It’s hard to imagine the possibilities for women in business when most success stories feature white men. Let’s celebrate entrepreneurial women of color
In June 2017, Fortune announced and celebrated a “record number of women CEOs” on the Fortune 500 list. “The number of women CEOs on the Fortune 500 has increased by more than 50% – from 21 to 32,” but at the same time, “32 [out of 500] is still very, very low – just 6.4% of the list – and in no way representative of the wider population.”
Specifically, the website referred to women of color. There were only two women of color on this list – PepSiCo’s Indra Nooyi and PG&E Corporation’s Geisha Williams – with Williams being the first ever Latina CEO on the list.
The entrepreneurship world is more encouraging, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
In 2016, Time reported that, “for every 10 women-owned businesses launched since 2007, 8 were started by women of color… yet those numbers mask a complex reality… The businesses tend to be small, averaging less than $70,000 per year in revenue.”
Today, we bring you 5 success stories of women of color entrepreneurs, whose names you might not recognize, but whose journeys, courage and passion will inspire you to turn your own dreams into reality.
1) Madam C.J. Walker, a Daughter of Slaves Who Became the First African American Female Millionaire
What she’s accomplished: Madam Walker developed a haircare product to heal scalp conditions that prevented African American women’s hair from growing. She grew her company to over 20,000 salespeople, and always made sure to leverage her wealth to fight racism, which included getting involved in politics and providing scholarships to African-American students.
How she got started: A daughter of African American slaves, Madam Walker was a single mom who washed other people’s clothes to provide for her daughter. In St. Louis, Missouri of 1887, “there was no indoor plumbing… people really didn’t bathe very often,” A’Leila Bundles, Madam Walker’s great-great-granddaughter, told the Smithsonian Channel. This resulted in a severe scalp disease that led to Madam Walker’s hair loss.
According to the Smithsonian Channel, Madam Walker started mixing cleansing agents that she learned about while working. She found a solution that healed her scalp, and even mixed in perfume for a better smell. Her hair started growing back, and women started asking how she did it. So she used the bit of savings she had to bottle her lotion and sell it.
“She began to travel… mostly to the towns and cities where there was a church. She was going after African-American women, and because they were urban, they were beginning to care more about their clothing and about their presentation. She knew that this market was untapped,” Bundles shared. She offered her first customers – who bought the product for 10 cents – a free treatment. Before long, it wasn’t just Madam Walker going door to door. She built a team and started scaling the company to 20,000+ employees.
2) Farah Mohammed, a Social Profit Entrepreneur Who Got the Top Prime Ministers and Presidents of the World to Take Young Women’s Advice About Global Economic Policy
What she’s accomplished: In 2009, Mohammed founded G(20)irls at the Clinton Global Initiative to cultivate a new generation of women leaders. The organization’s flagship program, G(20)irls Summit, brings women ages 18-25 “from each G20 nation, plus a representative from the European and African Unions, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the MENA region. The delegates meet before the leaders of the world’s most powerful nations meet at the G20 Leaders’ Summit,” explains the organization’s website.
At the end of each summit, one of the delegates presents the young women’s recommendations for a gender-inclusive global economic policy to the G20 Sherpa team, who then presents it to a high-level member of that year’s hosting government.
In early 2017, Mohammed became the CEO of the Malala Fund, an organization dedicating to ensuring all girls across the world can gain at least 12 years of education. It was founded by another inspiring social entrepreneur, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Pakistani Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban when she was 15 years old for advocating for girls’ educating. After recovering, Yousafzai increased her activism efforts by founding the Malala Fund.
How she got started: According to Hearts on Fire, “instability in Uganda under Idi Amin… forced [Mohamed’s] parents to move the family to Canada when she was just two years old.”
“I was raised with a strong sense of giving back to the country that let us in,” the website quoted Mohamed, pointing to the fact that she founded G(irls)20 as a Canadian social profit organization.
According to the National Speakers Bureau, Mohammed’s “upbringing instilled her with a strong work ethic and keen sense of curiosity, which eventually culminated in her working in politics. For 10 years, [Mohammed] worked closely with some of Canada’s most senior politicians… Post politics, [Mohammed] served as Vice President, Public Affairs and Community Engagement for VON Canada, where she was successful in building government and private sector partnerships,” a skill she later used to create partnerships for G(irls)20 with organizations like Google and Nike.
Even though Mohamed didn’t study gender studies, Hearts on Fire points out that according to her LinkedIn profile, she earned a BA and MA in political science – and thus understood the economics that make it impossible for a country to thrive leveraging only what men have to offer.
