Working Women

Whether building transatlantic trading companies or revolutionizing food storage, women have been making their mark as accomplished entrepreneurs for thousands of years.

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.

Like so much of the business world, entrepreneurism throughout history has been a male-dominated field. The situation is improving, however: The number of successful female entrepreneurs has grown by about one-third in the last 15 years, and investment in women-owned businesses exceeded $40 billion last year.

The playing field, however, remains far from level, but there are some great cases of enterprising individuals who succeeded in the face of gender-based obstacles.

In the 3,000-year history of ancient Egypt, there were perhaps five female pharaohs. By far the most prominent was Hatshepsut, who reigned approximately 1479 – 1458 BC. She reopened vital trade routes over which her male predecessors had lost control and commissioned many buildings and statues.

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Another renowned female monarch was Queen Elizabeth I, whose 44-year reign stabilized 16th century England, laid the foundation for the unification of Great Britain, and began the maritime dominance that ultimately led to the largest empire in history.

The first woman entrepreneur in America was Margaret Hardenbroeck, who emigrated to New York from the Netherlands in 1659. She built a transatlantic trading company and owned real estate in several colonies. A century later, during the Revolutionary War, Mary Katherine Goddard was a successful printer in Baltimore who published numerous pro-revolution materials. Her rewards for this included being raided by the British, and being the only woman to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Two interesting examples of women entrepreneurs in the early 19th century were Rebecca Lukens, owner and manager of the Lukens Steel Mill in Pennsylvania — considered to be the first female industrial CEO in the U.S. — and the buccaneer Anne Bonny, who at her peak commanded some 1,800 ships and possibly 80,000 pirates.

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Women of color faced even greater challenges than their White counterparts. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was a slave and exceptional seamstress who gained her freedom and moved to Washington, D.C., where she established a successful dressmaking business. With clients including Mary Todd Lincoln, she is regarded as the first Black female entrepreneur in American history.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Madam CJ Walker developed and marketed hair products for Black women successfully enough that she became our nation’s first Black female millionaire. She was also a major donor to Black causes and institutions, including the NAACP and Tuskegee Institute.

Walker also represents the path other American women often took to entrepreneurial success: the cosmetics, beauty and fashion industries. Iconic entrepreneurs in these fields include Mary Kay Ash, Diane von Furstenberg, Estee Lauder and Elizabeth Arden. In another “women’s products” area, Brownie Wise, the founder of Tupperware, became the first woman to appear on the cover of Business Week in 1954, a mere 25 years after the magazine was first launched.

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In the second half the 20th century, various media began to create springboards to success for women entrepreneurs. Most visible in this category is Oprah Winfrey. Starting her career as a newscaster, Winfrey built a huge media empire and become a major philanthropist, ultimately becoming the first Black female billionaire. She has also used her stature to support many other women entrepreneurs, including Spanx founder Sara Blakely, whose concept was rejected by multiple male investors before Winfrey stepped up.

Entertainment is another field that has opened windows to entrepreneurship; mega-stars such as Rihanna and Beyoncé now have multiple businesses and are among the world’s richest women.

The 21st century has seen women entrepreneurs succeed in a much broader range of businesses. While the list is, thankfully, far too large to cover, a couple interesting examples include Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and CEO of the ancestry research company 23andMe; and her sister Susan Wojcicki, who was part of the Google startup and is now CEO of YouTube. Their third sister, Janet, is a successful anthropologist and epidemiologist, rounding out quite the interesting family.

Locally, we have some great local examples as well. Better Bedder, whose unique bedding accessory successfully attracted “Shark Tank” funding, was founded by Northshore entrepreneurs Nita Gassen and Judy Schott. And truly paying all this forward is Andrea Chen, co-founder and executive director of Propeller, the New Orleans business incubator that is nurturing the next generation of entrepreneurs.

While still underrepresented overall, the growing number of successful women entrepreneurs opens up the possibility that the biases and obstacles will eventually disappear, and entrepreneurism will truly be open to all, regardless of ethnicity or gender.

 

Keith Twitchell’s blog, “Neighborhood Biz,” appears every Thursday on BizNewOrleans.com.

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