Most posts on The Story Exchange feature modern-day female entrepreneurs, but what about historic women whose startup stories have been forgotten — or were never really known in the first place? From postmasters to fashion designers, chefs to computer programmers, these diverse and successful women deserve to be celebrated for their accomplishments.
In honor of Women’s History Month, here are 8 of their stories.
1. The Woman Who Planted Indigo: Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-1793)
Thank This Woman For: Your Blue Jeans
Every U.S. history textbook ever printed probably includes the words “Eli Whitney” and “cotton gin” in the Industrial Revolution section. But what about “Eliza Pinckney” and “the first successful indigo cultivation that built a multimillion-dollar cash crop industry”?
When most girls her age were preparing for marriage, 16-year-old Pinckney was managing three slave plantations in South Carolina. Determined to reduce her family’s debt, she tried growing ginger, alfalfa and other experimental crops to little success. Then, in 1739, she planted the first North American indigo plant, which was used to dye textile fabrics in England’s mills. With the help of her father’s connections, Pinckney learned how to successfully grow, cultivate, and export indigo. By 1775, South Carolina was exporting over 1 million pounds of indigo annually, with a present-day value of over $30 million.
Fun Fact: George Washington served as a pallbearer at her funeral.
2. The Woman Who Published the Declaration: Mary Katherine Goddard (1738-1816)
Thank This Woman for: Your Independence
Most people know who wrote the Declaration of Independence, and some know who signed it. But who published it? Mary Goddard, Baltimore’s first postmaster, and likely the U.S. government’s first female employee.
Goddard made her name as publisher of The Maryland Journal for 10 years while also managing Baltimore’s post office during the Revolutionary War. In 1777, Goddard printed the first copy of the Declaration with the identities of the signers revealed — a huge political moment that brought the signer’s names into fame while hers sank into obscurity. In 1784, her brother, William, forced her out of the family business and took over her position as publisher of the Maryland Journal. Five years later, she was fired as postmaster because the new postmaster general, Samuel Osgood, claimed “more travelling might be necessary than a woman could undertake.”
Fun Fact: For those living in Baltimore, the Rite-Aid at 125 E. Baltimore Street is the most probable location of Goddard’s print shop in 1777.
3. The Woman Who Grew Hair: Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919)
Thank This Woman For: The African-American Hair Product Industry
To cut a long story short, Madam C.J. Walker was the first American woman to become a self-made millionaire. Orphaned at 7, married at 14, and widowed at 20, she was a single mother earning $1.50 a day as a washerwoman. Two decades later, she owned a million-dollar hair-care empire. How did she “do” it?
Born Sarah Breedlove, she was the first in her family to be born into freedom, but it hardly made her career any easier. According to Time magazine, even the idea that launched her entrepreneurial success arose out of hardship: she realized she was losing hair. In the 1890s she relocated to Denver (where, apparently, black women’s hair suffered from the dry climate) and developed a hair growth formula which she turned into a lucrative line of hair products: “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” Off the heels of her products’ success, she expanded into more cosmetic markets from shampoos to cold creams to hot combs. All the while, she went door to door, placed ads in newspapers, trained specialized “Walker agents,” invested thousands in her company when others wouldn’t and displayed the kind of business acumen most MBAs would drool at. It’s safe to say she got her life straightened out.
Fun fact: The house she lived in during her later years, designed by an African-American architect, was in upstate New York in Irvington, the same neighborhood as those of fellow entrepreneurial tycoons Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller.
4. The Woman Who Created The Little Black Dress: Coco Chanel (1883-1971)
Thank This Woman For: Pants, Perfume, and Purging Corsets
Sold in stores, plastered on billboards, displayed on covers, and worn by society’s elite, her brand – like her name – has become ubiquitous in the fashion industry. She’s already cemented her legacy as one of the most iconic fashion designers of all time, but who was Coco before Chanel?
Her early years were anything but glamorous. Born Gabrielle Chanel, she was raised by nuns in a Catholic orphanage in France, where she first learned how to sew. She went on to pursue a career as a seamstress but also enjoyed a brief stint as a singer, during which she received her famous nickname, “Coco.” In 1910, she opened her first millinery; in 1913, her first boutique. As her business took the fashion industry by storm, she continued to design clothing (often inspired by menswear) that changed the way women dressed forever. To replace handheld purses, she invented the shoulder handbag; she would also popularize women’s trousers, the ever-so comfortable “little black dress,” and accessories such as costume jewelry and perfume. Women everywhere fell in love with Chanel’s elegant but simple style, ditching their corsets for a more comfortable and practical wardrobe. By 1919, her brand reached worldwide acclaim, and one thing was for certain: Chanel (and Coco) would never go out of style.
Fun fact: Coco designed the famous Chanel logo herself in the 1920s and it hasn’t changed since. Some say the interlocking C logo is an homage to Chanel’s longtime lover, Arthur Capel.
5. The Woman Who Sold Creams: Estee Lauder (1908-2004)
Thank This Woman For: Your Makeup Products
Find the proper location. When you’re angry, never put it in writing. You get more bees with honey. These “Lauderisms” from her 1985 autobiography speak volumes about the beauty queen behind a cosmetics empire. But exactly how did Estee Lauder make herself into one of the most successful brands in the world?