3) Weili Dai, a Teen Immigrant from China Who Became a Self-Made Tech Tycoon
What she’s accomplished: According to Forbes, Dai is “the only woman co-founder of an American semiconductor company.” That company, Marvell Technology Group, is now worth over 4 billion dollars.
How she got started: When Dai immigrated with her family from China to San Francisco, she was 17 and spoke almost no English. In an interview with Forbes, she credited her success to her education – specifically to teachers and professors, and even basketball coaches, who taught her anyone can accomplish anything.
According to Forbes, Dai was on a semi-professional basketball team. Dai emphasized that sports help kids build their passion and confidence, as well as their teamwork and communications skills.
Collaboration, Dai later told the Financial Times, is critical to business – so critical in fact, that, “in the early days, I even partnered with [our competitor] Intel… You co-operate with the competition. I focused on the success of the industry overall,” she said.
The passion that she held for ssports-inspiredher to work towards a greater goal that was bigger than herself, and she never forgot how valuable education was. In those early days, she even encouraged her husband and co-founder, Sehat Sutardja, to go deeper into higher education before they started building their company. Education – a deep technological understanding, in the case of tech entrepreneurs – provides a strong foundation that lets you “truly be creative and have the freedom to create whatever innovation or product you like,” she told the Financial Times.
4) Vickie Wessel, a Pioneer in the Highly Male-Dominant Aerospace and Defense Industries
What she’s accomplished: According to Entrepreneur, the Native American Wessel founded Spirit Electronics, “an electronic components distributor serving the aerospace and defense industries… in 1979, and by 2010 boasted annual revenue of more than $32 million.” In late 2017, it was announced that Spirit America – a women and veteran owned corporation – acquired Spirit Electronics.
How she got started: In an interview with AZ Central, Wessel shared that breaking into the industry while in the 1970s wasn’t easy. For two years, she was the only woman in a sea of men – including sales reps, marketing staff and engineers – that ever attended a manufacturer’s annual meeting.
“They didn’t want me to participate in the social events that occurred in the evenings when they took all the guys out to dinner,” she told AZ Central, sharing that “we actually had one line that terminated our representation because I came to a sales meeting. They didn’t want a female there.”
But Wessel was assertive and kept showing up, and thankfully, had a boss who believed in equality and insisted that his clients talk to Wessel, even when they insisted to talk to the boss himself.
Wessel – who told AZ Big Media that she’s a single mother who worked hard to stay involved in her children’s lives – persevered despite the constant discrimination in the industry. She went up the ranks in the company and eventually founded her own company, Spirit Electronics.
5) Nely Galan, From Child Immigrant to TV Network President, to a Multi-Stream Entrepreneur that Empowers Latin American Women
What she’s accomplished: A nationwide Fortune 500 corporate speaker and real estate investor, Galan was “the first Latina president of a US television network,” according to Fast Company. That television network was Telemundo, which Wikipedia describes as an NBC television network and “the second largest provider of Spanish-language content” in the US (after Univision). In 2011, Galan founded “The Adelante Movement, which provides tools, training and events for Latina women who want to start their own businesses,” reports Time, adding that Galan “runs events across the country.”
How she got started: According to Fast Company, Galan immigrated with her family from Cuba to the US when she was only 5 years old, and grew up idolizing female Hollywood executives instead of Hollywood stars. When she was only 22 years old, she managed a TV station in New Jersey, yet unfortunately, the station got sold. After putting in so much work, she felt crushed, but decided to take charge of her own destiny.
Fast Company reports that she “started her own production company [and] consulted for networks,” but like many new entrepreneurs, she didn’t make enough money, and ended up getting a job. Except the job she accepted was running the TV network Telemundo.
But Galan, who believes entrepreneurship is a vehicle to financial independence and a way to control of your own fate, also started her own media company, Galan Entertainment. 700 original episodes in English and Spanish later, Galan now travels the country, encouraging fellow Latin American women to break old cultural stereotypes, prioritize themselves and their financial independence, and “dream a bigger dream,” reports Fast Company.
No Matter Where You Are in Life, Take One Step Today
Entrepreneurship is hard, and dropping everything to pursue your dreams is a privilege that the majority don’t have. But, as these five women proved, entrepreneurial dreams are not impossible.
It might take longer than you’d like, but you can start slowly and take baby steps, day by day. Think about it – if you take a baby step each day for the next year, you’ll be almost 400 steps closer to your dreams this time next year, and 1,000 steps closer in 2-3 years.
It doesn’t have to be huge. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t need to know everything before you begin. Just keep this in mind:
Where will you be in 3 years if you start today, and consistently take 1,000 baby steps toward your dream?