Business Leaders We're Inspired By
Madam CJ Walker
Madam CJ Walker was the first female self-made millionaire in US history, made in cosmetics for African-Americans. Her parents were former slaves, and she suffered from being orphaned at seven years old. In 1905, she created for African-American women Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower. She initially used it herself, as she suffered a scalp condition that made her lose most of her hair. In 1917, Walker organized one of the first US meetings of businesswomen in Philadelphia, opening the path of entrepreneurship to millions of women. Walker was also a generous philanthropist, donating money to causes to advance African Americans.
Is the co-founder of the Alibaba Group and the richest Chinese man on the Forbes list. He overcame many initial setbacks to attain this position. Taking four years to pass Chinese college entrance exams, he did not get a job after college. Instead, he created one of China's first websites in 1995. Considered "China's favorite businessman" he has a famously positive demeanor and whimsically personality.
Helena Rubinstein was a Polish-American businesswoman, art collector, and philanthropist. She worked her way up to opening up shops in the London and Paris, before launching in New York City during WWI. From 1917, she took on the manufacturing and wholesale distribution of her products with great success. In 1928, she sold the business to Lehman Brothers for $7.3 million, ($88 million in 2007). In the midst of the Great Depression, she bought back the nearly worthless stock for less than $1 million, turn that into a win-fall by establishing salons and outlets in almost a dozen U.S. cities.
Recently made himself the world's richest African-American with his sale of marketing automation firm Marketo to Adobe.
Since 2000, he invested in software companies through his venture firm Vista. Smith is considered a trendsetter in the world of tech and many companies copy his investments. He specializes in "legacy companies," firms that have lost momentum and turn them around quickly.
Folorunsho Alakija of Nigeria is considered the second richest black woman in the world. She started as a secretary, but chose to study fashion in London.
Returning to Nigeria, she set up Supreme Stitches, a fashion label that catered to Nigerian women. She also has businesses in real estate and oil and helps other women in Africa begin businesses to become independent.
Is the namesake of the Ford Motor Company and the first businessman to commercially exploit the assembly line concept. He is also the mastermind behind commercializing the automobile. "Fordism" is a concept that also bears his name - inexpensively producing goods at scale while maintaining high salaries for workers. He believed that consumerism was the catalyst to peace, and he was the first businessman to use the franchise system to implement his philosophy widely.
Estée Lauder began in her uncle's chemistry shop by selling creams for smooth skin and pleasant fragrances.
She was a natural saleswoman. Later, she developed her scents, the first called Youth Dew, which would sell millions. She started the Estée Lauder Company in 1946. She then started the lines Aramis and Clinique, which made her a billionaire and earned her a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Zhang Xin is the CEO of Soho China Ltd., a company she started with her husband, which designs architecturally unique buildings. She has an impressive list of accomplishment, usually beginning with a deprived childhood, through obtaining scholarships to study in London and working for Goldman-Sachs in New York. By her admissions, she prefers the family life, but would not trade in her business power.
Katharine Meyer Graham
Katharine Meyer Graham was the first Fortune 500 company female CEO, running The Washington Post Company in 1972 (although she ran the paper from 1963). She oversaw the publication of the Watergate scandal, her paper playing the key role in Richard Nixon’s resignation. She won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1997 autobiography Personal History, detailing the difficulties of a female leader.
The founder of Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is consistently on the Forbes list of wealthiest individuals in the world.
Alongside Warren Buffett, he founded The Giving Pledge in 2009. This initiative is a pact between billionaires to give at least 50% of their wealth to non-profit causes throughout their lives and after their deaths. Gates is known for his aggressive management style that created an atmosphere of continuous improvement.
Sri Mulyani Indrawati
Sri Mulyani Indrawati has been Minister of Finance of Indonesia since 2016. She previously served as the World Bank Managing Director and COO for several years. She helped create sweeping reform of the Indonesian economy, helping the country regain its financial independence. She was known for being a tough reformist and is credited with strengthening Indonesia's economy, increasing investments and steering Southeast Asia's largest economy through the 2007–10 financial crisis. In 2014, she was ranked as the 38th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine.
Was the Founder of the Body Shop, Anita Roddick was compassionate for the environment and human rights. The Body Shop pioneered in no tested on animals and adopted fair trade practices. Roddick was involved in activism and campaigning for environmental and social issues. She believed that businesses should provide moral leadership, being a more powerful force in society than religion or government. The business expanded to more than 2,100 stores and in 2006. The Body Shop was purchased by L’Oréal for £652.3 million.
