11 Businesses You Might Not Know Were Started By Women

Kikkoman soy sauce, a company founded by a widow, according to legend
Kikkoman soy sauce, a company founded by a widow, according to legend
RICHARD MASONER/CYCLEICIOUS, FLICKR // CC BY-SA 2.0

According to the National Association of Women Business Owners, there were more than 11.6 million women-owned firms in the U.S., generating $1.7 trillion in sales, as of 2017. In addition to all the major inventions women have given us over the years, female entrepreneurs and visionaries have founded and owned companies in fields ranging from tech to television, fashion to food, and everything in between. Here are just a few examples of the game-changing enterprises women have founded or co-founded.

1. Kikkoman

glass bottle of Kikkoman soy sauce.
iStock.com/DarioZg

The origin story behind one of the world’s best-known soy sauce brands dates all the way back to 17th century Japan. As legend has it, an upper-class war widow named Shige Maki escaped in disguise with her son from Osaka Castle, their war-ravaged home, to Edo (the city that would become Toyko). Maki and her son learned to cultivate rice and brew soy sauce like their new neighbors, and Maki’s tweaks to the production process went over so well that 350 years later Kikkoman is still making a version of the stuff.

2. Flickr

A logo for the Flickr website is displayed during an announcement in 2013
A logo for the Flickr website displayed during an announcement in 2013
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Web design consultants Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield had originally developed a social interaction-based online game, but it wasn’t until Butterfield was up sick all night while the couple was at a 2003 gaming conference that the idea to just focus on the game’s photo-sharing aspect struck. Today, the online photo album site hosts tens of billions of photos and has changed the way people capture their lives on camera. Yahoo acquired the company from Fake and Butterfield for an undisclosed but hefty sum in 2005; in 2018, it was bought by independent image-hosting firm SmugMug.

3. Spanx

Sara Blakely attends the launch of Haute Contour by SPANX at Saks Fifth Avenue in 2009
Sara Blakely attends the launch of Haute Contour by SPANX at Saks Fifth Avenue in 2009
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Once landing the title of youngest female self-made billionaire didn’t come easily for Sara Blakely. She’d tried getting into law school, standup comedy, selling fax machines, even auditioning at Disney World (she’s said she didn’t get the part of Goofy because she was too short). But Blakely's turning point came at age 29 when she snipped the feet off a pair of pantyhose so she’d have a smoother shape under a pair of white pants and thought she might be onto something. She was. Spanx shapewear has since expanded to more than 200 products and a chain of retail stores, and has scores of celebrity devotees including Oprah, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Michelle Obama. In 2013, Blakely—who still owns 100 percent of the company—made headlines for pledging to donate half her wealth to charitable causes.

4. Pepperidge Farm

A package of Pepperidge Farms Goldfish crackers
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the 1930s, Connecticut housewife Margaret Rudkin started baking preservative-free breads to help alleviate one of her son’s allergies. Soon she was selling her bread (which was named after her family farm) to local grocers, and by 1947 Rudkin opened her first bakery. She'd go on to act as official taste-tester, the company spokesperson, and the importer of products like European-style cookies and Goldfish crackers she'd discovered on trips to Belgium and Switzerland. The brand's sales were already at $32 million a year when it sold to Campbell's in 1961; Rudkin officially retired from the company in 1966, but her breads and cookies continue to be grocery aisle mainstays.

5. Cisco

The Cisco Systems logo in front of the company's headquarters in San Jose, California
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Sandy Lerner worked for Stanford University in the early '80s along with her husband, Len Bosack, but the two were frustrated that they were unable to email each other from different buildings. The two developed a router that allowed multi-network exchanges, and the technology was so in-demand that they had $1.5 million in sales by the following year. Lerner and Bosack are no longer with Cisco (and are no longer married), but the networking products company they launched is valued at more than $220 billion.

6. Proactiv

A bottle of Proactiv solution on a blue background

Dermatologists Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields met in the 1980s during their residencies at Stanford University School of Medicine, and in 1995 the friends launched their multi-step Proactiv Solution, a noticeable departure from the spot-treatment-style acne products that cornered the market at the time. In the years since, their distinctive ads and celebrity endorsements (including top names like Katy Perry and Justin Bieber) have turned their skincare line into a household name.

7. Build-A-Bear

A Build-A-Bear Workshop at Mall of America
A Build-A-Bear Workshop at Mall of America
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images for Build-A-Bear

The idea to let kids make their own stuffed animals was apparently inspired by an unsuccessful shopping trip founder Maxine Clark went on with a friend's young daughter. When the girl suggested they make their own stuffed animal at home, Clark ran with the idea and opened her first store—a "theme park factory in a mall"—in 1997 in St. Louis. Today there are more than 400 Build-A-Bear Workshops worldwide.

8. BET

Sheila Johnson speaks on stage at The Jefferson Awards Foundation 2017 DC National Ceremony
Sheila Johnson speaks on stage at The Jefferson Awards Foundation 2017 DC National Ceremony
Larry French/Getty Images for The Jefferson Awards Foundation

Black Entertainment Television got its start in 1979 when Sheila Johnson used the money she was making teaching music lessons to help fund the fledgling cable network with her then-husband, Robert. The Johnsons (now divorced) have distanced themselves from today's iteration of the channel since they sold the company to Viacom in 2001, but in the '80s and '90s, Sheila Johnson served as one of the original board members and the VP of Corporate Affairs. In 1991, BET became the first African American-controlled company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

9. Liquid Paper

Liquid Paper products on display at the Women's Museum
Liquid Paper products on display at the Women's Museum
FA2010, Wikimedia // Public Domain

When secretary and single mom Bette Nesmith Graham discovered white tempera paint and a thin paintbrush worked wonders for correcting typos, she worked on perfecting the solution, calling her product "Mistake Out." Graham slowly started a side hustle after shifts at the bank by selling bottles, and in 1958 she decided to go into business for herself and changed the name to Liquid Paper. By 1968, the company was big enough for its own factory and offices, which Graham insisted include a childcare center and library.

10. The Body Shop

Anita Roddick of the Body Shop in one of her stores in 1986
Anita Roddick of the Body Shop in one of her stores in 1986
Keystone/Getty Images

Traveling the world taught Anita Roddick a lot about unique body care customs, and in 1976 she applied some of that knowledge to the products she offered at the first Body Shop she opened in Brighton, England. Roddick's earth-and-animal-friendly mindset was ahead of its time: she’s sometimes credited with launching the concept of ethical consumerism. Today, you can find Body Shops and their iconic Body Butters in more than 45 countries.

11. Rent the Runway

Jennifer Hyman of Rent the Runway speaks onstage at Girlboss Rally NYC 2018
Jennifer Hyman of Rent the Runway speaks onstage at Girlboss Rally NYC 2018
JP Yim/Getty Images for Girlboss Rally NYC 2018

Harvard Business School classmates Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss were inspired to apply a Netflix model to designer clothes and accessories after Hyman's sister complained of needing to drop a fortune on a new dress she'd only wear once for a wedding. Rent the Runway launched in 2009, the perfect time to capitalize on a culture growing increasingly preoccupied with selfies and event photos—wearing the same special occasion outfit twice would no longer fly. Hyman and Fleiss's high-tech interface and Unlimited subscription option have kept the company growing, and in 2016 Hyman and Fleiss's novel concept broke $100 million in revenue.

A version of this article first ran in 2017.

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.