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11 Businesses You Might Not Know Were Started By Women

The National Association of Women Business Owners reported in 2015 that there were more than 9.1 million women-owned firms in the U.S. generating $1.4 trillion in sales—a huge number, considering just a few decades ago most working women were either secretaries, teachers, or clerks (though, those jobs are still very popular). But 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:

1. KIKKOMAN

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, 350 years later Kikkoman is still making a version of the stuff.

2. FLICKR

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 more than 13 billion 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.

3. SPANX

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

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 yearly 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

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 $140 billion.

6. PROACTIV

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 Rodan and Fields’ skincare line into a household name.

7. 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

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

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

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 60 countries.

11. RENT THE RUNWAY

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’ high-tech interface and recently added Unlimited subscription have kept the company growing, and in 2016 Hyman and Fleiss' novel concept broke $100 million in revenue.

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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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