Born to European immigrants, Lauder learned business from working in her father’s hardware store and her uncle’s skin-care product laboratory. In 1933, she continued to refine her uncle’s creams and gave free demonstrations at salons, hotels, and on the street — her early talent for marketing and merchandising would pay off. Lauder officially formed her company in 1946 and concocted her creams in a Manhattan restaurant-turned-factory. As a pioneer in giveaway promotions, much of Lauder’s success came from word-of-mouth, or what she called “Tell-A-Woman” advertising. Her products ultimately sold themselves in upscale department stores, and she expanded her brand to include perfumes and a men’s line and gained international success.
Fun Fact: Lauder was famous for her “guerilla sales” method and creative tactics. When the manager at the Galeries Lafayette store in Paris refused to stock her products, she “accidentally” spilled her famous fragrance “Youth Dew” during a demonstration. The scent quickly aroused customer interest, which caused the manager to finally cave in.
6. The Woman Who Cooked Chinese Food: Joyce Chen (1917-1994)
Thank This Woman For: The Peking Wok
She’s been described as the Chinese Julia Child, but maybe Julia Child should be described as the American Joyce Chen. Joyce’s face is on the cover of a U.S. postage stamp, her name scrawled across influential cookbooks, and her special sauces sold in stores across the country. The question is, where does her culinary dynasty begin?
From a young age, Chen learned to cook Chinese cuisine by watching her family’s chef in the kitchen. During the Chinese Communist Revolution, she and her family immigrated to Massachusetts, where she often cooked for Chinese students who missed food from home. In 1958, she opened her first restaurant that served buffet-style Chinese and American meals to encourage customers to try new dishes. To bridge the language gap, she also created a menu with both English and Chinese translations and numbered items which made it easier to order. Her successes led her to star in a PBS cooking show (in the same studio as fellow Bostonian chef Julia Child’s show) as she popularized Chinese-American meals like “Peking Duck,” “Scallion Pancake,” and “Hot and Sour Soup.” Eventually, she began to sell her brand of cookware in stores, which included her patented Peking Wok, a flat-bottom stir fry pan.
Fun Fact: A “Festival of Dumplings” is held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, every year to honor her birthday.
7. The Woman Who Wrote Code…for Rockets: Annie Easley (1933-2011)
Thank This Woman For: Hybrid Cars
Easley never planned to become a rocket scientist. When she graduated as valedictorian in high school, she set out to major in pharmacy at college. Then, in 1955, she read a newspaper article about women who worked as “human computers” for NACA (NASA’s predecessor). She applied, was hired, and spent the next 34 years of her life contributing to the aerospace industry. Who was this hidden figure?
Following her graduation, Easley — hired as one of the four African-African employees at NACA — began her career doing calculations for researchers. When human computers were eventually replaced by machines, she learned a handful of programming languages and worked as a computer programmer for NASA’s Centaur rocket project which set the technological stage for the Space Shuttle. Her work also paved the way for the development of modern hybrid cars. In the 1970s, she finally earned her mathematics degree from Cleveland State. A firm believer in education, she participated in school tutoring programs to encourage female and minority students to pursue STEM careers.
Fun fact: Late in her career, Easley became an equal employment opportunity counselor to combat workplace discrimination and even made a pact with her supervisor to wear pantsuits to work.
8. The Woman Who Took A Seat On Wall Street: Muriel Siebert (1928-2013)
Thank This Woman For: Your Stock Portfolio
The First Lady of the White House may vary, but there’s only one First Lady of Wall Street: Muriel Siebert. Siebert, or “Mickie,” as people called her, is best known for being the first woman elected to the New York Stock Exchange in 1967. During an era and in an industry that often didn’t treat women equally, Siebert broke gender barrier after barrier before ascending to the top of the financial world. How did she “bull” it off?
With only $500 in her pocket and a used car, 26-year-old Siebert moved to New York to pursue a career on Wall Street. She started as a security analyst trainee but changed jobs three times after learning that men doing the same work were being paid more. On her way up the executive ladder, she faced discrimination at every turn: she had to change her name on her resume from “Muriel Siebert” to “M.F. Siebert” to attract potential employers, she could not use building elevators, and she was denied access to the elite Manhattan social clubs. Frustrated, she decided to strike out on her own and purchase a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. The 10th man she asked agreed to sponsor her application, but only through a Catch-22 deal: she needed a bank to loan her $300,000 (the highest price any applicant had ever been asked), but no bank would lend her money without the NYSE admitting her first. Nevertheless, she persisted, got the loan, and was elected as the first woman on the NYSE and the only one for ten years after. In 1969 she founded Muriel Siebert & Company as the first woman-owned and operated brokerage firm. Not long after, she became the New York superintendent of banking for five terms — she liked to say that no New York bank ever failed during her tenure.
Fun Fact: In 1986, in an interview with Working Woman Magazine, Siebert discussed the “craziness” of Wall Street: drinking. She said, during a business meeting with “someone who likes to drink, I matched him Scotch for Scotch. There is no double standard here.”
[Related: Listen to our podcast on successful women entrepreneurs.]