When you think about inspiring women entrepreneurs, you probably come up with names like Beyonce Knowles, Arianna Huffington and Susan Wojcicki. They are inspiring in part because they epitomize the idea of a strong, independent female. But the reality is, women have been contributing big time to the American and global business world for hundreds of years. These are just a few of the women who made a huge name for themselves way before it was considered acceptable for ladies to work.

1. Sarah Breedlove

Better known as C.J. Walker, African-American Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867 near Delta, Louisiana. Out of the five children in the family, she was the first to be born free. Breedlove suffered from a scalp condition that resulted in hair loss. She experimented with store-bought hair treatments as well as her own home remedies for relief. By 1907, Breedlove was traveling and giving demonstrations of her own pomade formula. She opened a factory just a year later, establishing the wildly successful Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. The philosophies of the company, combined with beautician training, are credited to advancing the status of African Americans. Breedlove now is considered one of the first African-American women to become a self-made millionaire.

2. Eliza Lucas Pinckney

Born in Antigua in the West Indies in 1722, Eliza (Elizabeth) Pinckney moved to the United States with her family when she was still young. Pinckney soon took charge of some of the plantations her father owned in South Carolina. That gave her a front row seat to the growing textile industry, and she soon saw the need for new dyes. Under her direction, indigo helped fuel South Carolina's economy for three full decades. Pinckney also found success with crops like silk and ginger.

3. Olive Ann Beech

Born in 1904, Olive Ann Beech formed the Beech Aircraft Company with her husband, Walter. Together, they created planes such as the Staggerwing, Twin Beech and Navigator. When Walter fell ill, Olive stepped up to the plate and kept the company thriving, meeting the needs of the military through World War II. She went on to lead a wide range of commercial and military aviation advancements over the next three decades, including research and development with NASA. Annual sales for the company reached $265 million, a far cry from when the business started with less than 10 workers.

4. Clara and Lillian Westropp

In 1922, sisters Clara and Lillian Westropp opened the doors of the Women's Savings & Loan Company of Cleveland, Ohio with just $89,000 in capital. Their business stood out because, despite accepting both male and female clientele, the Westropp sisters wanted to have an all-female board of directors and teach women about money during a time when men still controlled much of family and business finance. The bank grew to be the second largest in the country by 1950. Seventy years after opening its doors, the bank was absorbed under Charter One Financial.

5. Rebecca Lukens

With roots reaching all the way back to the 13 original American colonies, Rebecca Lukens inherited her father's ironworks plant, which sat on the Brandywine River. As the leader of the company, Lukens turned the plant into one of the biggest producers of boilerplates and rails for the locomotive and shipping industries. Operating with integrity and the fairness instilled in her from her Quaker background, she is thought to be the first woman to ever head an industrial company in America. By the end of the 20th century, the business was No. 395 on the Fortune 500 Industrial List and the oldest U.S. steel mill in continuous operation.

Against incredible odds, these women paved the way for today's modern businesswomen to enjoy acceptance, respect and financial security. Keep their names handy, just in case you need a reminder of what you can do.

Published on: Feb 13, 2017
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