Did you know that Kendra Scott started her billion-dollar jewelry brand with just $500? Or that Coco Chanel learned how to sew from the nuns who raised her in an orphanage? The month of March is dedicated to celebrating women from all walks of life, in all fields, both past and present. In this article, we explore how some of the most famous female entrepreneurs jumpstarted their careers.
Fashion designer Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971) is credited with many timeless designs, such as the little black dress, where she took a color once associated with mourning and showed how chic it could be.
At the age of 12, she was put in an orphanage by her father, where she was raised by nuns who would teach her how to sew. Chanel opened her first shop in 1910 and started selling hats, but quickly turned to fashion. Her first taste of clothing success came from a dress she fashioned out of an old jersey on a chilly day.
In the 1920s, Chanel launched her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, which was the first to feature a designer’s name. Then in 1925, she introduced the now legendary Chanel suit with a collarless jacket and well-fitted skirt. Her designs were revolutionary for the time—borrowing elements of men’s wear and emphasizing comfort over the constraints of then-popular fashions. She helped women say goodbye to the days of corsets and other confining garments.1
Company: Mrs. Fields Bakeries
Debbi Fields, the founder of Mrs. Fields, turned her cookie recipe into a $450 million company. “When I broached the idea of turning my cookies into a business, my family thought I was crazy. They told me I didn’t have any money, education, or experience, but hearing them made me only more determined. I started going to banks and asking for a loan… I kept bringing my cookies and sharing my dreams, and finally, I managed to get a loan with 21% interest. I was thrilled.”
The morning Debbi opened her first store, her husband bet she couldn’t make $50 in sales. After a few hours of no customers, she took to the streets, letting people try her product. She ended up selling $75 worth.2
Company: The Corcoran Group
Barbara Corcoran’s credits include straight D’s in high school and college and 20 jobs by the time she turned 23. It was her next job that would make her one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the country: She borrowed $1,000 and quit her job as a waitress to start a tiny real estate company in New York City. In 2001, Barbara sold The Corcoran Group, the largest and best-known brand in the brokerage business, to NRT for $66 million.3
Janice Bryant Howroyd
Company: ActOne Group
Janice Bryant Howroyd is the founder and CEO of $950 million ActOne, a provider of workforce solutions and temporary staffing. In 1978, Janice opened her business in Los Angeles with $1,500, $900 of which was a loan from her mother, a fax machine, and a phone.4
Sara Blakely was once a door-to-door fax machine salesperson. Now, she’s known as the founder of Spanx, a billion-dollar company that sells undergarments, leggings, and swimwear.
Sara invented Spanx in the late 1990s despite having no fashion, retail, or business leadership experience. While getting ready for a party, she realized she didn’t have the right undergarment to provide a smooth look under white pants. Armed with scissors and sheer genius, she cut the feet off her control top pantyhose and the SPANX revolution began! 5
Company: Kendra Scott
Kendra Scott is the founder, executive chairwoman, and lead designer of the billion-dollar jewelry brand Kendra Scott. She started her company in 2002, just three months after her first son was born, with only $500. With over 2,000 employees, Kendra Scott boasts a thriving web business and over 100 standalone stores and has expanded beyond fashion jewelry into fine jewelry, home décor, and beauty.6
Company: ABC Supply
Diane Hendricks had a child at age 17, worked as a Playboy Bunny to pay her bills, beat cancer twice, and survived the tragic death of her husband. In 1982, Diane co-founded ABC Supply with her husband, Ken. After Ken died in 2007, Hendricks continued the business’ rapid expansion, buying rivals and more than doubling its store count to 900. Revenue hit a record $15 billion in 2021.7
Company: KonMari Media, Inc.
Marie Kondo is a tidying expert, bestselling author, star of the Netflix Show “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo,” Founder of KonMari Media, Inc., and mother. As a child in Tokyo, Marie would search homemaking magazines for new ways to organize. Tidying was even the subject of her college thesis, titled “How to Declutter Your Apartment —From a Sociological Perspective.”
While studying sociology at Tokyo Woman’s Christian University, Marie helped friends tidy their spaces and launched her tidying consultant business at the age of 19. After a short post-college stint at a staffing agency, she was able to start tidying full-time. Soon she had a six-month waiting list.8
Who is the most famous female business owner in the United States?
While some might disagree about who the most famous female business owner in the United States is, most people agree one woman stands apart from the rest: Oprah Winfrey.
Listed in Forbes Magazine (2003) as the first African American woman billionaire, today has an estimated net worth of $2.5 billion.9 But, life wasn’t always glamorous for the successful television host, producer, actress, and author.
Born to an unwed teenage mother, Oprah Winfrey spent her first years on her grandmother’s farm in Mississippi, while her mother looked for work. At age six, she went to live with her mom in Milwaukee, where she was repeatedly molested. Oprah tried to run away but was sent to a juvenile detention home, only to be denied admission because the beds were full.
At 14, Oprah was homeless and on her own. After giving birth to a baby boy who died in infancy, she went to Nashville to live with her father. In this structured environment, Oprah flourished, and became an honor student, winning prizes for oratory and dramatic recitation.
After receiving a full scholarship to Tennessee State University, Oprah majored in speech communications and performing arts. She left school and signed on with a local television station as a reporter and anchor.
In January 1984, she was invited to Chicago to host a morning show which would eventually become The Oprah Winfrey Show. In 1987, its first year of eligibility, the show received three Daytime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Host, Outstanding Talk/Service Program, and Outstanding Direction. The following year, the show received its second consecutive Emmy as Outstanding Talk/Service Program, and Oprah herself received the International Radio and Television Society’s “Broadcaster of the Year” Award. She was the youngest person ever to receive the honor.
- Harpo Productions (Harpo is Oprah spelled backward)
In 1986, Oprah founded Harpo Productions, a multimedia production company that is split into two divisions, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), and Harpo Print, which is responsible for O, The Oprah Magazine.
- Weight Watchers
In 2015, Oprah bought a minority stake in the global nutrition and weight loss program Weight Watchers for a reported $34 million. By 2020, the value of her investment in the publicly-traded company had increased to as much as $430 million.
- Oxygen Media
Oprah was one of the high-profile media executives that founded Oxygen Media in 1998. Oxygen launched its female-focused cable network in February 2000 and seven years later, NBCUniversal announced it would purchase Oxygen Media for $925 million.
- Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls
Oprah has invested $40 million to establish the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. The school, which opened in 2007, features state-of-the-art classrooms, computer and science laboratories, a library, a theatre, and a beauty salon. Oprah teaches a remote class at the school.
- Oprah’s Angel Network
In 1998, Oprah founded Oprah’s Angel Network, a public charity established to inspire people to make a difference. Oprah’s Angel Network raised over $80 million to provide scholarships to needy students, funded over 200 Habitat for Humanity homes, and built schools in thirteen countries.11
Who was the first female entrepreneur?
When asked who was the first female entrepreneur, most give credit to Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919), an African American entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist. She is recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in America in the Guinness Book of World Records.12
Born Sarah Breedlove, she was the first in her family to be born into freedom.
Orphaned at 7, married at 14, and widowed at 20, she was a single mother earning $1.50 a day as a washerwoman. Madam developed a hair growth formula after she realized she was losing hair, and “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower” was born. She sold a variety of hair care products for African American women like herself, whose needs were not met by the mainstream brands of the time.13