Business & Careers

15 Badass Entrepreneurial Women That Shaped History

BY Jessica Riley

Coco Chanel portrait

The Must-Read Newsletter
For  Every                                Woman


Start Your Week With

When it comes to instant inspiration, you can’t get any better than these entrepreneurial women who shaped the world. It might feel hard being a modern female entrepreneur, but it’s nothing compared to what these women had to overcome.

If you're ever feeling frustrated about your progress, stop stressing. Bookmark this list of incredible women that shaped the world. It will keep you endlessly inspired.

From the first female CEO to women who pushed to pioneer worker’s rights, here are 15 incredible business women who shaped the world to celebrate Women’s History Month…

15 Business Women That Shaped The World

1 – Margaret Hardenbroeck (1637 – 1691)

Moving from the Netherlands to New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1959, Margaret Hardenbroeck was an ambitious woman who even continued to work after she married the wealthy merchant Pieter de Vries.

Following her husband's death in 1771, Margaret inherited his estate and took over his business. Expanding the fur shipping operations in Holland, she was eventually able to buy her own ship and properties throughout the colonies.

When Margaret married for a second time, she chose an usus marriage under Dutch law. That means she rejected the idea of communal property. She retained the rights to her fortune and property prior to the marriage. At the time of her death in 1691, Margaret was the wealthiest woman in New York.

2 – Rebecca Lukens (1794 – 1854)

Following the death of her husband in 1825, Rebecca Lukens became the owner of Brandywine Iron Works and Nail Factory. Despite objections from her family, she decided to take over the company. She became the first CEO of an industrial company and one of the first female ironmasters in the USA.

Seeing an opportunity to produce iron for locomotives, Rebecca ensured that the Factory remained operational even in the financial crisis of 1937. By leading the factory in a new direction, she ensured that the company became one of the leading ironworks.

3 – Lydia Pinkham (1819 – 1883)

Scaling her small business selling her herbal remedy into a large-scale company, Lydia Pinkham was a pioneer for women’s health. She carefully marketed products for women at a time when few products met their needs. As a result, Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound became one of the best-known patent medicines of the 19th century.

After expanding her business into Canada and Mexico, her company was bought by Cooper Laboratories in 1968 and a modified version of the Compound is still available today.

4 – Anna Sutherland Bissell (1946 – 1934)

Anna Sutherland Bissell is the first female CEO in the United States. Following the death of her husband in 1990, she became CEO of the Bissell Sweeper Company. She marketed the carpet sweeper to huge success. By 1899, the company had become the largest organization of its kind in the world and even called Queen Victoria as one of its loyal customers.

Not only was she the first female CEO, but she was also one of the first business owners to provide employees with pensions and other benefits, pioneering the way workers are treated.

5 – Madam C. J. Walker (1867 – 1919)

Creator of “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, Madam C. J. Walker is often considered to be the first black female millionaire and one of the 20th Century’s most successful female entrepreneurs.

Suffering from a scalp condition that caused her to lose most of her hair, Walker developed a hair care business that was earning $500,000 a year by the time of her death in 1919. Determined to give back, she helped train over 40,000 black women and men, promoting economic independence.

6 – Annie Malone (1877 – 1957)

The daughter of former slaves, Annie developed her own chemical straightener for African American hair at a time when products for their hair types weren’t widely available. Her business grew, leading to her trademark her products under the name “Poro” and build Poro College, a multi-story building acting as her company headquarters and training center.

Worth millions, Annie used her fortune to help improve the lives of others, donating the land and more of the construction costs for the St. Louis Colored Orphans’ Home, now known as the Annie Malone Children and Family Service Center.

7 – Elizabeth Arden (1881 – 1966)

Florence Nightingale Graham (aka Elizabeth Arden) moved to New York when she was 30. She had dreams of building a cosmetics empire. Working with a chemist to create a beauty cream, she stood out with her scientific formulations and beauty makeovers offered in her 5th Avenue salon.

By 1929, she owned 150 salons in Europe and the USA, with her line of 1,000 products sold in 22 countries. It’s no surprise that, as the sole owner, Arden was one of the wealthiest women in the world at the peak of her career.

8 – Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971)

Opening her first shop in 1910, Coco Chanel built one of the world's most iconic luxury fashion brands. Starting by selling only women’s hats, Chanel gained a reputation for her creations and by 1913, she had begun to sell other items of clothing.

Today, Chanel is known for its classic luxury items such as it’s classic flap bag and Chanel No. 5, the first perfume to be sold worldwide.

9 – Olive Ann Beech (1903 – 1993)

Co-founder of the Beech Aircraft Corporation, Olive Ann Beech help to create a multimillion-dollar aerospace business. Working alongside her husband, the business grew from 10 employees to 10,000.

Known as the “First Lady of Aviation ” she earned more awards than any other women in aviation history. She also produced some of the most popular aircraft of the 20th Century.

10 – Estée Lauder (1906 – 2004)

The only woman on Time magazine’s 1998 list of the 20 most influential business geniuses of the 20th Century, Estee Lauder co-founded a billion-dollar cosmetics empire. Beginning by selling skincare products formulated by her chemist uncle to beauty salons and hotels, the business quickly expanded.

Building a portfolio of numerous brands including Clinique, Origins and MAC, The Estee Lauder Company now exceeds annual sales of $7 billion and is known worldwide for its innovative use of technology.

11 – Brownie Wise (1913 – 1992)

A pioneering saleswoman, Brownie Wise is better known as the founder of Tupperware parties. Selling Stanley Home Products in the early 1950s, Brownie believed that a “party plan” marketing system would be a more effective way to sell Tupperware than conventional department stores.

She quickly caught the attention of Tupperware’s inventor, Earl Tupper. He hired her as the vice president of the company. Later, she was fired after the press suggested she was the reason why the company was so successful. Brownie’s legacy is the marketing strategy that is still used by companies such as Mary Kay Cosmetics.

12 – Ruth Handler (1916 – 2002)

Ruth Handler is one of the most successful American businessmen and inventors. She's known worldwide as the inventor of the Barbie doll. Already selling dollhouse furniture and toys with her husband through their company Mattel, Ruth debuted Barbie at a New York toy fair in 1959.

Within five years, Mattel became a Fortune 500 company, with Barbie generating over $1 billion a year to this day for the company.

13 – Joyce Chen (1917 – 1994)

Joyce Chen is one of the most iconic Chinese chefs in the world. She learned how to cook Chinese cuisine by watching her family’s chef. After moving to the USA, she began cooking food for Chinese students who missed food from their home country. She opened her first Chinese-American buffet-style restaurant in 1958. Using numbered items to bridge the language difference, she encouraged her customers to try new dishes to great success.

Becoming the star of a PBS cooking show, she is best known for dishes such as “Peking Duck” and sold her own brand of cookware in stores including her patented Peking Wok.

14 – Lillian Vernon (1927 – 2015)

Following her second divorce in the 1990s, Vernon used $2,000 from her wedding gifts to place an advert in Seventeen Magazine for personalized purses and belts. Overwhelmed by the response, Lillian quickly earned $32,000 leading to the publication of her first catalog in 1956.

By 1970, the Lillian Vernon Corporation had earned $1 million in sales. It had expanded to gifts, house decor and children’s products before Lillian stepped down as CEO in 2002.

15 – Dame Anita Roddick (1942 – 2007)

Passionate about environmental activism, Dame Anita Roddick established a cosmetics empire with strong values. Opening the first Body Shop in 1976, she wanted to produce quality skin care products that were marketed honestly. Achieving huge success, the second stop opened just 6 months later.

Despite gaining over 77 million customers, The Body Shop has remained loyal to the promotion of Anita’s values including campaigns against animal testing and establishing a Community Trade program.

Which of these entrepreneurial women that shaped the world inspires you the most? Can you think of any others? Let me know in the comments below!


The must-listen podcast for ambitious women
working on their businesses and careers.

the bossbabe podcast



Pour your favorite latte and join us for honest conversations that take you behind the scenes of building successful businesses, achieving peak performance and learning how to balance it all.

Currently creating the woman I want to be. Excuse me if I become extremely protective of myself, my time, and energy.

Do you have what it takes to create YOUR OWN ONLINE BUSINESS?

we think you do

Get project next