Starting at 19, this Kenyan businesswoman started selling yogurt in her capital of Nairobi. She expanded and began a more successful business as time passed. Today, Njeri Rionge co-founded Wananchi Online and is one of the pioneer women investors in African IT. She also started Ignite Consulting, a flourishing business consultancy, Business Lounge, one of Kenya’s largest startup incubators, and Insite, a digital marketing agency. She is also dedicated to helping young women entrepreneurs start their own businesses.
Eliza Lucas Pinckney
Introducing blue indigo dye into continental North America, Eliza Lucas Pinckney began making a high-quality blue indigo dye in 1739 and it became the second biggest South Carolina export crop.
She went on to grow flax, hemp, silk, and figs. She became the first woman inducted into the South Carolina Business Hall of Fame in 1989.
Bridgette Radebe began as a contract miner and went on to launch Mmakau Mining, a successful oeration for gold, platinum, coal, ferrochrome, and uranium assets in South Africa. Today, she is the president of the country’s largest mining chamber, the South African Mining Development Association. As South Africa’s first black female mining entrepreneur, Bridgette is powerful and smart. As with many other women on this list, helping women ranks as one of her top priorities.
Mary Katherine Goddard
Mary Katherine Goddard became the first woman publisher in America in 1766. A year prior, Goddard became the first American woman postmaster in Baltimore, Maryland and remained so for 14 years. She was forced to resign over her gender. She is famous for printing the first copy of the Declaration of Independence that included the names of all the signers. The printing business technically belonged to her brother, but Mary Katherine ran every aspect of the company, including Baltimore’s first newspaper, The Maryland Journal.
Isabel do Santos
At $3.3 billion, Isabel do Santos is the wealthiest woman in Europe. Having accumulated her wealth in oil, diamonds, communications in the banking sectors, she shares holdings in Portuguese banks and energy firms. In Angola, she chairs the mobile network company Unitel SA.
Lydia Estes Pinkham took her herbal home remedies to big business by skillfully marketing toward women. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound became one of the top patent medicines of the 19th century. Deemed a crusader in women's health, Lydia is perceived as changing the way medicine treated women and their health problems. Her products came with information packets, designed to educate and empower women to take charge of their health and wellness in a time when most doctors dismissed women’s health issues as hysteria.
Elizabeth Arden began working with a chemist to create a beauty cream and introduced the concept of eye makeup to American women. She offered the first makeovers in her 5th Avenue salon, Elizabeth Arden. She also designed, developed, and manufactured her beauty products, and in 1914 she incorporated and expanded her business. In 1922, Elisabeth opened a salon in France.
Coco Chanel will forever be associated with her little black dress, timeless suits, and fragrances.
At the time of her death, her fashion empire brought in more than $160 million a year. She began by opening her first shop in 1910 selling women's hats. In 1921, the company debuted Chanel No. 5, the first perfume sold worldwide and expanded ever since.
Olive Ann Beech
Olive Ann Beech co-founded Beech Aircraft Corp. during the Great Depression in 1932.
The company produced two hundred seventy of the Beech Model 17 Staggerwings for the U.S. Army during World War II. In 1950, Olive Ann succeeded to president and CEO of the company after her partner and husband died. She grew the company into a multimillion-dollar aerospace corporation. Over its lifetime, the Beech Corporation produced some of the most popular aircraft of the 20th century.
Working her way up from a low-level sales associate, Brownie Wise caught the attention of Tupperware's inventor, Earl Tupper, and he hired her as vice president of the company. Brownie realized Tupperware would be sold more effectively at home parties than at department stores and when the Tupperware parties began outselling the stores, the press suggested that Brownie was the key to Tupperware's success. In 1958, Tupper fired her in a fit of jealousy. Since then, the party philosophy has been followed with great success by many different companies.
In 2003, Lillian Vernon's empire, the Lillian Vernon Corp, was worth more than $238 million. Starting small, Lillian used her wedding gift to buy a variety of accessories and placed an ad in Seventeen magazine.
Some $32,000 in orders followed. She published her first catalog in 1956, offering personalized combs, blazer buttons, collar pins and cufflinks and success continued to develop. The company expanded to holiday décor, gifts, household items, fashion accessories, and children's products. She became known as the Mail Order Queen.
Will K. Kellogg
Is the namesake of the Kellogg Company, although he was personally a vegetarian.
He began his business life humbly, selling brooms from door-to-door before he left to run the Battle Creek Sanitarium with his brother John Harvey Kellogg. The famous Corn Flakes was created for his sanitarium, as were many of the first products.
