technology to girls with her company Roominate. Brooks came up with the idea for Roominate with her friend Bettina Chen when they were comparing stories on why they pursued engineering. They bonded over the fact that they were both inspired by their childhood toys, so they set out to create more opportunities for girls to be inspired to enter a STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — field with Roominate. Roominate makes STEM fun by creating building toys for kids that can be wired together to make windmills, elevators and more.
Bridget Hilton: After watching a YouTube video of a woman hearing for the first time, Hilton couldn’t imagine life without music and set out to create LSTN. Hilton’s company makes fashionable, high-quality headphones from real wood, and adds a philanthropic twist by using a percentage of every sale to help the hearing impaired through the Starkey Hearing Foundation. More than 20,000 people across the United States, Peru, Kenya, Uganda, China, Sri Lanka and Indonesia have received hearing aids from LSTN. As a result of her work, Hilton has been named to Forbes’ “30 Under 30: Social Entrepreneurs,” Inc.’s “30 Under 30” and named the National Association of Women Business Owner’s (NAWBO) “Rising Star of the Year” in 2015.
Erica Nicole: An accomplished serial entrepreneur, Nicole is best known as founder and CEO of YFS Magazine: Young, Fabulous & Self-Employed. The digital magazine is a hub for startup, small business and entrepreneurial news, delivering an authoritative voice on best practices, tips, strategies and perspectives about entrepreneurship. The publication is considered one of the largest and most influential startup news sites to date and earned Nicole a mention on Entrepreneur’s list of the “15 Female Entrepreneurs to Watch in 2015.”
Stephanie Parker: Parker created the Zipadee-Zip to help her daughter, who was experiencing discomfort in her swaddle, fall asleep. Parker designed a unique pajama suit that creates a cozy environment, while still giving babies the freedom to wiggle. The Zipadee-Zip was the first product produced by Parker’s Sleeping Baby brand. She initially spent $700 to get her business up and running, and her company was debt free within the first week of sales. Sleeping Baby is now set to gross more than $1 million.
Michelle Phan: For women around the world, Phan is a household name thanks to her beauty video tutorials on YouTube. She’s a digital pioneer whose popularity exploded in 2012, inspiring her to launch ipsy, a subscription cosmetics company projected to yield $120 million in revenue in 2015. Phan is still establishing her personal brand with a line of makeup at L’Oréal, a partnership with Endemol Beyond USA and a partnership with Cutting Edge Group to launch Shift Music Group. She has racked up more than a billion views of her YouTube makeup how-to’s, was named to the Inc. “30 Under 30” and Forbes “30 Under 30” lists in 2015, and is estimated to be worth $100 million.
Angelia Trinidad: Trinidad created the Passion Planner as a personal organizer and life coach to encourage people to measure out what they want to achieve. It was designed with passions and personal goals in mind to seamlessly allow for all users to achieve a more relaxed work-life balance. After a highly successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $48,030, the Passion Planner became one of the best-selling planners on Amazon. Trinidad plans to continue to develop more interactive self-improvement books, including a new academic version of the Passion Planner.
This post was originally published on the MBA@UNC blog, and is republished here with permission from the author.