Entrepreneurs can do many amazing things including – at least occasionally – changing the world we live in. True, not every business broadly impacts society and that’s fine. Where would we be without our quirky neighbourhood coffee shops? At the same time though, some product and service ideas – not to mention their strategic execution – have altered the way we shop, dine, drink, dress, sleep and even grieve. Perhaps more surprising? All the above were businesses spearheaded by female entrepreneurs. As we Canucks salute Women’s History Month this October, YouInc surveys 10 female entrepreneurs past and present whose innovations became global game changers.
1. Oprah Winfrey
It’s hard to imagine a world without Oprah, whose personal media galaxy is only slightly larger than her philanthropic heart. True, she’s not exactly a revelation on a list of ground-breaking female entrepreneurs – those are coming later – but she pretty much created the template for anything else headed down the pike. While racking up those billions, Oprah made book reading, soul searching and plain old humanity de rigueur with the masses. That she did it despite being born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a teenage single mother, enduring childhood sexual abuse along the way, makes her stratospheric success almost as humbling as her investment portfolio.
2. Sandra Lerner
It’s hard to know what’s cooler: that whip-smart Lerner, 59, made her name as co-founder of network equipment behemoth Cisco Systems or that she followed up by co-founding edgy and staunchly cruelty-free makeup company Urban Decay. If entrepreneurs come more diverse and progressive – from routers to rouge! (sorry, couldn’t resist) – we’d like to know about it.
3. Anita Roddick
The British-born founder of The Body Shop didn’t just plant the concept of ethical consumerism in our collective noggins. She made a fortune doing it, donating heaps to charity. Yet to her dying day in 2007, Dame Roddick – she was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2003 – never lost sight of our fundamental, essential connection to our wider world; that testing makeup on helpless animals and engaging in unfair trade practices with developing nations wasn’t just morally corrupt, it was bad for business. Her 1970s-era vision was very 21st century.
4. Maxine Clark
If you want to gauge just how impactful Clark’s Build-A-Bear Workshop stores are on the lives of customers, talk to the military mom serving overseas and clutching the toy made by her daughter. Or the tots celebrating the life of a deceased pal during a bear building party-slash-therapy session. Or the altruistic bridesmaids gearing up for a wedding by creating toys for donation to children’s hospitals. Build-A-Bear Workshops do more than let people make customizable stuffed toys. They let them tell stories, be zany, connect and heal. Beat that, Zuckerberg.
5. Sara Blakely
The inventor and marketing whiz behind body enhancing undergarments Spanx may not have changed your life, but she sure changed mine... and millions of other slightly lumpy babes all over the world. In the process, Blakely upended the male-dominated hosiery industry, showing that people who actually use a product are best suited to designing it. Plus, anything that sends women into the world feeling more confident is worth its weight in stretch fabric.
6. Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin
When she wed French wine scion François Clicquot in 1798, the 21-year-old Ponsardin doubtless assumed she was destined for a life of quiet luxury. When Clicquot died in 1805, his young widow was suddenly the head of the most significant champagne house in France just as the Napoleonic Wars were raging. She didn’t falter. Under Veuve Clicquot’s guidance (“veuve” is widow in French), the family’s fabulous sparkling wine became the drink of choice in royal courts throughout Europe. Through craft and savvy – and considerable daring – Veuve Clicquot managed to circumvent a wartime blockade to Imperial Russia and points beyond, ensuring champagne was enjoyed by all and sundry. And she perfected champagne’s second fermentation process resulting in a better (and less opaque) product. That grinning matron you see pictured on the cap of each bottle of Veuve Clicquot sold today? That’s our Barbe-Nicole.
7. J.K. Rowling
The British author didn’t just create a series of epic fantasy novels peopled with precocious young witches and wizards, arch villains and wicked cool plotlines. Rowling got millions of kids – especially boys – hungrily reading books. And how is that entrepreneurial, you ask? She launched the Harry Potter franchise. We’d call that pretty big business.
8. Martha Stewart
She gave perfectionism a face while triggering inferiority complexes among frazzled aspirant housewives. But Stewart also exalted so-called women’s work, positioning cooking, gardening, decorating and entertaining as opportunities for unearthing beauty and craftsmanship. Stewart created an army of workaday warriors determined to add style to every breakfast serving and awkward architectural nook. The world – and all its nattily attired valence boxes – would be lesser without her.
9. Helena Rubinstein
In her book Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L'Oréal, and the Blemished History of Looking Good, author Ruth Brandon paints Rubinstein as forceful and clever but also vain, rigid and clingy. Yet Rubinstein managed, through grit and savvy, to make then-nascent cosmetics a hot commodity fiercely coveted by women the world over. Her legacy lives on (see Maybelline, Cover Girl, Clinique, Revlon, Clarins, Nivea, Ponds et al.) and while American-born Estée Lauder often gets credit as the woman who blueprinted the modern makeup industry, it was Rubinstein – one of eight daughters born to a Kraków shopkeeper in 1870 – who first convinced women they’d be better off with softer skin and redder lips. Wall Street has never looked back.
10. Christine Magee
Everybody knows that productive days are built on restful nights, and tens of thousands of Canadians have Sleep Country Canada co-founder and president Magee to thank for just that. Not only has the onetime banker made comfy mattresses a top priority for consumers – really, how many of us pondered box springs in any meaningful way before the mid-1990s? – Magee also serves as the company’s enormously likable spokesperson. And her firm is highly philanthropic, which counts. Happy Women’s History Month!