Top 10 Most Successful Companies Founded by Women

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Despite enduring the association of women with domesticity throughout much of world history, various women have nevertheless been major entrepreneurs and innovators even before the Sexual Revolution of the twentieth century.  No, I am not referring to such infamous practices as the so-called “world’s oldest profession”, i.e. prostitution, as examples of female entrepreneurs and businesswomen, but rather a number of unique organizations as well as major corporations you may be unaware were founded by women.  As such, this list covers a broad range of businesses and organizations founded by famous females!

10.  Spanx

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Our tenth place business enters our list due to experiencing one of the most remarkably rapid rises to wealth in the history of businesses and organizations founded by women.  A former stand-up comedian, Sara Blakely (born 21 February 1971) founded the pantyhose and hosiery company Spanx in 2000 doing much of the initial work from her home.

In less than a decade, the home-started company grew to employ roughly 100 individuals and receive endorsements by such notable celebrities as Oprah Winfrey, who is also a notable female founder of such major companies as Harpo Productions, a company with over 12,000 employees.  With such celebrity endorsements, The Spanx company and brand are now valued at more than $1 billion.

I chose this entry because of how fast it took off from a home-based company to a billion dollar business endorsed by someone as influential as Winfrey who is unquestionably one of the most influential women of our time.  Moreover, Blakely also deserves appreciation for launching the Sara Blakely Foundation to help women through education and entrepreneurial training, funding scholarships for young women at Community and Individual Development Association City Campus in South Africa, appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006 and donating $1 million to Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy, and being the FIRST female billionaire to join the Giving Pledge, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett’s pledge for the world’s richest people to give at least half their wealth to charity.

To learn more, please visit Spanx.

9.  Women’s Military Organizations of the World Wars

Playing a role in winning the World Wars and continuing to serve in countries’ militaries in the succeeding decades is of almost immeasurable importance.  Women contributed to the war effort in a variety of ways in both World Wars of the twentieth century.  During World War I, the British established a Women’s Land Army to work in agriculture replacing men called up to the military.  When America entered the First World War, a similar organization with essentially the same name was also formed.  These organizations reappeared in both countries during World II.  Not surprisingly, women played key roles in founding such organizations.  For example, Women’s Cricket Association chairwoman Mrs. Heron-Maxwell had organized the Women’s Land Army in Kent.  Lady Gertrude Mary Denman (1884 – 1954) was involved with the founding of the National Birth Control Association, the Cowdray Club for Nurses and Professional Women, and the Women’s Land Army, of which she was appointed director in 1939.

In addition to the above efforts to serve on the “home front” of the wars, women also pushed to play an active role in the theaters of combat as well.  During World War II, with the fate of the world literally at stake, women would be accepted, not yet as equals to male soldiers, but in an active military role in the conflict.  Of the most significant women’s military organizations to come out of World War II, three stand out.

The first, The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) was the women’s branch of the United States Army.   The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) was created as an on 15 May 1942 by Public Law 55.  Oveta Culp Hobby (19 January 1905 – 16 August 1995), the first secretary of the US Department of Health, Education and Welfare, served as the first commanding officer of the Women’s Army Corps.  That same year, Mildred McAfee, President of Wellesley College, was sworn in as a Naval Reserve Lieutenant Commander in early August 1942, thereby becoming the first female commissioned officer in U.S. Navy history and the first director of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES).  The WAVES were established on 30 July 1942 as a division of the U.S. Navy that consisted entirely of women.

Meanwhile, by the summer of 1941, Jacqueline “Jackie” Cochran (11 May 1906 – 9 August 1980) and test-pilot Nancy Harkness Love (1914–1976), two famous women pilots, independently submitted proposals to the U.S. Army Air Forces (the forerunner to the United States Air Force) to use women pilots in non-combat missions after the outbreak of World War II in Europe.  At the same time, the Soviet Union had already begun using squadrons of women pilots that sufficiently terrorized German male pilots that the Germans nicknamed them “Night Witches”!  Actually named the Night Bomber Regiment, the regiment was formed by Colonel Marina Mikhailovna Raskova (28 March 1912 – 4 January 1943) and led by Major Yevdokia Bershanskaya (6 February 1913 – 16 September 1982).  The Americans finally followed suit near the end of Summer 1942.  The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS) was headed by Love and went into operation on 10 September 1942.  The Women’s Flying Training Detachment (WFTD) was headed by Cochran and established on 15 September 1942.  The WAFS and WFTD merged in July 1943 to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) with Cochran as director.  The service of the American women pilots, while significant, was short-lived.  The WASP was ordered disbanded by 20 December 1944.  Thirty-eight of these pilots died in service of their country.  In 1972, the office of director of the WAVES was also disestablished in favor of integration of women into the main force.  The WAC lasted just a bit longer as a branch, being disbanded in 1978.

