Ahead of International Women’s Day, we share the 21 most inspiring and enduring Forbes articles on the female entrepreneurs, executives and leaders who have defined the 21st century so far.
By Maggie McGrath, Forbes Staff
On the cover of its very first issue in 1917, Forbes announced a “unique department” on women in business. It would be, the magazine explained, a regular column edited by two women.
It was a bold move for the time, having women journalists profile female business leaders when none of them even had the right to vote. But the head start hardly meant consistent coverage over the years. After all, it wasn’t until October 1990 that a solo female entrepreneur graced the cover of Forbes: Madonna, with rhinestone dollar signs glinting off her hot-pink costume and the headline “America’s Smartest Business Woman?”
Times have since changed for the better with the magazine and, later, website featuring countless stories on women who’ve risen above systemic barriers and who’ve overcome bankruptcy to run companies and build their nine- and ten-figure dollar businesses. In the past two decades, our coverage of the women founding companies and growing fortunes has blossomed into franchises that include America’s Richest Self-Made Women, The World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, and online articles posted every hour, every day, on ForbesWomen.
And so, on the first weekend of Women’s History Month—and on the eve of International Women’s Day—we wanted to highlight the 21 pieces that have defined the 21st century. Here, in chronological order, are our best women’s business stories of the last 21 years.
March 20, 2000
by Peter Kafka
Britney Spears was 18 years old and had already earned $15 million in a year when Forbes profiled her in 2000. (A year later, she would appear on the cover of the Celebrity 100 issue, where she debuted at No. 4). “Once you have fans, they want you to succeed,” Spears told Kafka. “I don’t think I’ll have any problems.” In light of the recent drama surrounding Spears’ control over her finances, her words from 20 years ago seem both prophetic and sad. Her fans have been the driving force behind the #FreeBritney campaign to end the conservatorship controlled by her father. But her problems? She has had many.
October 17, 2004
by Mary Ellen Egan
By the time Forbes sat down with Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, the biotech CEO was already India’s richest woman, worth $480 million. Her journey to that point wasn’t easy: when she started Biocon in 1978 she couldn’t find anyone to work for her, and bankers turned down her request for a $10,000 line of credit. “It wasn’t a glass ceiling that Mazumdar-Shaw ran into but a concrete one,” Egan wrote. Today, Mazumdar-Shaw is worth $4.1 billion and is No. 68 on Forbes’ list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women.
May 11, 2007
by Erika Brown
Long before Quibi—the billion-dollar bet that went belly-up for Whitman in 2020—and before her stint at Hewlett-Packard, Whitman was the person who grew eBay from $5.7 million to $8 billion in sales and took it public six months into her decade stint as CEO. By the time Brown caught up with her in 2007, she had already been at the helm for 9 years. “I’m a better leader, a better manager, a better executive than when I arrived as a youngster,” she said at the time. “I have learned how to manage a company that reinvents itself every couple of years.”
March 7, 2012
by Clare O’Connor
No other CEO has stripped down to a lacy taupe bra and then taken it off in front of a Forbes reporter, as Blakely did one day in 2012. But Blakely has no problem getting half-naked for the sake of her now famous shapewear brand Spanx. “I’m game for anything,” Blakely told O’Connor. “The company has to pull me back.” That fearlessness has helped turn its founder and sole owner into one of America’s most famous female entrepreneurs. When not product testing undergarments, Blakely is a frequent guest on Shark Tank and at women-in-business events.
September 18, 2012
by Clare O’Connor
Oprah Winfrey is more often the interviewer than interviewee, but the former TV host opened up to Forbes about one of her most important projects: the school she built in South Africa. “It started out as an emotional giveback,” Winfrey said. “It has developed into a way of life for me. What it really is, is an investment in leadership and an investment in the future of a country.” More recently, the 67-year-old self-made billionaire was reportedly paid some $7 million in licensing fees for her March 7 televised interview with Prince Harry and Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle.
September 16, 2013
by Clare O’Connor
When Alice Walton, heiress of the Walmart fortune, opened a $500 million art center in Bentonville, Ark., she had her share of critics. “There was a lot of skepticism about what Alice and her family were up to, and whether it was a vanity project,” says the museum’s director, Don Bacigalupi. “It built into Alice an awareness of the prejudices against a small town and the South and all of that.” But her commitment to building up such an impressive collection and bringing it to an overlooked spot in the country slowly brought out fans—and ensured her legacy.
May 28, 2014
by Joann Muller
Mary Barra was facing down an urgent test of leadership when Muller profiled her in 2014. Her ascension as the first female CEO of a Big Three automaker was overshadowed by an ignition recall in more than two million GM vehicles; the faulty part had led to 31 accidents and killed 13 people. The company had run through five CEOs in the prior six years, too, giving way to legitimate questions about whether Barra’s time in the CEO suite would be short lived. Barra proved her mettle, steering the company through the recall crisis, and, more recently, a global pandemic. Now her eye is on an electric future: Barra recently announced plans to exclusively offer electric vehicles by 2035.
