Women have been paving the path for entrepreneurs in every industry for many decades. From Estee Lauder, who launched her cosmetics company in the 1940s to Ruth Fertel, who wanted to have the best steak restaurant—Ruth’s Chris Steak House, women entrepreneurs have been able to withstand economic and business pressures to be the best.
Today, the list of women entrepreneurs spans many industries. Below is a list of the 10 most successful women entrepreneurs who have made a significant mark in recent decades. This list is in no particular order, and by no means exhaustive, but strives to recognize women who have built a world-renowned brand through their own hard work and strong drive.
- Most entrepreneurs and executives still tend to be men, but more and more women are becoming business leaders and innovators.
- While there are a handful of woman founders from the past, such as Estee Lauder, the past few decades have marked a great upsurge in self-made women in business.
- While women entrepreneurs are historically most known for running fashion houses or cosmetic companies, in more recent decades many have made their marks in other industries like real estate and biopharma.
Real Estate and Biotechnology
Zhang Xin is co-founder of SOHO China, a real estate development firm in China that went public in 2007. Known as “the woman who built Beijing,” she was once a factory worker, later graduating from Cambridge University with a master's in economic development. Zhang worked for Goldman Sachs before launching her company; she has since amassed a $3.5 billion fortune.
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is the founder of Biocon, an Indian biopharma company. She began Biocon out of a rented shed and grew it into India's largest listed biopharma firm in terms of revenue. Biocon, a global company, went public in 2004 and became only the second Indian company to reach $1 billion on its first trading day. Mazumdar-Shaw is India's wealthiest self-made woman, with a net worth of $4.1 billion, according to Forbes.
Janice Bryant Howroyd
Janice Bryant Howroyd is the founder of ActOne Group, the first African-American female-led company to bring in more than $1 billion in annual revenue.
ActOne is primarily an employment agency and consultancy based in Los Angeles. It has more than 17,000 clients in 19 countries and, like many of her counterparts on this list, Howroyd started from very humble beginnings. She launched her company with just $1,500 in 1976. She is listed in Forbes' 2020 America's Richest Self-Made Women.
Entertainment and Media
Media mogul Oprah Winfrey continues to build her media empire. Winfrey, a TV personality turned entrepreneur, co-founded Oxygen Media, a cable station. She continued hosting her talk show until 2011, after which she created OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, of which she is the CEO. In 2015, Oprah bought an equity stake in Weight Watchers International and became a spokeswoman for the popular subscription weight loss program. Winfrey's net worth is $2.6 billion, according to Forbes.
The singer-songwriter, who started as part of Destiny’s Child in the mid-1990s, has since become a huge top-selling female solo artist and a global brand. Beyoncé signed a $50 million endorsement deal with PepsiCo in 2012. Through her company, Parkwood Entertainment, Beyoncé produces movies, music, and clothing. In 2019, she signed a $60 million contract with Netflix to provide content to the streaming service.
Arianna Huffington launched The Huffington Post in 2005. She later sold it to AOL in 2011, but continued to guide it and grow the Huffington brand overseas. In 2016, she stepped down from The Huffington Post to launch health and wellness startup Thrive Global, which she leads as CEO. Time Magazine has included her in its list of the world’s 100 most influential people.
Globally, only one in three businesses are owned by women, according to the World Bank.
Fashion and Beauty
Founder of her namesake company, Tory Burch launched the U.S.-based clothing and fashion line in 2004. The brand now brings in $1.5 billion in sales annually. She is included in Forbes' list of most powerful women in the world in 2020. Burch is also a philanthropist who launched the Tory Burch Foundation to support women entrepreneurs.
The inventor of Spanx undergarments for women and men, Blakely started with only $5,000 of her own money, an idea, and pure drive. Today, the brand is sold in more than 50 countries. Like Tory Burch, Blakely also has a foundation to help women worldwide. To support women entrepreneurs during the pandemic, she teamed up with GlobalGiving to launch the Red Backpack Fund, which awarded more than a thousand $5,000 awards to women business owners.
Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields
The co-founders of skincare and multi-level marketing company Rodan + Fields felt so strongly about eradicating acne in all ages that they joined together to develop their flagship product, Proactiv, in 1995. The makers have since taken the dermatologic knowledge that helped them conquer the acne market to the anti-aging skincare market. Each has a net worth of $800 million and is listed in Forbes' 2020 America's Richest Self-Made Women.
At just 33 years old, Rihanna is the youngest woman on this list. The superstar singer has made most of her $600 million fortune from Fenty Beauty, a cosmetics line she co-owns with luxury goods group LVMH. She also co-owns Savage X Fenty, a lingerie line, with investors. Her foundation, the Clara Lionel Foundation, raised $22.5 million for coronavirus relief efforts in 2020. Rihanna is listed in Forbes' 2020 America's Richest Self-Made Women.
The Bottom Line
Women entrepreneurs are historically most known for running fashion houses (Diane Von Furstenberg) or cosmetic companies (Mary Kay), but in more recent decades, a remarkable number of entrepreneurs have made their marks in other industries ranging from real estate to biopharma.