Despite the end of these organizations, they remain a storied chapter in American military history, having been referenced in popular culture and recognized by our government alike.  The 2008 TV movie Warbirds features a WASP B-29 crew, whose plane is commandeered for a secret mission but crashes on a pteranodon-infested island.  On 10 May 2010, the 300 surviving WASPs came to the US Capitol to accept the Congressional Gold Medal from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Congressional leaders.  On one final note, First Lady Anna Eleanor Roosevelt (11 October 1884 — 7 November 1962) also deserves recognition for persistent lobbying in support of establishing these various organizations of female members of the American military.

While women have served in a various military capacities in multiple cultures throughout much of our history, the particular organizations founded by the victorious powers of the World Wars have influenced the course of history in several critical ways from furthering women’s rights to helping stop fascism from further campaigns of genocide.

8.  The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing

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Also and perhaps better known as the “Shakers” for their habit of dancing, this religious organization is among the most well-known still in existence founded by a woman, in this case Mother Ann Lee (29 February 1736 – 8 September 1784).  She did so at a time when women rarely preached to the public, let alone founded their own church!  Shakers still do not have the same international presence as other major women-founded organizations on this list.  Nevertheless, they do have a considerable cultural legacy from their advocating of equality between their sexes to their influence on American music and furniture.

Aaron Copland’s iconic 1944 ballet score Appalachian Spring, which uses the now famous Shaker tune “Simple Gifts” as the basis of its finale, is just one of many works inspired Shaker culture.  Given that the Shakers date back to the 1700s, they have had longer to influence history than the World War II era military organizations discussed above.  Also, Cleveland, Ohio suburb Shaker Heights named for early Shaker inhabitants was once the richest city in the United States of America.

7.  Estée Lauder Companies

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American businesswoman Estée Lauder, born Josephine Esther Mentzer (1 July 1906 – 24 April 2004), co-founded Estée Lauder Companies with her husband in 1946.  The companies, which manufacture and market prestige skincare, makeup, fragrance and hair care products, earned revenue of $7.2 billion in the fiscal year of 2009 alone.  The companies employ 38,500 workers.  For her role in founding and expanding such a key business over the past sixty years, Lauder received a Spirit of Achievement Award from Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in 1968, was inducted into the Junior Achievement U.S. Business Hall of Fame in 1988, was the only woman on Time magazine’s 1998 list of the twenty most influential business geniuses of the twentieth century, and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.

Her and her companies’ influence extend beyond making various skin and hair care products to include an arguably even more important Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign (BCA).  Since the BCA’s launch in October 1992, millions of people have heard their message about the importance of breast health and how early detection can help save lives.  The BCA is now active in over seventy countries worldwide and according to Brand Channel has raised $35 million for research and education.  I have ranked these companies higher than the military organizations primarily because they still exist as their own organization rather than having been integrated into something else and because their work with regards to breast cancer awareness is still ongoing and as such actively affecting maybe even some of our readers or perhaps their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters.

To visit their website on Breast Cancer Awareness and possibly donate, click here.

6.  Planned Parenthood

The origins of Planned Parenthood date to 1916 when Margaret Higgins Sanger (14 September 1879 – 6 September 1966), her sister and a friend opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S. in Brooklyn, New York.  In 1921, she founded the American Birth Control League, which became part of the only national birth control organization in the US until the 1960s.   In 1929, she also formed the National Committee on Federal Legislation for Birth Control in order to lobby for legislation to overturn restrictions on contraception.  In 1937, Sanger became chairwoman of the newly formed Birth Control Council of America.  By 1941, the American Birth Control League operated 222 centers and had served 49,000 clients.

By 1942, the League became part of what became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.  In 1946, Sanger helped found the International Committee on Planned Parenthood, which evolved into the International Planned Parenthood Federation in 1952, and soon became the world’s largest non-governmental international family planning organization.  Sanger served as the organization’s first president and served in that role until she was eighty years old.  Planned Parenthood Federation of America presently operates in 820 locations with a budget of $1.04 billion.

The International Planned Parenthood Federation currently consists of more than 149 Member Associations working in more than 189 countries.  Sanger’s legacy remains significant as seen in the recent play What Every Girl Should Know set in 1914 and based on her 1916 pamphlet of the same name.  Whether you agree with or oppose the use of birth control, you cannot deny its revolutionary influence on the world’s social history.

