Female entrepreneurs throughout history

We look at some of the earliest female entrepreneurs and what they did

Entrepreneurship has a long and vibrant history, and though breathless media reports of the ever-increasing numbers of female entrepreneurs may make it sound like women are only just catching up, women in business are following a long tradition. Here are some of the earliest and most successful female entrepreneurs.

  • Madame Marie Tussaud found a grisly niche by becoming the maker of wax death masks. Surviving being imprisoned during the French revolution of 1787, she took her collection of the wax masks of guillotined aristocrats on a tour of Britain and established a base on Baker Street, London. The exhibition grew over years as she added more models, and she died a success in 1850 at the age of 90.


  • American Jane Addams was a 19th social entrepreneur, whose venture was a social settlement to improve the lives of people in a poor immigrant neighbourhood in Chicago. The settlement, formed in 1889, was called Hull-House, and became an institution known worldwide. She also wrote articles, lectured, personally took care of most of the fundraising, and became involved in wider efforts for social reform. If that wasn’t enough, she was also awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.


  • Gabrielle, later Coco, Chanel was born in 1883 in the workhouse where her mother worked. Her mother died when she was six, and she was virtually abandoned by her father. She had a brief career as a singer in cafes, when she adopted the name Coco, but opened her first shop, located in Paris, in 1910. Her clothes caught people’s attention and the shops quickly expanded. She was the first designer to use jersey in the 1920s and her clothes were incredibly popular with women tired of corseted fashions. The launch of Chanel No 5, the first fragrance to be named after a designer, and her little black dress, sealed her success.


  • Madam CJ Walker, born Sarah Breedlove, was the daughter of former slaves, orphaned at seven, and became America’s first black female millionaire. Born in 1867, she set up a business selling hair care products and proved herself an exceptionally accomplished businesswoman, running all aspects of a rapidly growing firm. She also became a committed philanthropist, and empowered many other women in business.


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