June 29, 2015
by Zack O’Malley Greenburg
Forbes caught up with the pop princess in Rome near the end of her lucrative year-and-a-half-long Prismatic World Tour, which included a Super Bowl halftime performance (viewed on live TV by a record 118.5 million people). “I am proud of my position as a boss, as a person that runs my own company,” said Perry. “I’m an entrepreneur. … I don’t want to shy away from it. I actually want to kind of grab it by its balls.” Her albums, she explained, were launching pads to other things—music videos, lucrative touring, and even equity stakes in brands with which she partnered.
November 23, 2015
The First Woman Of Women: How Melinda Gates Became The World’s Most Powerful Advocate For Women And Girls
by Caroline Howard
Five years after this Forbes cover story lauded Gates’ advocacy for women and girls around the world, Gates’ philanthropy is more important than ever. She’s poured money into gender equity initiatives and Covid vaccine and treatment research, and she’s been outspoken about the caregiving crisis that has pushed more than two million women out of the American workforce. “I kept looking for the advocate who would champion these issues,” she told Howard in 2015 about her decision to start speaking out on these issues. “But I couldn’t find the one who embodied to me the voice of women around the world. And so I thought, ‘If I’m the one, then I just need to do it. I have to have courage and not worry.’”
Breaking Barriers And Engaging Billions
In 2018, then-Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi and actress and activist Priyanka Chopra got candid about growing up in India, building careers—and massive audiences—in the United States, and the advice that led to their success.
June 1, 2016
by Ryan Mac
A rare female CEO in Silicon Valley, Katrina Lake made her mark creating Stitch Fix, an online shopping company that leveraged data science and human stylists to pick out personalized outfits for busy working women like herself. “The concept has always been personalization,” explained Lake. “There are millions and millions of products out there…trying to figure out which one is best for you is really the challenge.” Less than five years later, her tech-enabled fashion company is worth more than $7 billion and Lake herself is a fixture on our list of America’s Richest Self-Made women. Her company’s soaring stock even briefly pushed her into billionaire territory, thanks to her 10% holding.
May 17, 2017
by Chloe Sorvino
Jamie Kern Lima was undoubtedly the IT girl of the then-$445 billion beauty industry: The world’s biggest beauty company, L’Oréal, paid $1.2 billion in cash for Lima’s IT Cosmetics in August 2016. Lima pocketed an estimated $410 million after taxes and stayed on to run IT for 3 years, making her the first female CEO of any of L’Oréal’s brands in its 108-year history. Since cashing out, she has invested some proceeds in 12 women-led businesses and recently published a book about her journey.
November 14, 2017
by Clare O’Connor
Whitney Wolfe Herd flipped traditional dating dynamics by letting women make the first move. Bumble, which she cofounded in 2004, was so successful so quickly that Wolfe Herd allegedly rebuffed a $450 million buyout offer from the Match Group in early 2017. Smart move: by holding on to the company she founded, Wolfe Herd was able to take it public in February; she became the world’s youngest female self-made billionaire and the youngest female CEO to ever take a company public in the U.S.
Powerful Insights From A Singular Leader
In 2019, Christine Lagarde—then the head of the International Monetary Fund, now the president of the European Central Bank—spoke at the Forbes Women’s Summit about the many firsts of her career and how we can close the gender gap in institutions around the world.
July 12, 2018
by Lauren Debter
Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic are among the best-known space ventures in the country, but don’t count out Sierra Nevada, a business that is wholly owned by Turkish immigrants Eren Ozmen and her husband, Fatih. The couple came to America for graduate school in the early 1980s and acquired Sierra Nevada, the small defense company where they both worked, for less than $5 million in 1994, using their house as collateral. By the time Forbes profiled the company, it was the biggest female-owned government contractor in the country, and Ozmen was one of the nation’s richest female entrepreneurs. “Look at the United States and what women can do here, compared to the rest of the world,” she said at the time. “That is why we feel we have a legacy to leave behind.”
October 10, 2018
Exclusive: In-N-Out Billionaire Lynsi Snyder Opens Up About Her Troubled Past And The Burger Chain’s Future
by Chloe Sorvino
A burger chain that has managed to become both a cult favorite and food industry icon, In-N-Out has been run by Lynsi Synder, the granddaughter of the joint’s original founders, for a decade. Snyder is an unlikely shepherd of her family’s business, tapped after her uncle’s untimely death: she never graduated from college and lost her father to drug abuse, and battled through a period of alcohol and drug use. But she stepped up and made sure to maintain her family’s legacy. “It’s not [about] adding new products. Or thinking of the next bacon-wrapped this or that. We’re making the same burger, the same fry,” she told Sorvino in a rare interview. “I really wanted to make sure that we stayed true to what we started with. That required me to become a protector. A guardian.”