5.  The American Red Cross

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Teacher, nurse, and humanitarian Clarissa Harlowe “Clara” Barton (25 December 1821 – 12 April 1912) established The American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. on 21 May 1881.  Her interest in assisting wounded veterans had a long history in the decades leading up to her founding of the American Red Cross.  During the American Civil War, she was appointed by Union General Benjamin Butler as the “lady in charge” of the hospitals at the front of the Army of the James.  She subsequently became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.”

After the war, she next ran the Office of Missing Soldiers in Washington, D.C.  She then worked for International Red Cross in Europe during the Franco-Prussian War and was decorated with the Prussian Iron Cross for her service.  She spent much of the next decade working to bring the Red Cross to the United States of America.  Following her successful realization of this goal, she became the first president of the organization.  Today, the American Red Cross has a budget of $3.5 billion and has a storied history of providing health and safety services not just to the American armed forces, but also to victims of both national and international disasters.  Given the amount of good this organization has done for people worldwide for more than a century now, numerous schools, streets, and the like have been named for the “Angel of the Battlefield.”

4.  Girl Guides and Girl Scouts

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Although the origins of scouting has its foundations with a man, three notable females played critical roles in the foundation of Girl Guiding/Scouting in the United Kingdom, Poland, and the United States.  Agnes Smyth Baden-Powell (16 December 1858 – 2 June 1945), the sister of the man who founded scouting in general, became the first leader of the Girl Guides in the UK in the early twentieth century.  In 1917, she resigned in favor of Princess Mary, Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood (25 April 1897 – 28 March 1965).

Juliette Gordon Low, born on Halloween of 1860 and friend of the Baden-Powell family, founded the Girl Scouts of America and her birthday is still celebrated as “Founder’s Day” accordingly.  The movement spread rapidly beyond the Anglophone world.  Olga Drahonowska-Ma?kowska (9 January 1888 — 15 January 1979) served as First Chief of the Girl Guides in Poland even before World War I broke out.  Their efforts have born great fruit over the past several decades.  My mother frequently mentions how much she enjoyed being a Girl Scout and I suspect few among us have not enjoyed delicious Girl Scout cookies!  Today, The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts has membership of around 10 million members in 145 countries.

3.  Poor Clares

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As a teenager, I attended Padua Franciscan High School where we learned a good deal about the Franciscans.  Our school’s patron saint, Francis of Assisi (1181 – 3 October 1226), is of course the founder of the Franciscan Order.  Yet, as we learned at our Catholic school, his influence went beyond the male order of mendicant monks.  Fellow saint Clare of Assisi (16 July 1194 – 11 August 1253) found inspiration and support from Francis.  She became abbess of a monastery and thereby co-founder of a female version of the Franciscans.

This order of nuns takes its name from its co-founding patron saint.  What makes the Poor Clares significant is their longevity and scope of operations.  Since the Middle Ages, Poor Clares have established themselves in Belgium, Canada, England, France, Germany, Guatemala, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Spain, The Netherlands, The Philippines, and The United States of America.  Currently, perhaps more than 20,000 Poor Clares work toward charities and prayer for the people of the above mentioned as well as other countries around the world, continuing the work begun nearly five hundred years earlier!  Few other organizations on this list have been around for nearly five centuries while still having a global membership in the tens of thousands.

While they do not have the membership numbers today as the Girl Guides and Scouts, by being around for a few centuries longer earns them the second spot on our list!

2.  The Honourable East India Company

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In second place is a company first granted a royal charter by a woman (Queen Elizabeth I of England and Ireland) and dissolved under the reign of another woman (Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom).  The Honourable East India Company (EIC) is without any doubt one of the most significant commercial enterprises undertaken in human history.  The EIC played a critical role in establishing the British Empire (history’s all-time largest empire), particularly in the Indian subcontinent.

The EIC, founded in 1600, was a precursor to similarly named organizations founded by Britain’s rivals including The Dutch East India Company (1602), The Danish East India Company (1616), The Dutch West India Company (1621), The Portuguese East India Company (1628), The Danish West India Company (1659), The French East India Company (1664), The French West India Company (1664), the Swedish East India Company (1731), and the Swedish West India Company (1787).  Collectively, these East and West India companies colonized much of the world in the name of European interests.

The one established under and with the encouragement of Queen Elizabeth was by the far the most influential and not only because it came first.  The East India Company became so powerful that it employed soldiers, had a fleet of armed ships, and even issued currency with the company’s name on it!  The company played a major role in opium trade that helped lead to the notorious Opium Wars, helped introduce the English language to various parts of the world, and was the first company to record Chinese usage of orange-flavoured tea, which led to the development of Earl Grey tea, among many other long-lasting accomplishments.  From the time of its founding until its dissolution in 1874, the EIC affected the lives of millions of people from Europe to Asia and was involved in everything from the Napoleonic Wars to the Great Indian Rebellion of 1857.

