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Originally published by Kristin Chessman, Entrepreneurs, August 6, 2008
They may not be celebrated in history books, but their contributions to the world have greatly influenced our society. The legendary women entrepreneurs on our list have constantly pushed the standards of their fields to leave the world a better place.
These women are all different, yet they share similar stories of triumph in the face of hardship. Some were selected because their invention changed the way we live, while others were chosen for carving out a better path for women. Debbi Fields, founder of Mrs. Fields Cookies, explains entrepreneurial motivation: “Entrepreneurship has no age or time limits…it thrives on hope and inspiration. Those who choose to participate can only make the world a better place.”
And that’s exactly what these entrepreneurs have done. Thanks to the accomplishments of the women on our list, today’s women-owned firms are among the fastest-growing firms in the nation–women start businesses at twice the rate of all companies. About 7.7 million firms are majority-owned by women (51 percent or more), employing about 7.1 million people and generating $1.1 trillion in sales, according to the Center for Women’s Business Research.
‘Dying’ to Make a Difference
She’s known as America’s first important agriculturalist for introducing blue indigo dye into continental North America. Eliza Lucas was born in Antigua, an island in the West Indies, in 1722. She attended a finishing school in London, where she developed a love for botany. When she was still young, her family moved to the U.S., and her father acquired three plantations. At the age of 16, Pinckney took over the plantations near Charles Town, in the Province of South Carolina, after her mother died and her father, a British military officer, returned to the West Indies. After realizing that the growing textile industry was creating a need for new dyes, Pinckney began making a high-quality blue indigo dye in 1739. Her creation was a success: Indigo soon ranked second to rice as a South Carolina export crop. She went on to produce flax, hemp, silk and figs. Pinckney died in 1793, but her legend lives on. She became the first woman inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 1989.
Spreading the Word
This entrepreneur’s accomplishments have already been noted as a part of American history. Mary Katherine Goddard grew up in New London, Connecticut, before moving to Providence, Rhode Island, with her mother in 1762. Her famous firsts began when she became the first woman publisher in America in 1766. In 1775, Goddard became the first American woman postmaster in Baltimore, Maryland. But she is most famous for printing the first copy of the Declaration of Independence that included the names of all the signers. Goddard remained postmaster until she was replaced in 1789, then continued to work as a printer and bookseller until her death in 1816.
The Ann Landers of the 1800s
Some would call her the Ann Landers or Dr. Ruth of the 1800s. In 1875, Lydia Estes Pinkham of Lynn, Massachusetts, converted her herbal home remedies into a big business by skillfully marketing her products toward women and educating them about health issues. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound became one of the best-known patent medicines of the 19th century. Pinkham was deemed a crusader for women’s health in an age when women’s needs weren’t being met by the medical community. Cooper Laboratories bought the company in 1968, though pills and a liquid stamped with Pinkham’s name are still available at some drugstores.
Carving the Path for Women Entrepreneurs
Considered one of the 20th century’s most successful women entrepreneurs, Madam C.J. Walker built her empire out of nothing. Her parents were former slaves, and she was orphaned at the age of 7. In 1905, she created Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula. Walker had a personal connection to the product since she suffered from a scalp ailment that caused her to lose most of her hair. She eventually expanded her business to Central America and the Caribbean. By 1917, Walker held one of the first national meetings of businesswomen in Philadelphia, the Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention. Walker’s hard work and perseverance carved a path for women entrepreneurs, the African-American hair-care and cosmetics industry, and the African-American community as a whole.
Making Over America
She brought makeup from the stage to everyday life and slowly developed a global empire. Elizabeth Arden, born Florence Nightingale Graham in Woodbridge, Ontario, moved to New York at the age of 30 to pursue her dream of building a cosmetics corporation. There she began working with a chemist to create a beauty cream, something new for the cosmetics industry at that time. After traveling to Paris in 1912, Arden became the first person to introduce the concept of eye makeup to American women and offered the first makeovers in her 5th Avenue salon. Arden died in 1966, but her brand became as well-known across the U.S. as Singer sewing machines and Coca-Cola. At the end of its fiscal year in June 2007, the company reported $1.1 billion in net sales, up more than 18 percent from $955 million in 2006.