November 20, 2018
Next Billion-Dollar Startups: How Two Young Entrepreneurs Used Relentless Online Marketing To Build Away Into A $700M Luggage Brand
by Amy Feldman
Away luggage was inspired by every traveler’s worst nightmare (in a pre-pandemic world): Jen Rubio, an early Warby Parker employee, was rushing through the Zurich airport when her suitcase broke; she had to stuff her clothes and duct-tape it back together. “I started thinking, How do we do what Warby Parker did for glasses?” Rubio said in 2018. She and a fellow Warby Parker alum Steph Korey founded the direct-to-consumer brand in 2015; two years later it was profitable and by mid-2019, it was worth more than $1 billion.
June 3, 2019
by Kurt Badenhausen
Serena Williams is a Grand Slam champion and, without question, one of the greatest athletes of all time. But what she is doing with her fame and fortune is transforming her into a force off the court. In April 2019, she officially launched Serena Ventures,through which she had quietly invested in 34 startups over the prior five years. That April, she became the first athlete ever named to Forbes’ list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women, with an estimated fortune of $225 million. “I want to be in the infrastructure,” Williams said. “I want to be the brand, instead of just being the face.”
June 6, 2019
Live Long And Prosper: How Anne Wojcicki’s 23andMe Will Mine Its Giant DNA Database For Health And Wealth
by Biz Carson and Kathleen Chaykowski
A very pregnant Anne Wojcicki bounded through 23andMe’s open offices 18 months ago, fired up to talk about her bold ambitions for her personal genomics and biotech company. The ex-wife of billionaire Sergey Brin explained how she planned to leverage 23andMe’s massive DNA library to fuel a “biotech machine” that would not just link genetic predispositions to certain diseases but also help create drugs to treat those diseases. When Covid hit, she made sure 23andMe also began asking its users about their weight, activity levels, health conditions and experience getting sick with Covid. By January 2021, the company released a tool that it says can predict a person’s likelihood of developing a severe case of the disease.
June 25, 2019
by Madeline Berg
If at first you don’t succeed, try again. And if you still don’t succeed, well, try some more. That’s how twice-bankrupt Suzy Batiz turned Poo-Pourri toilet spray into a $240 million fortune. Batiz, who grew up poor in rural Arkansas and declared her first bankruptcy at age 21, managed to join the ranks of America’s Richest Self-Made Women in 2019 thanks to the brand’s clever marketing and its subsequent explosive growth. “There’s a lot of stuff to worry about in life,” says Batiz. “Bathroom odor should not be one of them.”
December 11, 2019
Canva Uncovered: How A Young Australian Kitesurfer Built A $3.2 Billion (Profitable!) Startup Phenom
by Alex Konrad
Canva began as a modest yearbook-design business in Perth, the city on Australia’s west coast. It’s grown into a design juggernaut under the diligent guidance of Melanie Perkins. At the time of Konrad’s profile of Canva, 20 million-plus users from 190 countries were using the company’s “freemium” Web-based app to design everything from splashy graphics to restaurant menus. It wasn’t so easy at first: After hearing “no” from more than 100 investors, Perkins took up kitesurfing as a way to woo venture capitalists in town from Sand Hill Road. “It was like, risk: serious damage; reward: start company,” Perkins recalled. “If you get your foot in the door just a tiny bit, you have to kind of wedge it all the way in.”
March 6, 2020
Women Supporting Women: The Inspiring Story Behind One Of The 20th Century’s Least-Appreciated Innovations—The Sports Bra
by Maggie McGrath
What started as a joke between two friends about men’s jockstraps turned into an undergarment that would help generations of women make giant strides toward equality on courts, tracks and fields around the country. For inventor Lisa Lindahl, creating the sports bra did more than make her runs a little less painful: it kept her financially solvent through a divorce, too. “I was trying to think about how am I going to be a woman alone and not be married and make a living,” she noted. “I was just solving my own problem, and I thought, well, my sister needed it and I bet other women did, so I’ll start this little mail order business on the side.”
June 26, 2020
by Ruth Umoh
A third-generation Mexican American, Irma Olguin Jr is the granddaughter and daughter of field laborers and the first in her family to go to college. She’s also building a tech hub in Fresno that has taught nearly 5,000 people—everyone from veterans to folks with criminal records—how to code. When Umoh spoke with Olguin in June 2020, the company had $27 million in venture funding. By February 2021, that number had more than tripled to $100 million, and its valuation has doubled to an estimated $200 million.