THE FUTURE (AND PAST) IS FEMALE
Palm, Forever 21, and eight other inventive women-led companies that changed business.
1. Sarah Breedlove, Madam C.J. Walker 1905
Breedlove made her own scalp conditioner, barnstormed African-american communities to demonstrate it, and later set up a college to train “hair culturists” to sell her goods.
The impact: She built the template for success in the cosmetics business. In 2016, Sundial debuted a hit line of Madam C.J. Walker–branded products.
2. Ruth Handler, Mattel 1945
Once described as a “one-woman sales merchandising promotion administrative force,” Handler bet on TV ads, created pioneering sales-tracking and forecasting tools—and dreamed up Barbie. The impact: Handler focused on design and marketing while outsourcing manufacturing, a new business model that Apple would later adopt.
3. Lucille Ball, Desilu 1950
As the cofounder of the first indie TV production company, Ball had the power to cast her real-life husband (and Desilu cofounder), Cuban-born actor Desi Arnaz, in I Love Lucy.
The impact: Ball was later the first to syndicate reruns, creating a multibillion-dollar system that persists to this day, even on streaming platforms.
4. Jean Nidetch, Weight Watchers 1963
A self-described cookie addict, Nidetch discovered that communal support helped her lose weight. She turned her “little group” into a business model built on self-empowerment. The impact: Nidetch leveraged social networks to develop a lifestyle brand. In 2015, self-help queen Oprah Winfrey bought a 10% stake.
5. Mary Wells, Wells, Rich, Greene 1966
Wells, a rising star in advertising’s Mad Men era, built a fast-growing indie agency, took it public, and won over clients with dazzling bravura.
The impact: Wells used irony to elevate underdogs and pioneered experiential branding (revamping airlines’ ads and their service)—ideas that now pervade all of modern marketing.
6. Judy Faulkner, Epic 1979
Faulkner was among the first to see the potential for how tech could revolutionize healthcare. She started with bookkeeping software but struck gold with electronic medical records for Windows.
The impact: Microsoft has its own healthtech initiative (as do Apple and Google), but the giants still envy Epic’s $2.5 billion in annual revenues.
7. Jin Sook Chang, Forever 21 1984
Two recent Korean immigrants opened “Fashion 21,” appealing to women with designs popular in Seoul. Chang’s merchandising savvy generated $700,000 in year one on an $11,000 investment.
The impact: Forever 21, as it became known, was the first to offer Americans fast fashion and is now a $4 billion giant with almost 800 stores.
8. Donna Dubinsky, Palm 1992
In 1981, Dubinsky joined Apple because it epitomized the future. Ten years later, she had a hunch about handheld devices and cofounded Palm.
The impact: Dubinsky brought to market the Palmpilot, then the best-selling gadget of all time. In 2003, she launched the first smartphone, creating today’s mobile computing world.
9. Lucy Peng, Ant Financial Services 2014
Peng, an Alibaba cofounder, grew Alipay (its digital payments division), then merged it with the small-business financial services business she created within the Chinese commerce titan.
The impact: Ant is valued at $60 billion and has more than 450 million users, and Peng is expanding its fintech services worldwide.
10. Jessica O. Matthews, Uncharted Power 2017
As a 19-year-old, Matthews invented a soccer ball that generates kinetic energy to bring electric light to a small home. A decade later, she pivoted her startup around the idea.
The impact: Uncharted Power now also makes kinetic road materials and sidewalks that power microgrids in African nations such as Nigeria.