Fast Company - - Contents - By David Lid­sky

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.

Illustration by Pe­ter Ou­man­ski

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