Six women blazing new trails and dominating entrepreneurship
At first glance, it doesn’t seem like life rafts, computer algorithms, medical syringes and dishwashers are related. But, there is a common denominator: Each of these innovations was invented by a woman.
And that list is only the beginning.
You’ve likely heard of Martha Stewart and Sheryl Sandberg, but there are thousands of women who came before them and paved the way for future generations to become tomorrow’s businesswomen.
In 1809, Mary Kies became the first woman to receive a US patent. A century later, Madam C.J. Walker (born as Sarah Breedlove) created a scalp conditioning formula and opened a subsequent factory and beauty school, eventually becoming the first female self-made millionaire in America.
By 1972, there were over 400,000 women-owned businesses in the United States. Fifty years later, there are 12.3 million.
While female entrepreneurship is on the rise here, it’s also highly respected in Angola, Panama and Saudi Arabia — and gaining momentum in other countries as well. Globally, it’s estimated that around 252 million out of approximately 582 million entrepreneurs are women.
In celebration of International Women’s Day, we’re sharing achievements and advice from six entrepreneurial women who have chased dreams, taken risks and rarely relented.
Some set out for this lifestyle. Others had different plans. Some started later in life. Some swapped careers. But all found a gap in the marketplace and created a solution. And despite headwinds, they’ve thrived as business leaders.
In spite of global challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic and receiving low financing and venture capital compared to their male counterparts, the number of women becoming entrepreneurs has increased 48% year over year since 2020.
Whether you’re mulling over a business idea or already in the trenches, determined to grow your brand, we know you’ll be inspired by the six women entrepreneurs featured here. Some we’ve chatted with extensively on our podcast, The Entrepreneur’s Studio, and some we’ve admired from afar.
Either way, we dare you not to screenshot a meaningful moment or forward this to a friend.
We start in 2014. Alex Bradberry needed to get her makeup done professionally, but there wasn’t anywhere that offered the personalized service she craved. Sure, there was the near-shuttered mall with an ill-equipped department store makeup counter, but Alex wanted a high-quality, one-on-one experience — and a space where every skin tone had a makeup match.
She had the idea (and the inspiration: her two daughters), but it was guidance from a mentor and a posture of saying “yes” to every opportunity that helped her eventually open the doors to The Sparkle Bar – an inclusive makeup studio – in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Crediting those who “gave her a seat at the table,” Alex says being brought into someone’s circle of influence is a game changer.
Female entrepreneurship and business ownership is not without its challenges, and having someone in your corner can make a huge difference. For those who are seeking guidance, Alex stresses the importance of getting involved with your local community and pursuing those who have been where you are going.
Then, pay it forward. Alex suggests that when you’re in a position to help someone else, “reach down and pull [them] up so you can continue to build an ecosystem [of] growth and opportunity.”
Today, The Sparkle Bar boasts shades of foundation for every skin tone, type, texture and ethnicity and offers makeup services for proms and weddings as well as services ranging from virtual makeup lessons to men’s grooming to special effects applications for Halloween.
“It was really important for me to be able to tell my kids as they grew up that they could and should pursue anything that drives them,” Alex says. “And I knew I couldn’t tell my girls that if I wasn’t willing to do it myself.”
For future women entrepreneurs, Alex says: “[Don’t] be afraid to create a space for yourself. You have to be willing to get out there and advocate and tell people what you’re doing. It’s uncomfortable, but that’s what you have to do to grow your business.”
To call Lori Greiner prolific would be a gross understatement.
The creator of an acrylic earring organizer, Lori — a former aspiring playwright — turned a single household item into an international brand worth millions. You probably know her as an investor on Shark Tank, but throughout her career, she has dominated female entrepreneurship, creating and marketing over 1,000 consumer products in categories like cosmetic organization, electronics and travel with 120 patents held.
Lori meant business from the very beginning. To help fund the manufacturing of her product, she took out a $120,000 loan against her home. And when manufacturing stalled due to staffing shortages, she and her husband worked together to shrink-wrap 300 pallets of product in one weekend to ensure orders were fulfilled.
It was all worth it though. Soon after debuting her first product, Lori launched Lori Greiner’s Clever and Unique Creations on QVC — one of the network’s longest-running shows. In 2012, she joined Shark Tank, making investments in some of the biggest successes in the show’s history. Two years later, Lori wrote a national best-seller for entrepreneurs who want to learn how to turn a concept into reality. By 2019, Lori’s business ventures had made more than $870 million in retail sales.
