Who runs the world? Girls!
While a lot of people are still under the impression that female entrepreneurship is a fairly recent and still emerging phenomenon, women have been entrepreneurial since ancient times, if not always. Unfortunately, they were not recognized in history as much as their male counterparts due to social notions and norms of propriety during their times. Many accounts of female entrepreneurs have been lost to history, but of those that survive, we are here to present you with the stories of four iconic women in history that carved a niche for themselves.
1. Khadijah bint Khuwaylid
Khadijah bint Khuwaylid, often referred to as Khadija-al-Kubra or “Khadija the Great”, was an able businesswoman and the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad. The two first met when 25-year-old Muhammad entered the employment of Khadijah bint Khuwaylid as one of her trading agents.
Born to a wealthy merchant family, she was an educated and intelligent woman who took over the reins of her family’s business after her father passed away in battle. Not only did she run her family business efficiently, but with her sharp business acumen, she also expanded it far and wide. In his work Tabaqat vol. 8 (translated as The Women of Madina), Muhammad ibn Saad claims that her trading caravans alone equaled the rest of the Qurayshi traders put together. There is even a saying that her prowess was such that she could trade a handful of dust for gold!
She was a good judge of character and would delegate her business endeavors to capable individuals who traded on her behalf in distant locations. She was a highly-competent leader and would respect the counsel of her family members and advisors while maintaining the final say in her decisions. Her appreciation for talent, integrity and honesty in one’s work made her take note of Muhammad when her trusted servants spoke highly of his skill in trade and his honorable conduct.
Mariam-uz-Zamani, more commonly known as Jodha Bai, was the Empress of India and the Rajput consort of the Mughal emperor Akbar. As empress, Mariam-uz-Zamani was a woman of great privilege and means. Mughal women were the beneficiaries of generous allowances and gifts and could also own land and collect revenue from it. Yet, instead of idly squandering her wealth, she used her business sense to bring forth even more prosperity for her people.
She laid the foundation for international trade in the realm by commissioning a fleet of ships to be built. The Mughals were descendants of landlocked countries and could not understand the wisdom of strong naval prowess. Still, upon her insistence, Emperor Akbar approved of Mariam-uz-Zamani’s building of trade ships. These ships would carry pilgrims to Mecca for the holy journey of Hajj while also carrying cargos of silk and several spices to trade for gold, silver, gems and other commodities. She was the owner and patron of the Rahimi and Ganj-I-Sawai ships, some of the largest trading vessels to traverse the seas at the time.
Her entrepreneurial mindset was passed on to her granddaughter, princess Jahanara Begum, who became a great patron of arts and commerce. She is best known for creating the Chandni Chawk market, which, in its prime, saw merchants and traders from all over the world.
3. Madam C.J. Walker
The first freeborn child of enslaved parents, Madam C.J. Walker (born Sarah Breedlove), faced a difficult childhood and youth. She became an orphan at seven years old; by 1912, at age 46, she had been once widowed and twice divorced. At the time of her passing, aged 51, she had firmly cemented her place as the first self-made female millionaire in American history.
As an impoverished laundress, Breedlove suffered from malnourishment. The lack of means to maintain proper hygiene afflicted her with ailments of the scalp, from which she lost a substantial amount of hair. Upon experimenting with formulating various methods of hairdressing and scalp care, she successfully created products that helped her regrow her hair.
Breedlove’s target audience for her hair grower was black, working-class women. They faced similar issues as her when trying to care for their hair, as there lacked products on the market that could cater to their hair texture. Breedlove sold her products to fellow Black women by offering them free treatment with the product they purchased. Wishing to look presentable to hold more respectable, better-paying jobs, many urban Black women tried out her products.
Her strategy was immensely successful, and her business grew steadily. She employed agents to sell her products across the United States. She became vastly wealthy from her business and styled herself “Madam C.J. Walker” —“Madam” after the female pioneers of the French beauty industry of the time, and “C.J. Walker” after her then-husband and business partner, Charles Joseph Walker.
Madam C.J. Walker continued to diversify and expand her business internationally while sparing no expense in skill training her employees and agents. At home, she used the wealth she acquired to uplift her community. She funded scholarships for promising African American students and bankrolled orphanages, community buildings and institutes. Her story was recently adapted into a Netflix series called “Self Made”, starring Octavia Spencer in the lead role of the madam.
4) Joyce Chen
Born in Beijing in 1917 as Liao Chia-ai, Joyce Chen immigrated to Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the United States with her husband and two older children in 1949. In 1958, Chen opened her first restaurant, Joy Chen Restaurant, in Cambridge. Her Chinese cooking was in great demand because many Chinese students at Harvard and MIT missed the taste of their native cuisine in a country that was largely unfamiliar with it.
Seeing the potential of the acceptance of Chinese cuisine in the region, Chen began to operate a buffet-style restaurant serving American and Chinese foods side-by-side to encourage everyone to try Chinese dishes. To familiarize Americans with Chinese food, she created Americanized names for Chinese dishes for the English menu. Each dish was also numbered to facilitate the interaction between the staff and customers.
Chen had many remarkable accomplishments in her career. Besides coining the term “Peking Ravioli” for a dish called Potstickers, she also popularized now well-known Chinese dishes, such as Peking Duck, Moo Shi Pork, Scallion Pancake, Soup Dumplings and Hot and Sour Soup. Chen holds the patent for the flat-bottomed steel Wok or the “Peking Wok” that she introduced to the American audience in 1971. She is also responsible for the concept of selling bottled Chinese sauces in the market. In 1962, she self-published her landmark cookbook, The Joyce Chen Cook Book, one of the first cookbooks to have full color images of each dish.
The massive success of her cookbook and the cooking classes she held at the Cambridge Adult Education Center led Chen to host a PBS show, Joyce Chen Cooks. It was the first national show in American history to have a host of Asian origin. Joyce Chen Foods, the chef’s brand, is still around and influential, headed by Chen’s youngest son, Mr. Stephen Chen as the company’s president. On September 26, 2014, the United States Postal Service included Joyce Chen in its Celebrity Chef Forever stamp series. She was one of the five chefs featured in the series who revolutionized the cuisine space in the United States.
Those are only a few of the many accomplished, enterprising, ambitious women who have achieved great things, in their own way, in their own time. We share their stories with you in hopes of showing the coming generations of female entrepreneurs that their roots run deep. History has borne witness to these iconic women and their determination to succeed. When it is your time, we hope it will also bear witness to your story too.
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