The mother of Barbie, Ruth Handler has changed the landscape of toys and dolls. She debuted the adult doll Barbie, her daughter's nickname, at a New York toy fair in 1959.
She and her husband were already selling dollhouse furniture and other toys through their company, Mattel. Success followed, and Mattel became a Fortune 500 company. Ruth became president of Mattel Inc. in 1967 until 1974.
Martha Stewart is a magnet for home décor and cooking. Through her magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and other product lines, Martha succeeded in every endeavor she tried.
Despite legal troubles, she became a successful comeback story. Through love or hate, people know Martha Stewart and her productions and influences towards country style living shaped trends in home design over the past 20 years.
Henry R. Luce
Was called "the most influential private citizen in America" because of his accomplishments in the magazine industry.
He was responsible for starting Time, Life, Fortune and Sports Illustrated. He was also at the head of the first multimedia corporation. He was given a $0.32 stamp by the United States Postal Service and given a place in the Junior Achievement US Business Hall of Fame.
Debbi Fields opened a small cookie store in Palo Alto, California in 1977. At the young age of 20, Fields gained finance for Mrs. Fields Chocolate Chippery and continued to expand over the years.
After selling the company, Debbi authored several cookbooks, hosts a weekly show called "Great American Desserts" on PBS, and sit on various boards.
Asa G. Candler
Was a force in politics and business, having served as the mayor of Atlanta Georgia starting in 1916.
Candler Park and Candler Field in Atlanta are both named after him. He helped coordinated the rebuilding efforts after the 1917 Great Atlanta Fire. He is most famously known as the founder of the Coca-Cola Company.
The most influential and prosperous women in the world, lived in poverty while growing up. She worked her way up from nothing and constant rejection for the color of her skin, to going to a top college, and being head of a massive corporate empire. Today she serves as supervising producer and host of The Oprah Winfrey Show and produces her magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, and women's lifestyle website, Oprah.com. Oprah's Angel Network raised more than $70 million and gave 100% of donations to nonprofit organizations worldwide.
The current COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg is one of the wealthiest women in the world. Her Lean in Together Foundation to promotes work equality, a principle Facebook works to achieve. After seven years with Google, Sheryl moved to Facebook. Since being there, she has helped Facebook grow on a global scale. Despite grappling with fake news and online hate groups, Sheryl frequently speaks about immigration reform and women’s health. Her book about grief and the loss of her husband, Option B, topped the bestseller list.
Henry J. Heinz
Founded the H.J. Heinz Company in Pittsburgh. Born to German immigrants, he is the great-grandfather of former Pennsylvania Sen. H. John Heinz III.
Heinz expanded to include more than 60 different food products during Henry's tenure, the most famously tomato ketchup, Heinz 57 being the 57th product. He was incredibly tight with quality standards and is still synonymous for quality in food manufacturing.
Founder and CEO of kenya’s only large-scale brewery, Tabitha Karanja empowers women to new heights. She founded Keroche Breweries in 1997, making fortified wine and later moving into spirits and beer. She took on East African Breweries (EAB), a monopoly for more than 90 years. Tabitha struggled to find distributors willing to sell her beer, but she continued until her main beer brand Summit hit the market. Today, she helps other women become successful and fights oppression in Africa.
The CEO of General Motors, Mary Barra has taken the criticism that comes with a job traditionally associated with men and did a complete turnaround of the company. She served as the executive assistant to CEO Jack Smith, a plant manager, and head of Human Resources before taking the reins. Although she gets plenty of accolades for helping steer GM through many crises, she still helps navigate the market and heads one of the only auto companies that profit.
James L. Kraft
Was a Canadian American entrepreneur who founded the Kraft Company and patented processed cheese.
He began by selling cheese door-to-door from a wagon drawn with a horse. Eventually, he was joined by his four brothers who helped him develop the patented process for cheese pasteurization. With this new process in place, Craft was able to deliver cheese over long distances. His products were a mainstay of the United States government during World War I.
She currently sits at the helm of YouTube as the CEO. A post she's held since February 2014. She was Google's first marketing manager in 1999, put in charge of Google's original video service, and after observing the success of YouTube, proposed the acquisition of YouTube by Google in 2006. Her leadership has resulted in revamping the social media channel resulting increased revenues and further opportunities for growth.
Andrew S. Grove
Was a Hungarian national born in America who helped create the semiconductor industry.
He founded Intel and became the number one manufacturer in the world of semiconductors. He is credited with growing Silicon Valley into the hub of technology that it is today and chosen in 1997 as the Time Man of the Year. He had Parkinson's disease and was a large philanthropist to many foundations that focused on finding a cure to the disease.