Revolutionizing Fashion One Accessory at a Time
“May my legend prosper and thrive. I wish it a long and happy life.” Coco Chanel’s legend certainly has lived on since she died in 1971. At the time of her death, Chanel’s fashion empire brought in more than $160 million a year. The fashionista, born in Saumur, France, opened her first shop in 1910 selling only women’s hats. In 1921, the company introduced Chanel No. 5, the first perfume to be sold worldwide. From there, the name Chanel became known across the world. Today, Chanel creations continue to attract a wealthy, celebrity-filled consumer base. Chanel will forever be associated with her little back dress, her timeless suits, shoes, purses and jewelry. As Christian Dior said, “With a black pullover and 10 rows of pearls, she revolutionized fashion.”
Skyrocketing to Success
Olive Ann Beech co-founded Beech Aircraft Corp. in Wichita, Kansas, alongside her husband, Walter, at the height of the Depression in 1932. Together the Beeches grew the business from 10 employees to 10,000. Two hundred seventy of their Beech Model 17 Staggerwings were manufactured for the U.S. Army during World War II. But after Walter died suddenly from a heart attack in 1950, Olive Ann became president and CEO of the company. During her nearly 20 years in charge, she transformed the company into a multimillion-dollar aerospace corporation. Olive Ann retired in 1968 but continued to serve on the board of directors until 1982, just two years after Raytheon Corp. purchased Beech Aircraft. Beech became the company’s first chairman emeritus before dying at home in Wichita in 1993. Beech Aircraft Corp. had a lasting impact on general aviation, producing some of the most popular aircraft of the 20th century.
Mother of the Airwaves
She’s a radio legend who captured the hearts of Americans with her kindness and down-to-earth point of view. Actress Virginia Payne brought the character “Ma Perkins,” also known as “America’s mother of the air,” to life in more than 7,000 episodes of her radio soap opera. Born in Cincinnati, Payne made her radio debut at the age of 23 when the show premiered on a Cincinnati radio station in 1933. The character of Ma Perkins was a self-sufficient widow who owned and managed a lumber yard and offered her homespun advice to all those who sought help. The show ran on NBC and CBS until 1960, and Payne played the title role over the show’s entire span. Payne died in 1977, 11 years before she and her alter ego, Ma Perkins, were inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.
Building a Beautiful Global Enterprise
Estée Lauder not only made the world a more beautiful place, she also left behind a billion-dollar legacy. Born Josephine Esther Mentzer in 1908 in the borough of Queens, New York, Lauder gained merchandising experience working in her father’s hardware store. But it was her chemist uncle’s influence that led to her future business ventures. In 1946, Lauder founded The Estée Lauder Company and began selling skin-care products developed by her uncle to beauty salons and hotels. Her talent for sales led her to her own counter at New York City’s Saks Fifth Avenue in 1948, followed by Neiman Marcus in 1950. The company opened its first international account at Harrods in London in 1960. Lauder’s innovative marketing techniques helped spread her brand name worldwide. Over the years, Lauder and her team of executives added new brands to the company’s portfolio, including Aramis, Clinique, Prescriptives, Origins and MAC. Lauder died in 2004, but the company continues to succeed: The Estée Lauder Company is now a global enterprise that exceeds $7 billion in annual sales.
The Planner Behind the Party
Her knack for sales, charm and ambition helped launch a product as common to most American kitchens as forks and knives. Wise was a single mom in 1939 when she got her lucky break: After selling Stanley Home Products in the early 1950s, she realized that Tupperware would be sold more effectively at home parties than at department stores. Wise’s “party plan” marketing system began outselling the stores, and that’s when Tupperware’s inventor, Earl Tupper, took notice and hired Wise as vice president of the company. In 1958, Tupper fired Wise after the press suggested that she was the key to Tupperware’s success. Wise died in 1992, but her marketing tactic lives on to this day–companies such as Mary Kay Cosmetics and Cookie Lee jewelry have followed in her footsteps by adopting the party-plan marketing method to sell their own products.
Before the company went private in 2003, Lillian Vernon’s empire was worth more than $238 million. Born Lillian Menasche in Leipzig, Germany, in 1929, Vernon came to the U.S. in 1937 when the Nazi threat intensified. In 1951, she decided to start a mail-order business named for her Mount Vernon, New York, home. After a second divorce the 1990s, she took Vernon as her surname. Vernon used $2,000 of her wedding gift funds to buy a variety of matching purses and belts, and placed an ad in Seventeen magazine. Soon, $32,000 in orders came flooding in. Vernon published her first catalog in 1956, offering personalized combs, blazer buttons, collar pins and cuff links. By 1970, Lillian Vernon Corp. hit $1 million in sales. The company expanded its items to encompass holiday décor, gifts, household items, fashion accessories and children’s products. After 51 years as CEO, the personalized gifts pioneer stepped down in 2002. The company, which filed for bankruptcy protection in February, is being acquired by Current USA Inc. for $15.8 million.
