6 Famous Female Entrepreneurs Who Started With Nothing and Built an Empire

In a world where entrepreneurship has historically been seen as a “boys’ club,” female entrepreneurs have had to overcome immense barriers to carve out a place for themselves. However, in 2023, 42% of all businesses in the U.S. are owned by women, and roughly half of all U.S. startups are founded by women.

From humble beginnings against a backdrop of gender disparities and unequal opportunities, these six exceptional female entrepreneurs featured below have defied conventional wisdom, defied societal norms, and pushed past the limitations imposed upon them to build their empires from scratch.

Jean Brownhill Lauer

Jean Brownhil Lauer’s love of architecture allowed her to work hard to become the leading entrepreneur she is today. Growing up, her family could not afford to put her through college, but Lauer persevered. Lauer was the Senior Manager of Global Architecture at Coach. She was also one of the recipients of the Loeb Fellowship from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design in 2011.

She is the founder and owner of the startup firm Sweeten, an intermediary between homeowners, small business owners, architects, and contractors. Lauer is also the co-founder and Chairwoman of the African American Student Union at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

Elle Kaplan transformed her struggle into success when she became an entrepreneur. Kaplan’s mother struggled with finances when her father, who was the breadwinner, slipped into a coma. She witnessed her mother’s struggle after becoming the head of the family, inspiring her to take an interest in finance.

Elle Kaplan

Kaplan attended the University of Michigan and earned her bachelor’s degrees in English and Chemistry. She also received her Executive master’s degree in finance from Columbia University.

Kaplan’s hard work and determination landed her a job on Wall Street. During her time there, Kaplan had to work with Princeton graduates. In 2010, Kaplan launched LexION Capital, a money management firm. Kaplan is also the Chief Investment Officer of the quantitative hedge fund Elle Capital.

Kat Cole

Before becoming the incredibly successful and famous entrepreneur she is today, Kat Cole started from the very bottom. Cole was born and raised in Florida. She struggled with a troubled childhood and early teenhood, growing up with an alcoholic father. Cole’s mother was the one who worked and was able to feed the family on $10 a week.

Because of this situation, Cole started working when she was 15. Cole worked three jobs to pay her bills.

At 17 years old, Cole worked as a waitress at Hooters, where she met new people and was introduced to the business world. The franchise sent her all over the world to open new restaurants. In less than 10 years, Cole became the vice president of Hooters at 26 years old.

Cole worked her way up and later became the president of the popular retail bakery company Cinnabon. She was also the youngest CEO to star in Undercover Boss. Cole is now the Chief Operating Officer of Cinnabon’s parent company, Focus Brands, and is one of the most influential female entrepreneurs today.

Indra Nooyi

Indra Nooyi was born and raised in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India. She completed her early studies there, receiving a bachelor’s degree in Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics. Nooyi left for the US to pursue higher studies, attending the Yale School of Management.

As she wasn’t as well-off as her peers, Nooyi had to work through her studies. Her hard work paid off, and she received her master’s degree in public and private management.

After graduating, Nooyi worked with several companies, including Johnson & Johnson, in the early days of her career. While attending the Yale School of Management, Nooyi completed a summer internship with Booz Allen Hamilton. In 1980, Nooyi also worked with the Boston Consulting Group and then at Motorola as its vice president and Director of Corporate Strategy and Planning.

In 1994, Nooyi joined Pepsi Co. She worked her way up after joining the company until she became its CEO in 2006. Nooyi is the first woman to lead the company, where she restructured its global strategy. She is also its longest CEO, having stayed in the position for 12 years until 2018.

Ursula Burns

Ursula Burns is another female entrepreneur who worked her way up. Having grown up in social housing in New York, Burns’s mother worked two jobs to support her children’s education. Her mother ran a daycare center and also took different cleaning jobs.

Burns pursued a degree in mechanical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. She pursued her master’s degree at Columbia University and then an internship at Xerox. It was her hard work and dedication to succeed that paved the way for her to achieve greater success.

Having started as an intern for a multinational company, she became its Chief Executive Officer in 2009. Burns also made history by being the first Black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company. Burns has also worked in senior positions in companies like VEON and Uber.

Oprah Winfrey

When it comes to famous female entrepreneurs, Oprah Winfrey was and still is a household name. Without her and her remarkable achievements, no list of female entrepreneurs would be complete. But her story is just as inspiring.

Winfrey was born into poverty in inner-city Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She faced the most traumatic experience of her life growing up as she was sexually assaulted and raped. Winfrey’s mother sent her to Nashville, Tennessee, to live with her father, where she was inspired to excel.

Winfrey had to work at an early age to support herself. Despite the troubled circumstances she was born into, Winfrey started work in local media in junior positions. Winfrey later moved to Chicago to be a presenter for AM Chicago.

The show was an overnight success. Winfrey would later host her iconic talk show, all the while establishing a media empire. Today, Winfrey’s net worth is over $2.9 billion. She is also one of the most influential women entrepreneurs.

Published in Career, Featured Articles, Featured Women
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Emily Sprinkle, also known as Emma Loggins, is a designer, marketer, blogger, and speaker. She is the Editor-In-Chief for Women's Business Daily where she pulls from her experience as the CEO and Director of Strategy for Excite Creative Studios, where she specializes in web development, UI/UX design, social media marketing, and overall strategy for her clients.

Emily has also written for CNN, Autotrader, The Guardian, and is also the Editor-In-Chief for the geek lifestyle site FanBolt.com