8 Famous Women Business Owners Throughout History

8 Famous Women Business Owners Throughout History


International Women’s Day is celebrated March 8th of every year in recognition of all that women have accomplished throughout history. People across the globe use this occasion to highlight the valuable – and often overlooked – contributions women make to all aspects of society as female small business owners and intrepid entrepreneurs.

Women have historically been celebrated as humanitarians, artists and intellectuals. One area where they have received less recognition is in business. It is often overlooked that female entrepreneurs have become some of the most innovative and accomplished titans of industry that history has ever known. Here are eight women business owners that you may not have heard of before:

1 – Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722 – 1793)

America has a long, proud history of women-owned small business success stories. Eliza Lucas Pinckney was just 16 years old when she began running three family farms. They thrived under her stewardship, then became nationally known after Pinckney pioneered new ways for growing indigo. She was so successful at it that indigo became the second-largest crop in her home state of South Carolina. Pinckney’s entrepreneurial accomplishments were so widely respected that George Washington himself served as a pallbearer at her funeral.

2 – Rebecca Pennock Lukens (1794 – 1854)

Talk about tenacity! Rebecca Pennock Lukens was recently widowed and pregnant with her 6th child when she purchased the controlling interest in a business that made iron nails. The business was struggling at the time, but a decade later Lukens had transformed it into one of the country’s biggest producers of iron goods. Keen business savvy helped Lukens guide her business through multiple economic downturns, and the company proved so strong that it continued to operate until 1998 before being bought out. Fortune magazine once called her “America’s first female CEO of an industrial company.”

3 – Bridget ‘Bidy’ Mason (1818 – 1891)

Being a female entrepreneur in the 19th century wasn’t easy. Add to that being a former slave as well and you cross paths with Bridget Masson. ‘Bidy’ Mason moved to California with her three daughters in 1850. She purchased a small piece of land in what is now downtown Los Angeles for $250. Several decades later she controlled a West Coast real-estate empire valued at more than $300,000. Her business acumen was impressive. In her time, she was also known as a generous philanthropist and one of Los Angeles’ earliest visionaries.

4 – Catherine Anslem Gleason (1865 – 1933)

Catherine Anslem Gleason appeared destined for greatness at an early age. She began working at her family’s machine-tool company – Gleason Works – at age 11. After earning a degree in mechanical engineering, she helped to invent a new method for producing beveled gears, something essential to the early automotive industry. Gleason Works became an international industrial leader under her auspices, but she eventually left to work first in banking and later construction. Not surprisingly, she excelled at both, sealing her reputation as one of the most versatile female small business owners in history.

5 – Elizabeth Arden (1878 – 1966)

Elizabeth Arden used her prodigious business instincts to go from working at a cosmetics counter to owning a salon to running a global beauty empire. Arden had an eye for aesthetics and a flair for chemistry, skills she combined to open her own cosmetics company in 1914. A decade later, she opened a salon in France, and a decade after that, her salons were operating across the world. Many of those salons are still up and running today, which is part of why Elizabeth Arden’s name is still so closely associated with beauty and elegance.

6 – Ruth Handler (1916 – 2002)

Popular toys come and go, but Barbie has been a juggernaut since the doll was created by Ruth Handler in the later 1940s. Before that, Ruth and her husband ran a women-owned small business making dollhouse furniture. After Barbie™ was released, however, Mattel® became a publicly-traded company with a valuation of $10 million in 1960. Today, Mattel® continues to sell over $1 billion in Barbie™ dolls every year and now employs over 30,000 people as one of the world’s largest toy makers.

7 – Oprah Winfrey (1954 – Present)

Before she was a mega-mogul, Oprah Winfrey was a young journalist looking for a break in the hyper-competitive Chicago media market. She took over a struggling A.M. radio show, quickly grew it to become a ratings leader, and soon made the transition to television. The Oprah Winfrey Show is still the most successful show in daytime TV history, and Winfrey has gone on to become one of America’s most famous self-made success stories, woman or otherwise.

8 – Sandra Lerner (1955 – Present)

How many entrepreneurs can claim to be successful in two totally different industries? Lerner and her husband jointly developed the multi-protocol router, without which the modern internet would not be possible. That invention helped propel their company, Cisco Systems, to the upper-echelons of the tech industry. Internal politics led her to leave the company in the early 1990s, but instead of resting on her laurels she founded Urban Decay cosmetics to bring new looks and styles to the cosmetic aisle. Her company was acquired in 2012 for an estimated $300 million– quite the second act.

Celebrating Women-Owned Small Businesses All Year

This list could be ten times longer and still not mention all the female small business owners who have impacted the American (and global) economy. International Women’s Day is a reminder of all that these women have accomplished, and a call to recognize all that women continue to accomplish.

Today’s female entrepreneurs have more opportunities than ever, but that doesn’t mean sustaining a business is ever easy. Loans for women-owned businesses can help the Fortune 500s of tomorrow get the funding they need as they continue to break through the glass ceiling. The industrious women of the past didn’t let obstacles hold them back. That same ambitious spirit will help the women-owned businesses of the future reach the top of their industries.