Five Incredible Women Owned Businesses throughout History

Five of History’s Incredible Women Owned Businesses

Today women are starting businesses at five times the rate of the national average, but as we all know that was not always the case. For a little motivation this Monday morning check out these five incredible women owned start-ups from the last 150 years.


1)      Martha Matilda Harper

Born in 1857, Martha Matilda Harper was the first business person ever to franchise a business. She opened Rochester, New York’s first public hair care salon in 1888 and used her floor-length hair and marketing savvy to create a thriving business. In an age when hair dressers would go to the homes of wealthy women, Harper created a new model focused on the customer experience. Not only that, but when she was ready to expand her business Harper created the very first franchising system. In 30 years she grew her franchise to over 500 shops around the globe, all of which were owned and operated by women. Harper was passionate about supporting the development of women, “I believe that the Great Achievement of the Harper Method does not consist of the large number of our shops--though the sun never sets on them… The Great Achievement of the Harper Empire is the women it has made.”


2)      Madam C.J. Walker

A trailblazer, Madam C.J. Walker showed the world what a self-made, American business woman could do in the 20th century and is likely the first African American millionaire. Starting from humble beginnings, Walker worked her way up, progressing from working in the cotton fields, to a dishwasher, to a cook. After suffering a scalp ailment Walker began developing her own line of hair products and eventually launched her own business selling “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” Utilizing Walker’s business savvy, the business flourished by using sales agents across the country. By 1910 she had built a factory, salon and school in Indianapolis. As her business thrived Walker also took on a role in the community, contributing funds to build a YMCA in Indianapolis and to support the NAACP and becoming an outspoken advocate for the African American community. By her death in 1919 at the age of 51, nearly 40,000 women had trained as sales agents and Walker had created an enduring precedent of corporate and community giving in the African American business community.


3)      Carrie Crawford Smith

Founder of the Smith Employment Agency, Carrie Crawford Smith became an advocate and leader in the Chicago community for equality and advancement for all.  She opened the agency following World War I not long after moving to Evanston, IL. The agency was the leading agency for domestic help in Chicago where Smith was known for her exacting standards and code of conduct for both her employees and her clients. Her standards are credited with helping to promote racial advancement. She was especially respected in the African-American community and was known for helping new residents to the city find jobs and transition into life in the city.  


4)      Bette Nesmith Graham

Following World War II technology raced forward and introduced the electric typewriter to the business world. As the typewriters became widespread, their users appreciated their general ease of use but found a new frustration in making corrections. The new technology made it impossible to correct mistakes with a pencil eraser. Bette Nesmith Graham was working as an executive secretary and was frustrated with errors that would cause her to have to re-write whole pages of text for one error. Using a few keen observations of painters, Graham came up with an idea that is now commonly known as “white-out” but at the time was a noteworthy invention “Mistake Out”. She started by selling to her fellow secretaries. Demand was so high she eventually left to launch her company and file for a patent and trademark. The company continued to grow and by 1967 their sales were in excess of one million units each year. Graham eventually sold the company to Gillette Corporation in 1980.


5)      Joyce Chen

Next time you sit down for Moo Shu Pork at your favorite Chinese restaurant you can thank Joyce Chen. Chen and her husband escaped China in 1949 and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A seasoned home cook, Chen soon discovered that her new community loved her cooking and Chinese food. She started off by teaching lessons at her home but in time opened a restaurant and wrote her first cookbook. By 1968 she starred in her own nationally televised PBS cooking series called “Joyce Chen Cooks”. Her books and her show brought a relatively unknown cuisine into the mainstream in the US, popularizing many dishes including Peking Duck, Moo Shi Pork, and Hot and Sour soup. Chen then created and patented the flat-bottom wok, designed for American stove tops and began selling bottled Chinese sauces in supermarkets. The company is now run by her children and you can still find Joyce Chen Foods products on store shelves. 

Posted on September 12, 2016 .