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu
She found a way to translate the talents of her people into a business, and thus SoleRebels founded in 2004. The eco-friendly footwear manufacturer has grown to be one of the largest footwear companies in Africa and expanded to Taiwan, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, U.S, Singapore, and Japan. In 2011, she made it onto the World Economic Forum’s list of Young Global Leaders and had been named by Forbes as one of 20 Youngest Power Women in Africa, and one of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.
Milton S. Hershey
Founded the Hershey Chocolate Company, chose a town to serve as its central base of operations – Hershey, Pennsylvania.
He did not have any children but loved children. He began the Milton Hershey School, an orphanage, and several other charities dedicated to helping children. He earned money to begin the Hershey Chocolate Company from his previous candy company, the Lancaster Caramel Company.
Rebecca Pennock Lukens
In 1825, Rebecca Pennock Lukens purchased the remaining interest in her late father’s struggling business, Brandywine Iron & Nail. In 10 years later, she transformed it to be a powerhouse during the transportation revolution. Her iron mill was a leader in the production of boilerplates for iron-hulled steamboats and railroads, iron bands for nails, barrels bands and other products. Through the “Panic of 1837,” Rebecca defied expectation and stayed calm, modernized her mill, and refused to slash iron prices. In 1994, Fortune posthumously named Lukens “America’s first female CEO of an industrial company” and appointed her to the National Business Hall of Fame.
Raymond A. Kroc
Is the businessman behind the McDonald's franchise. He bought the rights to the original company from the McDonald brothers in a questionable deal and turned the restaurant into the single most successful convenience food operation in the world.
Many business people know him as the creator of the System Mentality. He also owned the San Diego Padres for ten years until he died in 1984.
Bridget ‘Biddy’ Mason
Born into slavery in Mississippi, Biddy Mason grew into a successful real estate developer and human-rights champion. Most notably, Biddy successfully sued her owners for her freedom after moving to the free state of California in the 1850s. It was a first in history. Again setting a precedent, Biddy became one of the first black women to own land when she purchased commercial property in downtown Los Angeles for $250. She turned that into a small real estate empire worth about $300,000 ($9 million today). Biddy also founded the city’s first African-American church and was well known for generosity and philanthropy.
John F. Welch Jr.
Began his career at General Electric in 1960. By 1968, he worked his way up to vice president of the plastics division. He earned the name Neutron Jack for his ability to weed out unproductive employees while maintaining the fragile office politics of large corporate divisions.When he was the CEO and chairman, he grew the company more than 4000% between the years of 1981 to 2001.
Is the founder and Managing Director of SECURICO, one of the largest security firms in Zimbabwe with more than 3,500 employees. She started the company in her home with just a few helpers and grew the company. Last year, Divine was one of the most influential female leaders in the world, as declared by Empowering a Billion Women by 2020, a global women empowerment movement.
Alfred P. Sloan Jr.
Is credited with the growth of the General Motors Corporation. He incorporated the concepts of planned obsolescence, automotive design styling, the annual model change, and brand architecture into the commercial automotive industry.
Although he was remembered as a rather cold individual personally, his philanthropic exploits showcase his beneficence to others in great measure.
Jane Addams, known for her philanthropic efforts and social activism, earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. She did this through Hull House. Hull House was an educational and cultural community for immigrant women, staffed with volunteers who taught free classes in literature, art, music, history, botany, and other subjects. Within two years, it expanded in a full campus catering to all the needs of women and children. What made this so special was the business mindset of most of the women who emerged, creating thousands of small businesses run by women.
Co-founded Hewlett-Packard and was noted as a great businessman and political strategist. He served as the United States Deputy Secretary of Defense during the Richard Nixon presidency. He Chaired the Board at Regents and the President of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. For the advancements in technology and philanthropy, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1988.
Catherine Anselm ‘Kate’ Gleason
Kate Gleason started in business at 11 years old, working at her father’s machine-tool company, Gleason Works. Educated in mechanical engineering and mechanical arts, she led the sales and finance divisions for more than ten years and initiated efforts to expand services overseas, which comprises more than two-thirds of the business. After the WWII, she invented a new method of pouring concrete and began selling low-cost concrete-box houses that became a model for suburban developments. She became the first female member at the American Concrete Institute and the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
William R. Hewlett
Is half of the team that formed Hewlett-Packard. An established businessman before he founded the company, he served as a Director for Hexcel Products, Inc., Director of Chase Manhattan Bank and on the Board of Directors for the Chrysler Corporation.
He was known as a great philanthropist who formed the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. At its peak, it was one of the biggest private foundations in America.
