Your New (Old) Role Models
While we may live in a time of tremendous growth in female-owned businesses and female entrepreneurs, there is nothing particularly new about a lady-owned empire. History has given us more than a few pioneering women who made executive decisions from beneath their corsets, bustles and racial oppression.
Here are five ladies from the 19th and early 20th centuries who played to win.
Madame Clicquot Ponsardin
Madame Clicquot, born Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin in 1777, came from money and privilege. Her father was a textile manufacturer and the mayor of their hometown, Reims. (And — no big deal — Napoleon and Josephine stayed at her father’s hotel).
When she was 21, Barbe-Nicole married François Clicquot, the son of the notable Clicquot champagne founder. Six years later, Barbe-Nicole was widowed. Her husband left her in charge of the entire company (which included banking and wool production) and all the champagne production.
As a widow, Barbe-Nicole became the first woman to run a champagne house — and she did a damn good job.
Madame Clicquot, as she later became known, fashioned a new way of handling champagne that allowed the company to mass produce on a whole new level. A savvy businesswoman with renowned alcohol prowess, Madame Clicquot invented the “riddling table” (the special rack that holds the bottle at a 45-degree angle during fermentation) in 1816. This method was soon copied throughout the Champagne region and is still used today. Madame Clicquot is also credited with producing the very first rosé blend in 1818 by using red wine and white wine (all the other champagne houses were using black grapes and colorless juice).
Yes, the woman REINVENTED rosé.
From there, Madame Clicquot took her brand through the fanciest royal courts of Europe, eventually wowing Queen Elizabeth II, who bestowed upon the champagne a royal warrant (essentially allowing suppliers to advertise that they give their goods to royalty — cha-ching).
In 1972, Veuve Clicquot established the international Veuve Clicquot Business Woman Award in Madame Clicquot’s memory, to advocate for enterprising female talent.
The quintessential “woman in a man’s world,” Rebecca was born Rebecca Webb Pennock in Pennsylvania in 1794. Her Quaker father, Isaac Pennock, founded the Federal Slitting Mill around the time of her birth and often did ye olde “Bring Thy Daughter to Work” days. In 1813, Rebecca married Dr. Charles Lukens and the two of them entered the iron business, eventually leasing the mill from Rebecca’s father.
Rebecca’s husband started tinkering with potential new products, such as a rolled steel plate (which was eventually used to construct the first metal-hulled steamboat in the U.S. and as a boilerplate in steam engines). Rebecca’s father died in 1824. In 1825, her husband died too.
Rebecca was left in charge of the company — and it was near bankruptcy. But she handled it like a boss, becoming the United States’ leading manufacturer of boilerplates. She ran her empire until 1847, going on to write an autobiography and build a now historic home, known as Terracina, for her daughter as a wedding present.
Years later, during World War II, a Liberty ship was named after Rebecca: the SS Rebecca Lukens.
In 1993, Rebecca’s company was number 395 on the Fortune 500 industrial list (the company remained independent until 1997). And in 1994, her mill was acknowledged as the oldest continuously operating steel mill in the U.S. (It’s still operating today under ArcelorMittal.)
In 1994, Fortune magazine characterized Rebecca as "America’s first female CEO of an industrial company" and she was inducted into the National Business Hall of Fame.
Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone is America’s first black female millionaire thanks to her hair care empire that blew up in the 1900s.
Born in 1869 to parents who were runaway slaves, Annie grew up on a farm in Illinois. When both her parents passed away, Annie went to live with her older sister, showing a great interest in chemistry in high school. But due to poor health, she had to withdraw from her studies.
In the early 1900s, Annie married her love of chemistry with her love of hair care and began testing products of her own design, such as straighteners (that didn’t damage black hair, unlike much of what was currently on the market), oils and growth formulas. She soon developed a chemical that could straighten kinky hair without damaging strands or scalp. Annie sold her debut product, “Wonderful Hair Grower,” door to door in little bottles.
By 1902, she had expanded her business to include three assistants who also sold her products door to door. Her marketing strategy included giving away free treatments to attract paying customers. In 1904, Annie opened her first shop in St. Louis and kicked off a product tour in the South (plus an advertising campaign in black press and at news conferences). She briefly married in 1903, but divorced her husband when he apparently tried to influence her business. (Ha, no!)
