11 Businesses You Might Not Know Were Started By Women

Kikkoman soy sauce, a company founded by a widow, according to legend
Kikkoman soy sauce, a company founded by a widow, according to legend
RICHARD MASONER/CYCLEICIOUS, FLICKR // CC BY-SA 2.0

According to the National Association of Women Business Owners, there were more than 11.6 million women-owned firms in the U.S., generating $1.7 trillion in sales, as of 2017. In addition to all the major inventions women have given us over the years, female entrepreneurs and visionaries have founded and owned companies in fields ranging from tech to television, fashion to food, and everything in between. Here are just a few examples of the game-changing enterprises women have founded or co-founded.

1. Kikkoman

glass bottle of Kikkoman soy sauce.
iStock.com/DarioZg

The origin story behind one of the world’s best-known soy sauce brands dates all the way back to 17th century Japan. As legend has it, an upper-class war widow named Shige Maki escaped in disguise with her son from Osaka Castle, their war-ravaged home, to Edo (the city that would become Toyko). Maki and her son learned to cultivate rice and brew soy sauce like their new neighbors, and Maki’s tweaks to the production process went over so well that 350 years later Kikkoman is still making a version of the stuff.

2. Flickr

A logo for the Flickr website is displayed during an announcement in 2013
A logo for the Flickr website displayed during an announcement in 2013
EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Web design consultants Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield had originally developed a social interaction-based online game, but it wasn’t until Butterfield was up sick all night while the couple was at a 2003 gaming conference that the idea to just focus on the game’s photo-sharing aspect struck. Today, the online photo album site hosts tens of billions of photos and has changed the way people capture their lives on camera. Yahoo acquired the company from Fake and Butterfield for an undisclosed but hefty sum in 2005; in 2018, it was bought by independent image-hosting firm SmugMug.

3. Spanx

Sara Blakely attends the launch of Haute Contour by SPANX at Saks Fifth Avenue in 2009
Sara Blakely attends the launch of Haute Contour by SPANX at Saks Fifth Avenue in 2009
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Once landing the title of youngest female self-made billionaire didn’t come easily for Sara Blakely. She’d tried getting into law school, standup comedy, selling fax machines, even auditioning at Disney World (she’s said she didn’t get the part of Goofy because she was too short). But Blakely's turning point came at age 29 when she snipped the feet off a pair of pantyhose so she’d have a smoother shape under a pair of white pants and thought she might be onto something. She was. Spanx shapewear has since expanded to more than 200 products and a chain of retail stores, and has scores of celebrity devotees including Oprah, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Michelle Obama. In 2013, Blakely—who still owns 100 percent of the company—made headlines for pledging to donate half her wealth to charitable causes.

4. Pepperidge Farm

A package of Pepperidge Farms Goldfish crackers
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In the 1930s, Connecticut housewife Margaret Rudkin started baking preservative-free breads to help alleviate one of her son’s allergies. Soon she was selling her bread (which was named after her family farm) to local grocers, and by 1947 Rudkin opened her first bakery. She'd go on to act as official taste-tester, the company spokesperson, and the importer of products like European-style cookies and Goldfish crackers she'd discovered on trips to Belgium and Switzerland. The brand's sales were already at $32 million a year when it sold to Campbell's in 1961; Rudkin officially retired from the company in 1966, but her breads and cookies continue to be grocery aisle mainstays.

5. Cisco

The Cisco Systems logo in front of the company's headquarters in San Jose, California
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Sandy Lerner worked for Stanford University in the early '80s along with her husband, Len Bosack, but the two were frustrated that they were unable to email each other from different buildings. The two developed a router that allowed multi-network exchanges, and the technology was so in-demand that they had $1.5 million in sales by the following year. Lerner and Bosack are no longer with Cisco (and are no longer married), but the networking products company they launched is valued at more than $220 billion.

6. Proactiv

A bottle of Proactiv solution on a blue background

Dermatologists Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields met in the 1980s during their residencies at Stanford University School of Medicine, and in 1995 the friends launched their multi-step Proactiv Solution, a noticeable departure from the spot-treatment-style acne products that cornered the market at the time. In the years since, their distinctive ads and celebrity endorsements (including top names like Katy Perry and Justin Bieber) have turned their skincare line into a household name.