Americans will likely be familiar with the company due to its much-criticized control of tea imports into the American colonies that resulted in the Boston Tea Party, one of the events leading up to the American Revolution.  As such, no other business venture started in part by a woman had such a tremendous and far-reaching influence on world history as the EIC.  Yet, there is another collective grouping of organizations, albeit not exactly businesses, founded by women that have indeed had significance for the world’s female population and will continue to do so for as long as people exist.

1.  Women’s Suffrage Organizations

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Suffrage refers to the right to vote, something denied to women in many civilizations throughout much of human history.  In the era following the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions, men and women became increasingly, albeit begrudgingly, supportive of the idea of expanding the right to vote to include women.  Nevertheless, at the time of these revolutions, the leading male revolutionaries did not overwhelmingly support women having anything approaching a political parity with men.  In the worst instance, prominent advocates of women’s rights such as Frenchwoman Olympe de Gouges (7 May 1748 – 3 November 1793) even suffered execution for criticizing the Revolutionary regime, while women’s political clubs in France were closed down.  Thus, in order for these rights to be obtained, women in western societies formed new organizations to agitate for such rights.

Among the most prominent of these efforts were those of American civil rights leaders Susan Brownell Anthony (15 February 1820 – 13 March 1906), one of the few women ever honored on American currency, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (12 November 1815 – 26 October 1902).  Together, they co-founded The National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) on 15 May 1869.  The organization merged with the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).  In 1913, fellow suffragists Alice Stokes Paul (11 January 1885 – 9 July 1977) and Lucy Burns (28 July 1879 – 22 December 1966) formed the more radical National Woman’s Party that captured newspaper headlines due to their more aggressive tactics, while the more moderate NAWSA could negotiate with politicians.  Due to the organizations’ success, women’s suffrage was finally realized in the United States of America with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920.  At that time, NAWSA President Carrie Chapman Catt (9 January 1859 – 9 March 1947) reformed the NAWSA into the League of Women Voters, an organization which currently has around 150,000 members.  Catt also founded and became President of the International Alliance of Women (IAW).  Today, the IAW represents more than fifty organizations world-wide and has attracted many individual members.

The efforts in America were mirrored by and some cases helped inspire similar efforts especially in Britain, but eventually in other countries around the world.  In Britain, Emmeline Pankhurst (15 July 1858 – 14 June 1928) and her daughters were the leading voices of women’s suffrage in that country.  In 1898, Pankhurst founded the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), an organization that American suffragist Alice Paul also joined.  In November 1917, Pankhurst and one of her daughters dissolved the WSPU and formed the short-lived Women’s Party.  In 1918, Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act 1918, which at last began to include women in the British electorate even earlier than America’s Nineteenth Amendment.

I have ranked women’s suffrage organizations first given that the fight for women’s voting rights is indeed a global matter that truly affects practically all women around the world in ways that transcend the more specific entries above.  Not all women will become mothers, nuns, or girl scouts or even have the means to afford beauty products, but political issues absolutely are relevant to all women around the world and the importance of women having their own say in these matters is critical to women achieving success in other careers influenced by politics.

By Dr. Matthew D. Zarzeczny, who has also written Banned from the Internet and runs History and Headlines.


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9 Comments

  1. History Teacher on

    Margaret Sanger was a vocal supporter of eugenics. He wished to eliminate “undesirable genes” from the population by offering abortions in mostly poor neighborhoods with ethnic minorities. To state that she is simply involved in “birth control”, I feel, is a bit disingenuous. I encourage everyone to read up on this horrible woman, who has no place alongside folks like the Suffragettes.

  2. Women plays an important role in our society I have no doubt that there is Big Companies founded by women, and women on Business are very organized, Thank you for sharing.

  3. I think the biggest problem I have with this list is this:

    10. Panty hose
    9. Women’s military group
    8. Religious Group
    7. Makeup
    6. Pro-Abortion Political Advocacy Group
    5. Red Cross
    4. Girl Scouts
    3. Nuns
    2. East India Trading Company
    1. Women’s Sufferage

    Other than the EITC 400 years ago, did any women ever create an organization that appealed to, I don’t know… men? Most of these are women’s-interest-only groups, meaning that the unintended conclusion I draw from this list is that women do things for women and I should just ignore it. I’d have preferred to see a few companies that were started by women that appealed to everyone, not just people missing Y chromosomes.

  4. Your title is misleading. I was looking forward to reading about companies but you gave me mostly organizations so you lost me.

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