Business was so good by 1910 that Annie moved to a larger location. By 1914, her company was worth over a million dollars, sprawling a five-story facility that included a manufacturing plant and a beauty college that employed 200 people. Overall, Annie’s franchise created nearly 75,000 jobs for women in the United States and abroad.
Come the 1920s, Annie is a multimillionaire, paying the highest income tax in Missouri: $40,000 in 1924.
Although Annie was obscenely rich, she was known for living modestly, and gave thousands of dollars to many organizations within the black community: the St. Louis Colored Orphans Home, the Howard University College of Medicine and the local black YMCA.
But business took a hit in 1927 when Annie’s second husband, Aaron Eugene Malone (whom she married in 1914), filed for divorce, dead set on taking half the business with him. (To be fair, he had served as president of the company.) Annie eventually negotiated a settlement of $200,000 and the divorce was finalized. (Moral of the story: Get a prenup.)
Annie moved her business to Chicago where she purchased an entire city block — that’s how deep her pockets were. But another lawsuit popped up in 1937 when a former employee alleged that she deserved credit for Annie’s successful products. Again, another settlement had to be scraped together, forcing Annie to sell her property in St. Louis, thereby making her business all the smaller.
By her death in 1957, Annie’s estate had been reduced to a mere $100,000 due to all the business reductions she had to make to pony up for settlements.
Madam C. J. Walker
Madam C. J. Walker, born Sarah Breedlove on a cotton plantation in Louisiana on 1867, is heralded as the first female self-made millionaire in America. And she has some very humble beginnings.
Sarah’s parents were recently freed slaves and, as the fifth child in her family, Sarah was the first to be born free. She lost both her parents early in her life, orphaned by age seven. She was consequently sent to live with her sister and brother-in-law in Mississippi where she made money picking cotton and doing household tasks. Eager for a different way of life, Sarah married at 14 and had a daughter, Leila, known as A’Leila as she got older (more on her later). Sarah’s husband died two years later, leaving Sarah a single mother.
She and her daughter moved to St. Louis — where Sarah’s brothers lived and worked as barbers — and she started working as washerwoman, making $1.50 a day and learning about hair care. While busting her butt to support herself and her daughter, she also attended night school.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Sarah suffered from a scalp disorder that was causing her to lose her hair. She started experimenting with different products (as well as at-home remedies) to prevent her hair loss and was eventually hired by Annie Malone (RESPECT THE LADY NETWORK!) as a commissioner agent to sell products. From there, she moved to Denver to perfect her own line of products, eventually marrying her next husband, Charles J. Walker, a newspaper advertising salesman.
Charles helped Sarah craft advertisements for her African-American hair care products, suggesting that she use the name Madam C.J. Walker, which she retained throughout her career. In 1907, Sarah and her husband promoted her products all through the South, giving lectures and demonstrations of the “Walker Method,” which included her own pomade, brushing techniques and heated combs.
Profits were through the roof and Sarah opened her own factory AND beauty school in Pittsburgh in 1910, creating products and an army of trained sales beauticians known as “Walker Agents” (branding savvy!). In 1913, Sarah traveled throughout the Caribbean and Latin America promoting her products and recruiting more Walker Agents.
The Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was solidly in the green, producing the equivalent of several million dollars today.
Devoted to providing upward mobility within the black community, Sarah founded education scholarships and donated to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Conference on Lynching, among others. In 1913, she donated an unprecedented amount of money from an African American to build a YMCA in Indianapolis.
A'Lelia entered the family business, The Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, after briefly attending Knoxville College in Tennessee. In 1913, A'Lelia urged her mother to purchase property in Harlem, New York, recognizing the area as a gold mine for future business. A longtime employee of the company described the mother-daughter dynamic as “fire and ice,” saying, “They loved each [other] dearly and they sometimes fought fiercely."
In 1919, while returning home from a business trip in Panama, A'Lelia received word that her mother had died. A'Lelia suddenly became president of The Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company, valued at more than $1 million.
A new headquarters and manufacturing facility was erected in Indianapolis in 1927. But the successful family business took a sales hit in 1929 at the beginning of the Great Depression. A'Lelia sold many pieces from her art collection to float the business.
When A'Lelia died in 1931, her daughter, Mae Walker, became president of the company until 1945, when she passed away. Her daughter — Madam Walker’s great-granddaughter — A'Lelia Mae Perry Bundles, then became president. In 1985, all stock and assets of Walker’s company were sold to Raymond Randolph, the CEO of Elasta Hair products.
You can still buy Madame C.J. Walker products today.