For entrepreneurs everywhere, Lori serves as a mentor and role model, and her advice is highly-coveted.
In speaking with Entrepreneur, she said: “Don’t be afraid to network…you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. When selling yourself, be confident and frank about your attributes… If you don’t speak up for yourself, nobody else will.”
She also told Entrepreneur what she looks for in a product or service, noting an item or solution appeals to her when it “solves a problem, is unique or different [and] can be made at an affordable price.”
Wherever you are in your entrepreneurial journey, Lori proves that sometimes all you need to start is an idea, after all.
There’s all kinds of studies about how birth order affects personalities. But what about being born the only female in a quadruplet set?
Katharine Wolf and her rough-and-tumble brothers were often lovingly referred to as the wolf pack during their adolescence, and early on Katharine wondered about the direction for her life and the role her gender would play. She says, “I spent a lot of time trying to figure out, ‘Okay, I’m the only girl, but who else am I? What are my strengths and weaknesses? What is my purpose?’ ”
Years later, all grown up, Katharine was working in sales at a fintech company and “on the hunt for a start-up idea.”
“I wanted to build something in the female economy space, [something] that didn’t exist yet.”
Serendipitously, she met someone on the board at Upwork and took their well-timed advice to pursue the gig economy.
Through her initial planning and research, she discovered that 75% of the women getting an education in the Middle East and South Asia were not working. After reconnecting with a former classmate who grew up in Pakistan, Katharine got some insight. Many of the country’s women fail to secure jobs because they a) would be fired if they became pregnant, or b) weren’t hired at all because they could become pregnant. Overall, the friend reported, women in Pakistan were encouraged to have children and serve the family rather than pursue careers outside the home.
With the help of her former classmate, Katharine took to Facebook to reach women in Pakistan and made a single simple post: “If you’re highly ambitious and looking for work, sign up here.”
In just 48 hours, more than 300 women expressed interest.
Katharine flew to Pakistan to meet the enthusiastic applicants. In every conversation during the event, Katharine says the women “just wanted to prove to the world they mattered — and there was this intensity about it.”
“During this trip, something changed,” Katharine reflects. “I realized I would build this company.” And build it she did.
By seeking a purpose and committing to it, Katharine founded Odetta, a company that offers sales and marketing, data cleaning and machine learning, operations and recruiting services and, along the way, employs and empowers hundreds of women in regions that are often overlooked when it comes to recruiting and career advancement.
Today, Odetta is used and trusted by over 300 tech companies and employs over 350 women globally. Last year, it was named as one of Forbes’ Top 25 Best Startup Employers.
Born in rural Mississippi to a teenage single mom with few resources, Oprah Winfrey endured years of abuse and neglect before finding salvation in education.
After facing a fair share of adversity in the small farming community where she was raised, Oprah was eventually sent to live with her father in Nashville, where she became an honors student and was voted Most Popular Girl by classmates. Things continued on the up and up from there: While in high school, she landed a job in radio. At 19, while attending Tennessee State University, she became co-anchor of the local evening news.
In 1976, Oprah moved to Baltimore, where she co-hosted a TV chat show called People Are Talking. She had been practicing for this moment for years: as a child, her grandmother reported that Oprah would pass the time by interviewing the crows on the fence along the family property.
The show was a huge hit and ran for eight years until she was recruited by a Chicago TV station to host her own morning show, A.M. Chicago. One year later, it was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show, and the following year it became syndicated nationally. The show had grossed $125 million by the end of its first year, boasting 120 channels and an audience of 10 million people.
The Oprah Winfrey Show ran from 1986 to 2011 and featured a book club, luxurious giveaways and guests ranging from Michael Jackson to Elizabeth Taylor to Barack Obama. But she’s so much more than a television personality: In addition to hosting the highest-rated TV talk show in history for 25 years, Oprah also founded a multimedia production company, two cable networks, a publishing house, a magazine and a leadership academy for girls in South Africa. She has received numerous accolades for her groundbreaking work and philanthropic efforts, including two distinguished awards: the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Bob Hope Humanitarian Award (of which she was the first recipient) and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And in 2003, she became the first Black female billionaire in the United States.
“For me, luck is the moment of preparation meeting the moment of opportunity. Every single thing that has ever happened in your life is preparing you for the moment that is to come.”
Oprah’s story and entrepreneurial path are proof that no matter how small a beginning is, that’s all it is — just the beginning. Your story is still being written, and any hardships or roadblocks may very well be the blueprint for your ambition.
