11 Businesses You Might Not Know Were Started By Women
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.