Barbie: Creating an American Icon
With the creation of the Barbie doll, Ruth Handler has changed the way little girls play and dream, and has forever left her stamp on American culture. Handler came up with the idea of creating a doll that looked more like an adult after noticing that her daughter preferred to play with paper dolls that looked like adults. Although her husband didn’t think the idea would sell, Handler debuted Barbie (her daughter’s nickname) at a New York toy fair in 1959. Handler and her husband, Elliot, were already selling dollhouse furniture and other toys through their company, Mattel, based out of their Hawthorne, California, garage. Within five years, Mattel became a Fortune 500 company. In 1967, Handler became president of Mattel Inc., a position she stayed in until 1974. Her legacy lives on today, and Barbie brings in more than $1 billion a year for Mattel.
The Final Word on Fine Living
She’s been named one of the “50 Most Powerful Women” twice by Fortune magazine and has made Forbes magazine’s “Forbes 400” list. Born in 1941 in Jersey City, New Jersey, Martha Stewart channeled her passion for cooking and stylish living into a multimedia empire. Through her magazine, Martha Stewart Living, her books, television show, website, newspaper column, radio show and product lines, Stewart has become a force to be reckoned with in every form of media she has entered into. Despite Stewart’s five-year legal battle after being convicted of insider trading, she has proved to be the ultimate comeback success story. Recent initiatives include the Martha Stewart Crafts line and the Martha Stewart Collection of home merchandise at Macy’s department stores. This year she introduced a co-branded food line at Costco and a co-branded floral, plant and gift basket program, Martha Stewart for 1-800-Flowers.com.
A Business With a Conscience
Dame Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, became interested in environmental activism at an early age through her world travels. What began as a way of living has emerged into a business with more than 2,100 stores and more than 77 million customers. In 1976, Roddick opened the doors to her first shop in Brighton, England. What sets The Body Shop apart from other stores offering similar bath and hygiene products has been Roddick’s commitment to running a company dedicated to the pursuit of social and environmental change. The Body Shop has established community trade relationships in more than 20 countries. Last month, it announced a campaign with MTV to raise HIV and AIDS awareness among those under age 25. The Body Shop was purchased by the L’Oreal Group in 2006, but remains independently run. Roddick and her husband stepped down as co-chairmen of the company in 2002, but she continued to consult until her death last year from a brain hemorrhage at age 64.
The Smell of Sweet Success
She’s proof that absolutely anyone can make her dream business a reality. Debbi Fields, a young mother with no business experience whatsoever, opened her first cookie store in Palo Alto, California, in 1977. At the age of 20, Fields was able to persuade a bank to finance Mrs. Fields Chocolate Chippery. Despite critics, she garnered worldwide acceptance as the premier chain of cookies and baked goods. The company was acquired in 1996 by a Greenwich, Connecticut-based investment firm, Capricorn Holdings. Fields went on to author several cookbooks, host a weekly program called “Great American Desserts” on PBS and sit on various boards, including the board of Outback Steakhouse Inc. in Tampa, Florida. Now known as Debbie Fields Rose, she lives in Memphis with her second husband, Michael Rose.
The Multimedia Maven
She’s a media queen, and she reaches an estimated 49 million viewers a week through TV alone. Oprah Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, in 1954 and lived in poverty while growing up. Despite a dysfunctional upbringing, Winfrey eventually received a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, where she studied communications and worked at a local radio station on the side. Winfrey got her big break in Chicago in 1983 when she began hosting a morning talk show. Within months, The Oprah Winfrey Show replaced Donahue as the highest-rated talk show in Chicago, and from there, her career skyrocketed. Today she not only serves as supervising producer and host of The Oprah Winfrey Show, taped in Chicago, but Winfrey is also the founder of her own magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine and women’s lifestyle website, Oprah.com. Oprah’s Angel Network has raised more than $70 million and given 100 percent of donations to nonprofit organizations worldwide. Her production company, Harpo Productions Inc., created another daytime hit, Dr. Phil, in 2002. There’s more–Oprah is the co-founder of Oxygen Media, which operates a 24-hour cable television network for women. She also produces Oprah & Friends on XM Satellite Radio. In January, Oprah announced plans to launch the Oprah Winfrey Network–OWN–in the second half of 2009 on the Discovery Health Channel. From Broadway producer to actress to philanthropist, there seems no limit to what Oprah can do.