5 Female Leaders from Business History

Female leaders

In February 2015, Deloitte appointed Cathy Engelbert as its US CEO – the first woman to ever hold the position. She joins Fortune 500 CEOs Mary Barra (General Motors) and Indra Nooyi (PepsiCo) as one of most prominent women in business in the modern world.

While the move is, of course, positive, the percentage change a solitary female leader can make in the overall proportion of women in business still speaks of the work that remains to be done. There are more female Fortune 500 CEOs than ever – great news, somewhat tempered by the fact that the total is 25 (5%).

However, with six of these women in business taking up the reins in 2014, it seems the pace of change may finally be quickening. Powerful female leaders are not a new phenomenon – indeed, Queen Hatshepsut reigned over Egypt for 20 years in the 14th century BCE. It took until 1960 for a female head of government, but Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) managed finally to break the duck, to be followed by the likes of Margaret Thatcher (the UK), Angela Merkel (Germany) and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia).

But it’s not just the world of government in which female leaders have made an impact; female leaders have also made a significant impact on the business world, including Fortune 500 companies. Here are five examples of inspirational women in business from the past century.

Madam CJ Walker

Madam CJ Walker

On her death in 1919, Madam CJ Walker (born 1867 as Sarah Breedlove) was celebrated as the first female self-made millionaire in US history. While the veracity of this has been called into question, with her fortune now thought to have fallen short of the seven-figure mark, this by no means diminishes her success as a businesswoman.

Walker’s fortune was made in cosmetics – a range of haircare products for African-Americans, which she was inspired to produce while working as a travelling agent for another haircare company after a scalp affliction caused her to suffer from hair loss. Starting out by selling her products at demonstrations, her success eventually allowed her to move into commercial manufacturing and to train others to take on the travelling sales jobs.

Finally settling in Harlem, Walker was also a generous philanthropist, setting a precedent for female leaders by donating money to causes to advance African Americans, and making a significant donations to the construction of the Indianapolis YMCA.

Helena RubinsteinHelena Rubinstein

More verifiable as a self-made female millionaire, Helena Rubinstein (born Chaya Rubenstein) also made her fortune in the cosmetics industry. Born in Poland in 1872, she emigrated to Australia not long after the turn of the century, soon catching the eye of the locals with her distinct European style. After giving away the supply of beauty creams she brought with her, she eventually starting mixing up her own beauty creams – an enterprise that proved to be so successful she eventually managed to set up shop in the London and Paris, before eventually heading to New York after the outbreak of the First World War.

She was a huge hit in the US and became an advisor to the stars in 1920s Hollywood, with the newly voguish cinematic technique of the close up elevating the importance of good make up.

She wasn’t so popular with everyone though – her intense rivalry with Elizabeth Arden (aka Florence Nightingale Graham) is well documented, a rivalry driven as much by their similarities as their differences. She also reportedly once fobbed off Marcel Proust at a party because he smelled of mothballs!

Estée Lauder Estée Lauder

When Anthony J Mayo and Nitin Nohria compiled a list of the greatest business leaders of the 20th century in 2005, they controversially named only a single woman on their list. The same woman was the sole female leader in Time’s 1998 list of the most influential business geniuses of the 20th century. While this is problematic, it also serves to highlight the achievements of the woman in question – one Estée Lauder (born Josephine Esther Mentzer)

Growing up, Estée Lauder was fascinated by her chemist uncle’s range of beauty products, which she began to sell, first to her friends, and then at a hairdresser’s business, after the proprietor commented on her healthy looking skin. The entrepreneurially-minded Estée Lauder went on to develop her own fragrance – a bath oil-cum-perfume called Youth Dew, which would go on to sell in the millions.

Along with her other cosmetic products (Aramis and Clinique, for example) this made Estée Lauder a billionaire, and earned her a Presidential Medal of Freedom.  

Katharine GrahamKatharine Graham

Katherine Meyer Graham was the first female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, taking the reins at the Washington Post company in 1972 after serving as publisher from 1969 onwards; although she served in the role from 1963 in everything but title after the suicide of her husband, Phillip – the previous incumbent of the role (he was preceded by Eugene Meyer – Katharine’s father).

She was at the helm of the newspaper during the Watergate scandal, with The Washington Post’s brave coverage playing an instrumental role in Richard Nixon’s resignation.

She won a Pulitzer Prize for her 1997 autobiography, Personal History, which among other things details the difficulties she encountered as a female leader. She was also the honoree of Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball (ostensibly as least) in 1966, and could count the Kennedys and the Reagans among her family friends.

Anita RoddickAnita Roddick

Founder of the Body Shop, Anita Roddick is as well known for her environmental and human rights campaigning as for her business acumen. Indeed, the Body Shop was a pioneer both in prohibiting products that were tested on animals and in adopting fair trade practices.

She founded the Body Shop in the mid-70s in order to provide an income for her two daughters while her husband was travelling. It wasn’t her first foray into business, with her and her husband Gordon opening a restaurant and a hotel in her hometown of Littlehampton.

What started as a way to survive soon became a global empire – with the firm’s ethical principles, honest approach and – unlike the approach of the some of the other cosmetics magnates in this list – affordability chiming well with the spirt of the times.

The child of Italian immigrants, she stated that she had always been drawn to outsiders and rebels. Before starting the Body Shop, she had taught in a kibbutz in Israel. She ended her life, however, as a dame, being knighted by the Queen in 2003. The Body Shop was purchased by L’Oréal for £652.3 million in 2006.

Image: David Fowler / Shutterstock.com

Written by Mansoor Iqbal

Mansoor is a contributor to and former editor of TopMBA.com. He is a higher and business education specialist, who has been published in media outlets around the world. He studied English literature at BA and MA level and has a background in consumer journalism.

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