7. Build-A-Bear

A Build-A-Bear Workshop at Mall of America
A Build-A-Bear Workshop at Mall of America
Adam Bettcher/Getty Images for Build-A-Bear

The idea to let kids make their own stuffed animals was apparently inspired by an unsuccessful shopping trip founder Maxine Clark went on with a friend's young daughter. When the girl suggested they make their own stuffed animal at home, Clark ran with the idea and opened her first store—a "theme park factory in a mall"—in 1997 in St. Louis. Today there are more than 400 Build-A-Bear Workshops worldwide.

8. BET

Sheila Johnson speaks on stage at The Jefferson Awards Foundation 2017 DC National Ceremony
Sheila Johnson speaks on stage at The Jefferson Awards Foundation 2017 DC National Ceremony
Larry French/Getty Images for The Jefferson Awards Foundation

Black Entertainment Television got its start in 1979 when Sheila Johnson used the money she was making teaching music lessons to help fund the fledgling cable network with her then-husband, Robert. The Johnsons (now divorced) have distanced themselves from today's iteration of the channel since they sold the company to Viacom in 2001, but in the '80s and '90s, Sheila Johnson served as one of the original board members and the VP of Corporate Affairs. In 1991, BET became the first African American-controlled company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

9. Liquid Paper

Liquid Paper products on display at the Women's Museum
Liquid Paper products on display at the Women's Museum
FA2010, Wikimedia // Public Domain

When secretary and single mom Bette Nesmith Graham discovered white tempera paint and a thin paintbrush worked wonders for correcting typos, she worked on perfecting the solution, calling her product "Mistake Out." Graham slowly started a side hustle after shifts at the bank by selling bottles, and in 1958 she decided to go into business for herself and changed the name to Liquid Paper. By 1968, the company was big enough for its own factory and offices, which Graham insisted include a childcare center and library.

10. The Body Shop

Anita Roddick of the Body Shop in one of her stores in 1986
Anita Roddick of the Body Shop in one of her stores in 1986
Keystone/Getty Images

Traveling the world taught Anita Roddick a lot about unique body care customs, and in 1976 she applied some of that knowledge to the products she offered at the first Body Shop she opened in Brighton, England. Roddick's earth-and-animal-friendly mindset was ahead of its time: she’s sometimes credited with launching the concept of ethical consumerism. Today, you can find Body Shops and their iconic Body Butters in more than 45 countries.

11. Rent the Runway

Jennifer Hyman of Rent the Runway speaks onstage at Girlboss Rally NYC 2018
Jennifer Hyman of Rent the Runway speaks onstage at Girlboss Rally NYC 2018
JP Yim/Getty Images for Girlboss Rally NYC 2018

Harvard Business School classmates Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss were inspired to apply a Netflix model to designer clothes and accessories after Hyman's sister complained of needing to drop a fortune on a new dress she'd only wear once for a wedding. Rent the Runway launched in 2009, the perfect time to capitalize on a culture growing increasingly preoccupied with selfies and event photos—wearing the same special occasion outfit twice would no longer fly. Hyman and Fleiss's high-tech interface and Unlimited subscription option have kept the company growing, and in 2016 Hyman and Fleiss's novel concept broke $100 million in revenue.

A version of this article first ran in 2017.

18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer

iStock/MCCAIG
iStock/MCCAIG

Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. Rosé Wine Glasses; $60 for Two

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. Nerf N-Strike Elite Surgefire; $19

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Walmart

3. Bushel & Berry Plants; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon

4. Inflatable Donut; $11

An inflatable pool toy shaped like a pink donut with sprinkles
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon

5. Star Spangled Spatula; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked … with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. Mlb Hot Dog Branders; $6 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders (which come in a variety of different designs repping teams across the country) from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. Una Grill; $145

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, on your deck, or anywhere in between.