Mary Kay Ash
One of the top names in cosmetics, Mary Kay Ash started her new business to help women and make their lives more beautiful.
Mary Kay cites her achievements to a lifetime of unfair and unspoken business rules that held her back several times during her career in direct sales. Her direct-sales cosmetics company now supports nearly 2 million independent beauty consultants across the globe.
John P. Morgan
Is the namesake of JP Morgan Chase Bank and the mastermind behind the formation of General Electric.
He helped form AT&T, International Harvester, and the United States Steel Corporation. He was known as "America's greatest banker" during the Progressive Era, although he was "only" worth $118 million at the time of his death. He helped the country overcome the Panic of 1893 and the Panic of 1907.
Juanita Morris Kreps
Juanita Morris Kreps was the first woman U.S. Secretary of Commerce under President Jimmy Carter. Juanita studied economics and earned a master’s degree and a doctorate at Duke University at a time when women were discouraged.
She wrote the influential 1971 book, Sex in the Marketplace: American Women at Work. She also co-wrote a study called Sex, Age, and Work: The Changing Composition of the Labor Force. They explored the common challenges faced by working women in America. Juanita also served as a director at the New York Stock Exchange, Eastman Kodak and J.C. Penney.
Samuel M. Walton
Founded Walmart, currently one of the largest private employers in the world, and Sam's Club, one of the world's largest warehouse retailers. He started as a management trainee in JC Penney and managed his own Butler Brothers store after the military at 26.
He pioneered the modern technique of stocking shelves with a wide variety of products. He modernized the supply chain between the warehouse and retail store.
Indra Nooyi pushed PepsiCo towards a healthier image while retaining the core products at a higher standard.
Although she grew up middle-class in India, when she moved to the US, she faced poverty, commonly cited as not having enough money to buy clothes or foods. However, she emerged through hard work, eventually taking a position at PepsiCo and moving the company towards a healthier image. Although all soft drinks sales had declined in the 2000s, she helped increase profits 16%. She retired in 2018 and is being considered to head the World Bank.
Founded Amazon and became the fastest rising billionaire that the United States has ever created. Amazon started as an online bookstore in 1994 and was consistent during the early 2000's.
He is the first centibillionaire (billionaire with more than $100 billion in wealth) on the Forbes list. He also founded Blue Origin, a company that is planning to begin taking clients into suborbital flight in 2019.
Is the chairwoman, president and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin, the producer of the F-35 fighter-jet program. Hewson joined the company in 1983 and held a variety of positions. Although the company faltered with the statement the jets cost the US government too much, Lockheed’s stock price rose 26% over the past year, beating the S&P, revenue increased 17% in 2016.
In 2018, she was named the 9th most powerful woman in the world by Forbes.
Known as the "Oracle of Omaha" for his uncanny ability to pick successful companies in their early stages, fights with notoriety for some of his political views. He lives modestly, although routinely at the number one spot on the Forbes richest list.
His fortune came from stocks and investments, having tried more than most people. More notably, he intends to donate the entirety of his fortune to charity upon his death, expecting his children to make their way as he did.
Abigail Johnson assumed her father’s chairman title in 2016, and since then assets climbed 11%. She is a member of the Committee on Capital Markets Regulation and the board of directors of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (SIFMA).
She is the first and only woman to serve on the board of the Financial Services Forum. In 2016, Forbes ranked her as 16th most powerful woman in the world.
John D. Rockefeller Sr.
Is considered by many people to be the wealthiest American of all time. His father was a con man, and he learned the art of negotiation and consolidation from this questionable beginning. He made his money in oil refineries and founded the Standard Oil Company in 1870. As gasoline continued to increase in importance, his wealth grew. At his peak, he controlled 90% of the oil in America and exercised outsized influence over the burgeoning railroad industry.
Better known as Col. Sanders, is the founder of the fast food restaurant that is known as KFC (previously known as Kentucky Fried Chicken). He began his work at chicken in his 50s, but it wasn’t until he was 62 that he opened his first restaurant.
Although he is deceased, he is still the logo of the company. He is not an actual Coronel in the military; it was an honorary nickname given to him because of his well-dressed image. In his later years, after selling his KFC company to a group of investors, he became critical of the food that the restaurants served.
Thomas J. Watson Jr.
Served as the second president of IBM and credited with its exponential growth during the 1950's and 1960's.
He served under the Carter administration as Ambassador to the Soviet Union. He was honored for his business and philanthropy in 1964 through the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and Fortune Magazine dubbed him the "greatest capitalist in history."