The first day of March is upon us, and with it comes a full month of female celebration as the United States recognizes the significant role women have played in American history. Over the last few centuries, women have and continue to be a vital force in our nation, whether it be in politics, technology, the arts, or of course, business.
The number of women-owned businesses has increased dramatically over the last few decades. In fact, since 1972, the number of businesses started by women has increased by nearly 3,000%, and today women own 40% of U.S. businesses.
To kick off Women’s History Month, let’s pay homage to the hardworking women who decided to follow their passion and build some of today’s well-known companies and up-and-coming brands.
Madam C.J. Walker
The early 1900s was an important time for women, but it was also one of great struggle, particularly for minorities. That, however, didn’t stop Sarah Breedlove. Later known as Madam C.J. Walker, she managed to become a noted civil rights activist, philanthropist, and one of the first African American entrepreneurs in the United States. She also maintains the title of first female self-made millionaire in America.
Though Walker married early, by 1903 she found herself a struggling widowed mother of a young daughter. Though she briefly earned an income by working as a laundress, by 1905, she found a new calling – hair care. Grappling with a common scalp ailment that resulted in the loss of hair, Walker developed a hair product that went on to “revolutionize” African American hair care.
Originally, Walker sold her hair care products directly to women, but as her success grew, she established Madam C.J. Walker as a formal business entity. During her time as the founder and CEO, she trained over 40,000 women, giving them jobs as consultants who could educate consumers and sell her haircare products.
Perhaps part of her success can be attributed to her belief that we must “understand that [our] first duty is to humanity”– a notion that was clearly a driving factor in her philanthropy activity, which included generous contributions to the NAACP, the Tuskegee Institute, and numerous other charitable organizations.
In 1910, Elizabeth Arden, born Florence Nightingale Graham, opened a New York salon with her then-business partner Elizabeth Hubbard. However, it wasn’t the salon that solidified Arden’s place in the beauty business.
A few years after opening her business, her partnership with Hubbard ended, but Arden continued to pursue her passion of making women feel beautiful by carefully crafted beauty products. Starting with face creams and lotions, Arden worked alongside a team of chemists to develop the products that would eventually make her a household name.
In addition to creating beauty products, Arden continued to run successful salons that offered everything from massages and manicures to exercise programs and steam baths.
If asked how today’s women can succeed in business, she’d likely tell us that “repetition makes reputation and reputation makes customers” — clearly a nod to the role consistency and quality play in entrepreneurial success.
Ruth’s Chris Steak House
In 1965, Ruth Fertel was a divorced mother of two boys and was looking for a way to earn more money than her lab tech job provided. At the same time, the Chris Steak House was up for sale, a move that came after a series of failures. After mortgaging her home, Ruth took over the steak house, and when the original location burned down, she re-opened under what has become a name synonymous with upscale restaurant chains – Ruth’s Chris Steak House.
After serving up success for a few years, Ruth eventually agreed to franchise her restaurant, and the rest is history. Today, there are over 150 Ruth’s Chris locations serving hungry customers the signature filets as well as numerous other gourmet plates.
Her secret for success? Unwavering hospitality — “We went out of our way to please customers. We spoiled them.” And that’s exactly what she did.
Bdeir Little Bits
Children are malleable, and many educational experts would argue that future success often depends on early access to the tools and resources necessary for growth. And as our society progresses, so to do the demands of our youth, especially in the toy and education industry.
Ayah Bdeir, who is an MIT grad and TED senior fellow, recognized the need for a product, or “toy” that made engineering and technology principals not only accessible but appealing to youth. In 2011, she did just that by starting littleBits. littleBits is comprised of electronic building blocks that allow children to pair imagination and fun with STEM fundamentals in an effort to make unique creations.
Today, the educational value behind Bdeir’s products is made clear by the 20,000 school partnerships in which littleBits currently engages. The growing NYC-based company, which has over 65M in funding, also partners with major brands like Disney and Pearson. Bdeir’s success has also made littleBit’s part of the New York City Department of Education’s City STEM program.
According to this tech-savvy businesswomen, “solving real problems takes time. In order to be successful, you need to devote time to your passion,” Clearly, that advice has worked out for her and the thousands of children that benefit from littleBits.
If you’ve been on the internet at any point in the last decade and a half, then you’re likely at least remotely familiar with Lifehacker. The blog, which was started by Gina Trapani helped many of us navigate our way through life’s problems, specifically technology-based ones, with what has become known as “life hacks.”
According to Trapani, she had “two major obsessions” in her career, “personal publishing and archiving, and technology’s role in personal productivity.” With that in mind, it’s easy to see how she became the driving force behind Lifehacker’s success.
While Lifehacker has certainly helped many of us, at one point, manage the challenges of everyday life – Trapani is no longer with the publication. However, her continuing role as a female business leader and role model that landed Lifehacker and therefore Trapani on the list.
Today, she is a Managing Partner at Postlight, a company that builds apps, web platforms, and software products. However, perhaps more notably, she was named as one of Business Insider’s “Most Powerful LGBTQ People in Tech.
32 & Me
Today, access to health data can be a bit of a taboo topic, but love it or hate it, you have to admit that it’s an astonishing advancement in consumer health technology. And, for Anne Wojcicki, founder of 32 & Me, it means giving individuals access to information that can help them manage and control their health. And changing health care in this manner, she says, is her biggest ambition in life.
Wojcicki has overcome many setbacks in her efforts to grow 32 & Me, including an order by the FDA to stop selling the product until she could prove that the results were accurate – a logical request, of course. She went on to do just that and today the company is first one approved to provide sensitive medical information, including an individual’s risk for certain cancers.
While 32 & Me and Wojcicki’s mission is clearly one that can change the way we approach our medical decisions, there is more that aspiring entrepreneurs can take from, particularly when it comes to running a company. To her, it’s important to learn from your mistakes, invest in your employees, and try to be a leader that is “accessible” and “real” – sentiments that have proven value in not only 32 & ME but successful companies the world over.
While these women clearly have and will continue to pave the way for female entrepreneurs, it’s also important to recognize the thousands of female entrepreneurs who put their heart, mind, and money on the line each and every day. This month, make it a point to find and support the female business owners in your community. (Keep reading our blog to learn more about business loans for women.)
This article was originally written on March 1, 2019 and updated on February 1, 2021.