Trailblazers in heels: Celebrating women entrepreneurs of the past on Business Women's Day

Women entrepreneurs have boldly disrupted the status quo, leaving their mark and creating significant impact across diverse domains of life. So, today, we reflect back on the first women entrepreneurs from across the globe.

Trailblazers in heels: Celebrating women entrepreneurs of the past on Business Women's Day

Friday September 22, 2023,

5 min Read

Scriptures and studies attest to the roots of entrepreneurship tracing back to the ancient Vedic ages, taking flight in the Indian subcontinent in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

Women entrepreneurs have boldly disrupted the status quo, leaving their mark and creating significant impact across diverse domains of life.

YourStory continues to showcase the unheard success stories of startups and entrepreneurs. So, today, on Business Women's Day, we reflect on the lesser-known women entrepreneurs from across the globe who were trailblazers for entrepreneurial greats like Falguni Nayar, Oprah Winfrey, and Marissa Mayer.

Madame C.J. Walker

Madame C.J. Walker

Born as Sarah Breedlove, Madame C.J. Walker emerged from enslavement to entrepreneurship, the first member of her family to gain financial independence.

As noted by Time magazine, her entrepreneurial spark was ignited by adversity—a troublesome scalp ailment that caused her to lose most of her hair.

Walker, orphaned at the tender age of 7, shattered the glass ceiling to become the US's first Black female millionaire; all thanks to her groundbreaking line of hair care products. In 1905, she introduced "Madam Walker's Wonderful Hair Grower," a scalp-healing marvel that sold like hotcakes. 

By 1908, she established a factory and a beauty school in Pittsburgh, catapulting her enterprise to remarkable success. By 1910, the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company was raking in profits that, in today's terms, equate to several million dollars.

She relocated her business to Indianapolis, Indiana, establishing it as the epicentre of the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.

In 1917, Walker convened one of the earliest national gatherings of businesswomen in Philadelphia—the Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention to nurture the notion of women entrepreneurship.

Her journey to becoming the original “self-made woman” millionaire in the US serves as an enduring testament to empowering women, particularly fellow women entrepreneurs.

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Kalpana Saroj

Kalpana Saroj

The Academy Award-winning 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire captured hearts worldwide with its heart-wrenching portrayal of the exploitation of slum kids. The film is fictional at the end of the day; but what if we say India has her very own “Slumdog Millionaire”?

A Dalit girl with an indomitable spirit, Kalpana Saroj, stands as the first woman entrepreneur in India. The CEO at Kamani Tubes with personal assets worth $112 million, Kalpana Saroj epitomises entrepreneurial transformation—from a Dalit child bride to a multi-millionaire. 

Succumbing to societal pressures, Saroj entered into marriage at the tender age of 12. Treated no better than a servant, she suffered physical abuse, starvation and incomprehensible hardship at her in-laws’ house. Having sunken deep into the depths of despair, she even attempted to end her life by ingesting pesticides. But Saroj’s family gave her another life.

Beginning with a humble job at a garment factory, Kalpana propelled her way into the world of real estate and construction with her skills. 

Recognising her prowess, the worker's union at Kamani Tubes, who shouldered massive debts, sought her leadership. Kalpana assumed charge and resurrected Kamani Tubes from the brink of collapse with her entrepreneurial acumen.

She acquired the distressed assets of the company and skillfully guided it back to profitability. Her journey underscores the notion that dreams can materialise through unwavering determination and hard work.

Her exceptional contributions in the field of trade and industries were acknowledged with the Padma Shri in 2013 and the Ninth Rajiv Gandhi Award for Women Entrepreneurs in 2006.

Eliza Lucas Pinckney

Eliza Lucas Pinckney

Nearly every US history textbook on the Industrial Revolution mentions the cotton gin and Eli Whitney. But what about Eliza Pinckney and her pioneering efforts in establishing the first multi-million-dollar indigo cultivation?

At the age of 16, while most of her peers were preparing for marriage, she assumed the remarkable responsibility of managing three South Carolina plantations. Determined to alleviate her family's financial burden, she embarked on a journey of experimentation with various crops.

But it was her first North American indigo plant in 1739 that marked a turning point in her entrepreneurial life. 

Leveraging her father's connections, Pinckney acquired the knowledge needed to successfully cultivate, nurture, and export indigo. By 1775, South Carolina had become a major exporter, shipping over one million pounds of indigo annually, which, in present-day terms, would be valued at over $30 million.

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel left an indelible mark in the world of fashion with her revolutionary women's clothing. Her creation, the iconic "little black dress," transcended the racks of stores, adorned magazine covers, and graced billboards. Yet, before she became ‘the Chanel’, who was Coco?

Her early life lacked the glamour associated with her later fame. Born Gabrielle Chanel, she grew up under the care of nuns in a Catholic orphanage in France. She began her career as a seamstress but briefly pursued singing, earning her enduring nickname, "Coco." In 1910, she started her first millinery, followed by her clothing brand in 1913.

As her enterprise swept the fashion world, Chanel continually redefined women's attire, often drawing inspiration from menswear. 

Striking a delicate balance between comfort and elegance, she innovated the women's trousers, the shoulder handbag, the now-ubiquitous ‘little black dress’, and accessories such as perfume and costume jewellery. Ditching the ‘feminine and uncomfortable’ corsets, women embraced Chanel's elegant yet simple style. 

By 1919, her brand achieved worldwide acclaim, establishing Chanel (and Coco herself) as timeless icons in the world of fashion.

As the saying goes—Rome wasn’t built in a day, the evolution of women's entrepreneurship has been a journey spanning centuries. My girlies, we’ve indeed come a long way!

Edited by Kanishk Singh