On Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, we celebrate the female innovators who’ve been influencing the culture for centuries—and our ever-expanding role in the future of the global economy.
Thomas Edison may have invented the light bulb, and Steve Jobs changed the world with the personal computer, but female entrepreneurs have been influencing culture and humanity for centuries. Marie Curie discovered two radioactive elements, and collected Nobel Prizes like Adele collects Grammys. J.K. Rowling invented the most popular fictional character in the world (sorry, Luke Skywalker), and reignited the world’s collective imagination. Estée Lauder mixed cosmetics in her kitchen that would become a global beauty empire. Madam C.J. Walker helped African-American women overcome hair loss—and learn to be business owners—not a generation removed from slavery. Martha Stewart transformed the “woman’s work” of crafting and cooking into a multi-billion-dollar media empire.
The list goes on and on. And it’s getting longer. Female entrepreneurship is more than just a trend, as a 2013 Harvard Business Review article mildly insinuated by suggesting that it had reached “a media tipping point.” Hard data begs to differ. Earlier this year, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research released a report on the state of women’s roles—including work and entrepreneurship—and found that about 30 percent of America’s business owners are women, a statistic that’s rising, especially in the African-American community, which has seen more than a 250 percent spike in female entrepreneurship since 1997. Even though women are still aced out of the C-suite, and venture capitalists tend to snub female-led projects, we’re still getting stuff done. Specifically, women are killing it in the crowd-funding arena—they are 13 percent more likely to meet their funding goals than men on Kickstater, and more than 60 percent more likely than men to fully finance projects on Indiegogo. In fact, women entrepreneurs are essential to more than just gender parity. They may be the key to saving the world. The United Nations Foundation has declared supporting female entrepreneurs—particularly in third-world countries—the answer to global economic growth. When more women run businesses, they help sustain local industries, allow for more children—especially girls—to go to school, and change the cultural perceptions of power, intellect, and a woman’s value.
Today is Women’s Entrepreneurship Day, which celebrates the world’s female innovators. This surge of women entrepreneurs is evident in nearly every industry. Jessica Alba’s The Honest Company, born in 2011 from a motherly concern over the toxic chemicals found in everything, is one of the fastest growing consumer goods companies in the U.S. Elizabeth Holmes, who dropped out of Stanford in 2003 to launch her blood-testing company, Theranos—whose ambition is nothing short of changing the face of medical technology—is now the youngest self-made billionaire in the world. Lucy Peng is the only female co-founder of Alibaba Group, the biggest e-commerce company in the biggest economy in the world: China. Weili Dai is one of the most successful people in the technology industry, an old boy’s club if ever there was one. As president and co-founder of Marvell Technology Group, she is the only female co-founder of a major semiconductor company. Pretty much anything technological needs a semiconductor. Media veterans and good friends Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg brought email newsletters back to life with The Skimm, their 2012 startup which presents the day’s news in digestible, witty snippets to 1.5 million subscribers, including fans like Oprah Winfrey and Sarah Jessica Parker.
Great news, right? It’s Beyoncé’s prophecy realized: Girls, running the world. But these strides don’t erase the sometimes Herculean odds a woman faces when trying to start a business. When Virginia Woolf mused about the lack of women fiction writers in 1929’s A Room of One’s Own, she cited two main reasons: lack of financial independence and creative space. These obstacles remain embedded in our society—look no further than the wage gap and lack of family leave policy in the U.S. It’s simply a harder road for women to start successful businesses—harder still for those who choose to become parents. But a woman’s persistence has never been governed. And it’s a powerful force that even Senate Republicans can’t fuck with.
When Rowling started to write what would become the global phenomenon Harry Potter series, she was grieving the death of her mother, going through a divorce, suffering from clinical depression, figuring out first-time motherhood, and living on welfare. She literally faced all the odds. And beat them.
When Sara Blakely conceived of Spanx, she just wanted to create underwear that wouldn’t show up under her white pants. When met with the bias of the all-male hosiery industry (think on that a minute)—no one would buy her product, invest in it, or legally represent her brand—she bootstrapped the startup and taught herself everything she needed to do so, including patent law. Blakely has become so successful that she joined the Giving Pledge—the Bill Gates and Warren Buffett initiative that asks the world’s wealthiest people to donate at least half of their earnings to charity. Her focus? Investing in women, which she calls one of the world’s greatest resources.
Even Oprah Winfrey had to fight—hard—to get a job on-camera. And when she finally hosted her own show, she shocked her naysayers again with her honest confessions about being the victim of sexual assault at age 9, and losing a son she had at 14. She got personal not for ratings (well not exclusively), but to relate to the pain of one of her guests. In that moment, we all saw her purpose: Help the world by helping people see their true selves. That’s the day she won the media-queen crown, which she will never, ever surrender.
Some of the greatest innovations of our time have developed from women tapping into something personal and seeking the solution to a specific problem—oftentimes one that men haven’t bothered to look into yet.
Madam C.J. Walker, the youngest of six children and the first in the family born into freedom after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, created products to treat hair loss in African-American women because she, herself, was suffering from it. In doing so, she became the first African-American entrepreneur in the United States (circa late 1800s), and one of the wealthiest women of her era. As her products became bestsellers, Walker opened a college to train women (mostly women of color), giving them an income opportunity they otherwise didn’t have. She even built her own factory. This was not only extraordinary, but practically unheard of.
Savitribai Phule was a humanitarian prophet to women and underrepresented groups in the 19th century. She founded the first women’s school in India in 1848 and became its first female teacher at a time when women’s education in India did not exactly win the popular vote. In 1852 she also opened a school for Untouchable girls—members of the lowest caste, often subject to violence, abuse, and public humiliation. In 1897, Phule and her son opened a clinic for victims of the worldwide bubonic plague, and established a rehabilitation center for pregnant rape victims.
Marion Donovan was a post–World War II-era mother sick and tired of washing soiled cloth diapers. (Today, they come with built-in Velcro and cute, leak-proof covers, but back then cloth diapers meant mess after smelly mess.) She grabbed a shower curtain, took to her sewing machine, and invented the first waterproof diaper cover. Investors balked, so she peddled it on her own—landing a sale at Sacks Fifth Avenue in 1949 and delighting parents everywhere. Her next invention was the world’ first disposable diaper, which led to Pampers. Before her death, Donovan was awarded 20 patents, all for items that helped women lead easier lives—from hosiery clamps to closet organizers.
In 2004, Beethlehem Tilahun Alemu started soleRebels shoe company as a means to employ artisans from her native Ethiopia. It became the first fair-trade certified footwear company in the world, propelling its visibility (The Clinton Global Initiative and the World Bank endorsed) and helping Alemu realize her mission of bringing jobs and security to her community.
Becca Goldstein helped launch Fever Smart in 2014—a wearable digital device that constantly tracks temperature and sends alerts to your smartphone or tablet via Bluetooth—after one of her University of Pennsylvania classmates was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The technology can catch dangerous spikes in fever for those who suffer from chronic illness, or just put parents’ minds at ease as their kids sleep off a virus.
When history books are rewritten, Spanx still may not be considered as important as the light bulb. But the impact of women entrepreneurs everywhere is changing the way we think, communicate, and dream.
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