Find It: Una

8. Hamburger Grilling Basket; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon or Walmart

9. Copper Fire Pit; $120

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon

10. Bendy Straw Pool Noodle Float; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon

11. Griddler Deluxe; $115

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. Vintage Snow Cone Maker; $32

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon

13. Dachshund Corn On The Cob Holders; $6

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon

14. Ice Cream Sandwich Maker; $20

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon

15. Ue Wonderboom; $62

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable Bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon

16. Rollors Game; $50

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. Hammock; $177

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon

18. VSSL Survival Essentials; $45

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Moosejaw

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

A version of this story first ran in 2018. It has been updated to reflect current availability.

11 Unusual Cutting and Cheese Boards

Fred & Friends, Amazon
Fred & Friends, Amazon

Planning a wine and cheese party? Make sure what you're using to serve snacks is just as cute as your food is delicious.

1. Mouse Trap; $21

A cheese board shaped like a mouse trap

Fred & Friends, Amazon

At first glance, this item just looks like an oversized mouse trap. Ingeniously, the snapping part of the trap can be removed to reveal it's actually a cheese slicer. A chunk of cheese can be displayed and sliced on the 9-inch-long board—just don't invite any mice to the party.

Find it: Amazon

2. MOUSE BOARD; $30

A board shaped like a mouse hole with a mouse-shaped cheese cutter on top

Fred & Friends, Amazon

If a mouse trap is a little too macabre for your shindig, consider this adorable alternative. Assemble your cheeses on the 8-inch-long board and slice them up with a mouse-shaped knife that can be stored in the Tom and Jerry-esque mouse hole at the bottom.

Find it: Amazon

3. STATE SLATE; $20

Cheese and crackers arrayed on a slate cheese board

Bison Hill Stonecrafts, Amazon

Celebrate cheese from all over the United States with this patriotic slate. You can even grab a piece of chalk and write down the names of all the cheeses for hungry guests. Creator Bison Hill Stonecrafts will even personalize your board with a laser engraving, if you'd like.

Find it: Amazon

4. Log and Axe; $25

A cheese board shaped like a cut tree trunk

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Give your cheese a rustic presentation with this log and axe set-up. The solid beech cutting board is shaped like a log and comes with an axe-shaped knife to help you bring out your inner lumberjack.

Find it: Amazon

5. Mariner Wheel; $35

Invite all your sailor friends over for snacks with this nautical cheese board. When each of the four differently-shaped knives are placed into their respective holes in the board, the board looks like a ship's wheel.

Find it: UncommonGoods

6. Cheese Degrees; $20

A cutting board with a protractor design

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Make sure everyone gets an even amount of cheese with this obsessively precise cutting board. Whether you want perfect cubes or exactly portioned triangles, this cheese board can help ensure that everything is perfectly sliced.

Find it: Amazon

7. The States; $28

A cheese board in the shape of New York state

Amy Stringer-Mowat and Bill Mowat, UncommonGoods

Celebrate your home state with a bamboo cutting board created by New York-based woodworkers Amy Stringer-Mowat and Bill Mowat. You can see all the available state shapes in this PDF.

Find it: UncommonGoods

8. Voodoo Doll; $20

Pull out this voodoo doll-shaped board when you're feeling a little vindictive. You can hack away at meats and cheese and then store the knife appropriately in the wooden doll's back.

Find it: Overstock.com

9. Ampersand; $48

Delight your guests with some knowledge about where the ampersand comes from while using this board, which lets you fill a twisting line of crackers around three different cheeses.

Find it: UncommonGoods

10. Say Cheese; $19

A cheese board shaped like a smiling mouth

Fred & Friends, Amazon

Smile! It's cheese time. This mouth-shaped cheese board looks just as happy about the selection as you do. Underneath all the food, the board says "say cheese" in the center.

Find it: Amazon

11. The Obsessive Chef; $27

A cutting board with measurements on it

Fred & Friends, Amazon

This product comes with a series of lines to guide the cutter, including how to medium dice, small dice, brunoise, fine brunoise, batonnet, allumette, julienne, and fine julienne. The lines are burnished instead of printed, so they'll never get worn away.

Find it: Amazon or at one of the retailers below:

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

A version of this article first ran in 2017. It has been updated to reflect current availability.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER