There is no way better to inspire a new generation of women business leaders than to pay homage to the trail blazers that came before them. Below is a list of some of the first female entrepreneurs to find success in America; women that paved for the way for the Oprah Winfreys, Sheryl Sandbergs and Marissa Mayers of the world.
1905: Madame C.J. Walker
The First Female Entrepreneur
Madame C.J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, is the original “self-made woman”. As a daughter to former slaves who was orphaned at the age of 7, Walker quite literally built her empire out of nothing. After Walker suffered from a scalp ailment that caused her to lose most of her hair, she created Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower, a scalp conditioning and healing formula, in 1905.
Madam Walkers Wonderful Hair Grower flew off the shelves. In 1908 Walker opened a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh. By 1910, the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company had become wildly successful, with profits that were the modern-day equivalent of several million dollars. In 1917, Walker held one of the first national meetings of businesswomen in Philadelphia, the Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention.
1932: Olive Ann Beech
Taking women in business to new heights
Olive Ann Beech co-founded Beech Aircraft Corp. in Wichita, Kansas, alongside her husband, Walter, at the height of the Depression in 1932. Olive Ann worked in the financial side of the business and played an important role in major company decisions. Together the Beeches grew the business from 10 employees to 10,000. After Walter died from a heart attack in 1950 Olive Ann became president and CEO of the company.
During her nearly 20 years in charge, Olive Ann transformed the company into a multimillion-dollar aerospace corporation. Olive Ann retired in 1968 but continued to serve on the board of directors until 1982. Beech Aircraft Corp. had a lasting impact on general aviation, producing some of the most popular aircraft of the 20th century. Olive Ann earned more awards, honorary appointments and special citations than any other woman in aviation history, and is often referred to as the “First Lady of Aviation”.
1951: Lillian Vernon
Before the company went private in 2003, Lillian Vernon’s empire was worth more than $238 million. Born Lillian Menasche in Leipzig, Germany, in 1929, Vernon came to the U.S. in 1937 when the Nazi threat intensified. In 1951, she decided to start a mail-order business named for her Mount Vernon, New York, home. After a second divorce in the 1990s, she took Vernon as her surname.
At the age of 24, Vernon used $2,000 of her wedding gift funds to buy a variety of matching purses and belts, and placed an ad in Seventeen magazine. Soon, $32,000 in orders came flooding in. Vernon published her first catalog in 1956, offering personalized combs, blazer buttons, collar pins and cuff links. By 1970, Lillian Vernon Corp. hit $1 million in sales. The company expanded its items to encompass holiday décor, gifts, household items, fashion accessories and children’s products. Vernon served as company’s CEO for 51 years.