Sometimes, a business is born from a childhood dream. Other times, it forms when someone wonders “what if…” on a random Wednesday.
Lindsey Laurain spent most of her career working in corporate America. One evening, as she and her husband tackled another messy dinner with three sons under the age of three, she wondered if there was a better approach to mealtime.
“I came home from work and was like, ‘There’s got to be a better way. I’m starting a company and creating a product,’” Lindsey says.
Six months after her lightbulb moment, she launched a Kickstarter and received support from over 1,500 donors. Lindsey got to work creating a suctioned, silicone placemat for children that would capture crumbs and spills and wouldn’t tip or toss. She debuted it at the ABC Kids Expo in Las Vegas, where she connected with field producers from Shark Tank and — in a bid for exposure or investment — submitted an application to the show.
Her application was accepted and soon she was on the big screen debuting ezpz, her woman-owned and woman-run company that creates high-quality, developmentally-appropriate mealtime products, for baby’s first food to feeding independence. To Lindsey’s surprise and delight, the suction mats had a more meaningful impact than she ever predicted, helping many children with special needs eat independently for the first time. “I got letters from parents [who wrote] ‘My blind kiddo is now exploring the world.’”
Lindsey didn’t take a deal on Shark Tank, so after the episode aired, it was business as usual. But she and her team were heads down building products, filing patents and forming the company’s culture, excited about where the company was going.
While hustling, Lindsey soon found her business in litigation with companies who were selling imitator items in big box stores and “taking market share” from ezpz. As she began trying to protect everything she had built, Lindsey shares: “I was probably $1 million in debt at one point.”
Still, she pressed on. “If you believe in what you’re doing, go for it,” Lindsey says. “Just believe in it and put all your energy into it.”
Despite the peaks and valleys of entrepreneurship, Lindsey remains invested in the products she designed and the mission of her brand. She plans to continue innovating so parents and caregivers everywhere can breathe a little easier at dinnertime — or, at the very least, stop using so many dish towels to sop up spilled sauce.
Christina Tosi’s mom was a buttoned-up accountant and a stickler for rules, but she often surprised friends with plates piled high with brownies and cookies. Christina’s grandmothers were the same, always baking treats when Christina and her sister were visiting.
Though sweets were woven into Christina’s childhood, it wasn’t until after college that Christina decided to move to New York City to become a pastry chef — despite having majored in mathematics and the Italian language.
“I know what I’ll do,” Christina recalls saying, “I’ll move to New York City, go to culinary school [and] become and the best possible pastry chef in the place that would be the hardest to succeed.”
She tried that and a variety of other food-focused gigs: food stylist, food writer, food photographer and caterer. “Finally,” Christina says, “I had this idea that I could democratize dessert.”
So, she opened Milk Bar.
“We’re going to do riffs on cookies, cakes, pies and ice cream in formats people know but in flavor combinations that are super cool,” Christina says. “Dessert is an opt-in course, but for me, it can save the world.”
Today, the brand has 12 locations across the country and products in over 8,000 grocery stores.
Throughout her career as a female entrepreneur, Christina has worried about the trajectory of her business, tried to juggle one too many things across various responsibilities and romanticized the hard days and sleepless nights.
For all the doubts she’s had, though, she’s had just as many empowering revelations.
“[A colloquialism I use] is…just bake the cake,” Christina says. “What are you waiting for? [Put] your head down, follow that passion, that instinct — do one thing better today than you did yesterday. The time is never going to be totally right, you’re never going to be completely ready — just bake the cake.”
Like the other female entrepreneurs mentioned here, Christina is saving a space at the table (and hopefully a slice of pie, too) for the women business owners who will come after her.
“The entrepreneur that really inspires me are the people trying to figure it out. I place so much value in the people who are doing the work right this second — there is nothing more motivating, and [it] makes me feel like I’m not alone.”
In spite of setbacks and roadblocks, these trailblazers identified market gaps, found inspiration from other women and had the courage to pursue their plans boldly and bravely.
We hope their stories drive you to take the first or next step toward your career as a female entrepreneur. Otherwise, you may never know how your product or service could change the world.
(Imagine if Josephine Cochran hadn’t thought to add water pressure to an earlier iteration of the dishwasher!)
Looking for more inspiration? Subscribe to The Entrepreneur’s Studio for more stories from entrepreneurs who have been in your shoes. Available now wherever you get your podcasts — and remember to keep a pen for big ideas nearby!
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