It’s National Women's Small Business Month, which is a perfect time to honor women’s achievements in the world of entrepreneurship. There are numerous other women entrepreneurs who, if I were writing a book about great women business owners, would be included, such as Coco Chanel, Oprah, Mary Kay Ash, Ruth Fertel, Leeann Chin, Mary Wells Lawrence, Muriel Siebert and Lillian Vernon. Today, however, I’d like to call attention to five stand-out transformative female entrepreneurs who revolutionized their industries.
Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove) was one of the first female self-made millionaires in America—an astounding accomplishment for an African-American woman born to freed slaves in 1867. When she began losing her hair at a young age, she experimented with various solutions and in 1905 launched a hair care system designed for African-Americans.
Walker and her husband toured the U.S. promoting her products through demonstrations. Madam C.J. Walker Laboratories also employed door-to-door salespeople to market the product directly to African-American women—a precursor to the Avon lady. By 1910 the business had more than 3,000 employees; by 1919, when she died, it was valued at over $1 million. A philanthropist, Walker gave generously to causes assisting African-Americans and women.
2. Estée Lauder
Born in 1908, Estée Lauder (born Josephine Esther Mentzer) learned to make skin creams from her Hungarian uncle, and demonstrated them on women sitting under hairdryers at beauty salons. In 1946, she and husband Joseph Lauder started the company; their first order came from Saks Fifth Avenue.
A pioneer in beauty marketing, Lauder introduced the concept of “Gift With Purchase” now widely used in the beauty industry. Her emphasis on word-of-mouth marketing ("Telephone, telegraph, tell a woman,” she used to say) suggests she would have had lots of social media followers today. The Estée Lauder Companies is still a family-owned business.
Martha Stewart wasn’t always a lifestyle maven—she also worked as a model and then as a stockbroker in the early 1970s (a time when women on Wall Street were almost unheard of). When she and her then-husband moved to Connecticut in 1972, she threw herself into restoring their new home, a 19th-century farmhouse. Inspired by the project, she taught herself to cook and started a catering company.
Stewart parlayed the success of her catering business into several best-selling cookbooks, and in 1991, launched Martha Stewart Living magazine. Her television show and line of housewares were also huge hits. Despite a bump in the road in 2003, when she was indicted for insider trading related to her company’s IPO, Stewart bounced back and is still showing us how to live graciously.
Barbara Corcoran’s official bio says she got straight D's throughout high school—but the more than 20 jobs she had held by age 23 served as her education. In 1973, she co-founded a real estate business with her boyfriend. The business thrived, but a few years later her boyfriend left her for another woman, telling Corcoran she’d never succeed without him.
Corcoran Group, the first woman-owned real estate business in New York City, was a success from its first year. The company began selling real estate online in 1993, pioneering the concept, and by 2001, revenues neared $100 million. In 2006, Corcoran sold the company for $66 million. Today, she’s one of the judges on ABC’s Shark Tank, helping other entrepreneurs fine-tune their ideas and succeed.
5. Sara Blakely
Like many women, Sara Blakely didn’t like how she looked in white pants. But, unlike many, she actually did something
about it: cutting off the feet of a pair of pantyhose and wearing them under her pants, streamlining her look. Convinced her idea had potential, she used $5,000 saved from her door-to-door sales job to patent the product and develop a prototype.
In 1998, Blakely made her first sale to a Neiman Marcus buyer after dragging her into the bathroom to demonstrate the product. Two years later, sales soared when SPANX was featured as one of “Oprah's Favorite Things.” America’s youngest self-made female billionaire, Blakely still owns her company, which is entirely self-funded. In 2006 she launched the Sara Blakely Foundation to support women’s causes; in 2013 she became the first female billionaire to sign the Giving Pledge, promising to give away the majority of her money to giving back.
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About Rieva Lesonsky
Rieva Lesonsky is CEO and Co-founder of GrowBiz Media, a custom content and media company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship, and the blog SmallBizDaily.com. A nationally known speaker and authority on entrepreneurship, Rieva has been covering America’s entrepreneurs for more than 30 years. Before co-founding GrowBiz Media, Lesonsky was the long-time Editorial Director of Entrepreneur Magazine. Lesonsky has appeared on hundreds of radio shows and numerous local and national television programs, including the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, The Martha Stewart Show and Oprah.
Lesonsky regularly writes about small business for numerous websites and for corporations targeting entrepreneurs. Many organizations have recognized Lesonsky for her tireless devotion to helping entrepreneurs. She served on the Small Business Administration’s National Advisory Council for six years, was honored by the SBA as a Small Business Media Advocate and a Woman in Business Advocate, and received the prestigious Lou Campanelli award from SCORE. She is a long-time member of the Business Journalists Hall of Fame.
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