Steve Jobs. Marshall Field. Thomas Edison. Famous male entrepreneurs are household names, but March is Women’s History Month, so it’s time to celebrate women entrepreneurs. It’s easy to think of women entering the work force as a modern phenomenon. But women ran and built successful companies for centuries, small businesses and large enterprises.
Successful women entrepreneurs have come from all walks of life: poor and rich, old and young, white, black, Hispanic, Asian. You, too, can be one of them.
Here are just a few of their stories and lessons we can learn:
** Start your own engine. Madam C.J. Walker became America’s first female self-made millionaire. Born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 on a Louisiana cotton plantation to former slaves, she was orphaned at age seven. Breedlove picked cotton, was a house servant, and married at 14. Hardly an auspicious beginning. But starting with just $1.50 to her name, she carved out a niche, creating a hair-care empire serving African American women, often selling direct to customers through other customers, a fore-runner of companies like Mary Kay and Avon. “I got my start by giving myself a start,” Walker said.
** Learn science. In 1739 – yes, way back then – 17-year-old Eliza Lucas Pinckney demonstrated that a knowledge of “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and math) could be leveraged to create an industry. Running a family plantation in South Carolina after her mother died and her military father was recalled to the West Indies, Pinckney experimented with ways to improve growing the indigo plant which was popular as a textile dye. She succeeded, and in doing so, created a flourishing industry, which later led to the blue in blue jeans.
** Get the word out. As a publisher, Mary Katherine Goddard is one of my favorite female entrepreneurs. Having helped her mother and brother run newspapers and printing presses, Goddard was the publisher of the Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser at the time of the American Revolution. She was also the first female postmaster in the colonies. Her successes, and her tenacity in getting the truth out, led her to become the very first person to print a complete copy of the Declaration of Independence that included the names of all the signers.
** Take charge. Like many successful female entrepreneurs, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot, took over a business when she was left a widow. A young widow. At only 27, she took charge of her husband’s business, then involved in many enterprises. She wisely narrowed the focus to champagne, which was then a sweet, cloudy wine. Innovating improvements, including “riddling” or turning the champagne bottles, Cliquot created modern champagne as we know it. Riddling is still used to this day. She also invented rose champagne and the shape of the champagne bottle. The “veuve” in Veuve Cliquot means “widow,” thus, one of the most famous, and delicious, champagnes is named after a woman. Recognizing their female-led heritage, the company Veuve Cliquot gives an annual award honoring leading global female entrepreneurs.
** Overcome family prejudices. One of the most impressive female entrepreneurs I’ve ever met, Sung-Joo Kim, was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist in Korea. But, as a traditional Korean, her father would not allow a girl to get a business education or work for, or inherit, the family business. Against her parents’ wishes, Kim left for America to seek her own way. To support herself, she went to work at Bloomingdales, New York, where she learned about fashion and retail. After five years of no contact with her father, he called upon her to translate when negotiating a huge business deal in the US. Seeing her business acumen and to thank her, Sung-Joo’s father gave her a loan to help her launch her own company. Recognizing the opportunities in Korea, she acquired the Korean rights to a number of luxury brands, including Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and Marks & Spence. She later bought and revitalized the luxury handbag/luggage brand MCM – which rivals the most upscale brands in the world. And she is fiercely philanthropic, giving away 10 percent of all profits.
There are hundreds, thousands, of other inspirational female entrepreneurs. Search them out. Whether you are male or female, you’ll find a role model there to help you forge your own path.
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2016
This article originally ran in USA Today on March 11, 2016