Women have been paving the path for entrepreneurs in every industry for many decades. From Estée Lauder, who launched her cosmetics company in the 1940s, to Ruth Fertel, who aspired 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 different industries in recent decades. This list is in no particular order and by no means exhaustive, but it 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 Estée Lauder, the last few decades have marked a great upsurge in self-made women in business.
- Women entrepreneurs are historically most known for running fashion houses or cosmetic companies, but more recently, many have made their mark in other industries, such as real estate and biopharma.
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 degree in economic development. Zhang worked for Goldman Sachs before launching her company; she has since amassed a $2.8 billion fortune.
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is the founder of Biocon, a global biopharmaceutical company. She began Biocon out of a rented shed and grew it into India’s largest listed biopharma firm in terms of revenue. Biocon 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 second wealthiest self-made woman (behind Nykaa founder Falguni Nayar), with a net worth of $2.1 billion as of February 2023, according to Forbes.
Janice Bryant Howroyd
Janice Bryant Howroyd is the founder and CEO of ActOne Group, the first Black 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 with more than 17,000 clients in 33 countries. Like many of her counterparts on this list, Howroyd started from very humble beginnings, launching her company with just $1,500 in 1978. She is listed in Forbes’ America’s Richest Self-Made Women for 2022.
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, subsequently creating OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, which she leads as CEO. In 2015, Winfrey bought an equity stake in Weight Watchers International and became a spokeswoman for the popular subscription weight loss program. Winfrey has a net worth of $2.5 billion as of February 2023, 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. Her net worth as of February 2023 is $450 million, according to Forbes.
Arianna Huffington launched the news website The Huffington Post in 2005. She sold it to AOL in 2011 but continued to guide it and grow the Huffington brand overseas. In that same year, Time Magazine included her in its list of the world’s 100 most influential people. In 2016, she stepped down from The Huffington Post to launch health and wellness startup Thrive Global, which she leads as CEO. Huffington has also authored 15 books.
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 was included in Forbes’ 50 Over 50 (Lifestyle) and America's Self-Made Women lists in 2022. 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 2020 economic crisis, 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 multilevel marketing company Rodan + Fields felt so strongly about eradicating acne for 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 $530 million and is included in Forbes’ 2022 America’s Richest Self-Made Women list.
Just 35 years old, Rihanna is the youngest woman on this list. The superstar singer has made most of her $1.7 billion fortune from Fenty Beauty, a cosmetics line that 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 $47 million for climate, racial justice, COVID-related relief, and other causes in 2020. Rihanna headlined the Super Bowl LVII halftime show in 2023, revealing that she was pregnant with her second child. She has a net worth of $1.4 billion as of February 2023 and is included in Forbes’ 2022 Power Women and America’s Richest Self-Made Women lists.
Who Are the Top Women Entrepreneurs?
Women entrepreneurs have shaped many industries. Zhang Xin is known as "the woman who built Beijing" thanks to her work in real estate as co-founder of SOHO China. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw founded Biocon, the largest listed biopharmaceutical company in India based on revenues. Janice Bryant Howroyd co-founded ActOne Group, a workforce management firm with over 17,000 clients in 33 countries. It was the first Black-owned company to achieve $1 billion in annual revenues. Ariana Huffington, The Huffington Post founder, sold the publication to AOL for $315 million in 2011. Rihanna, singer and business owner, runs Fenty Beauty, a billion-dollar company.
Who Are the Top Women Entrepreneurs in Entertainment?
With a net worth of $2.5 billion, Oprah Winfrey is the most famous woman entrepreneur in media and entertainment. Winfrey runs the multinational cable network OWN and co-founded Oxygen Media. Ariana Huffington and Rihanna are among the top entrepreneurs in media and entertainment, along with Katy Perry and Beyoncé.
Who Are Notable Women Entrepreneurs?
Behind the scene of many well-known companies and brands are women founders and entrepreneurs. 23andMe, a DNA testing company, was founded by Anne Wojcicki in 2006. Robotics firm Automation Anywhere was co-founded by Neeti Mehta in San Jose, Calif. Computer security company CloudFlare was co-founded by Michelle Zatlyn in 2009, while Paya Kadakia co-founded subscription marketplace Classpass, which has partnerships with over 30,000 health establishments worldwide.
The Bottom Line
Historically, women entrepreneurs are best known for running fashion houses (Diane von Furstenberg, for example) or cosmetic companies (such as Mary Kay Cosmetics, founded by Mary Kay Ash), but in recent decades, more women entrepreneurs have risen to prominence in a wide range of industries.