5 Lessons from women entrepreneurs who were pioneers in their time
It may seem like there are just as many women entrepreneurs as men these days, but that is a relatively new phenomenon. Throughout history, women have had to work harder for opportunities at entrepreneurship and to gain the respect they deserve as successful business owners. However, this hasn’t stopped women from forging ahead and starting their own businesses.
Here are five important lessons we can learn about business from inspiring women entrepreneurs who were pioneers in their time. But first, five eye-opening facts about women entrepreneurs you may not have known, but that prove just how important women business leaders are and the value their businesses offer.
5 Quick facts about women entrepreneurs
5 Lessons from women entrepreneurs
1. Develop your employees into brand ambassadors – Madam C.J. Walker
Born Sarah Breedlove, Madam C.J. Walker was the first Black woman to become a self-made millionaire. Around 1905, she developed a product to help combat hair loss and began selling it to the masses. Her product and her brand soon became a staple in the Black community.
Part of her success can be attributed to her team of “Walker Agents” – employees who were trained on her product and sold it in communities across the US.
Having a team of informed and engaged employees is what helped the brand grow rapidly and become a household name. Educating employees about your business and its products or services will cultivate better employee engagement and make them better brand representatives. When you have a team of employees who care about your business as much as you do, it can lead to higher sales and business growth.
2. Contribute to the community you’re trying to serve – Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker gave back to the Black community and was a central figure during the Harlem Renaissance. After moving to Harlem around 1916, Walker established scholarship programs and donated to the elderly community, NAACP, and toward the construction of a YMCA in Indianapolis.
Her active involvement in the lives of her target audience positioned Madam C.J. Walker as a brand people could trust.
Contributing to the community of which your target audience is a part will help you build credibility among potential customers.
3. Work your network – Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born into slavery in 1818, but eventually bought her freedom and that of her son around 1850. She learned how to sew at an early age and it became the skill that would propel her into entrepreneurship.
Throughout the course of her life, Keckley took on many white women as clients for whom she made clothing. She found an opportunity in her former owner, Hugh Garland, to reach the white community and offer her services. Her seamstress business grew rapidly through this connection, even leading to many patrons stepping forward to loan her money to help buy her freedom from Garland. After obtaining her freedom, she was introduced to First Lady Mary Lincoln, through another one of her customers.
Keckley went on to work as a seamstress for Mary Lincoln for years and they became close confidents.
If anything can be learned from Keckley’s story, it’s that you should continue to tap into the network you have, even if it seems small. You just might hit on something, or someone, that will give you the big break you need, which could lead to a web of even more opportunities.
4. Stick to your principals – Dame Anita Roddick
Sustainability and fair trade were not nearly as important, or trendy, in the business world when Dame Anita Roddick opened the first location of The Body Shop in England in the 1970s. But that did not stop her from baking it into the foundation of her business and making ethical business practices part of her brand’s appeal.
“All through history, there have always been movements where business was not just about the accumulation of proceeds but also for the public good. I am still looking for the modern equivalent of those Quakers who ran successful businesses, made money because they offered honest products and treated their people decently. This business creed, sadly, seems long forgotten,” said Dame Roddick.
Roddick had a vision for her company that was counterintuitive to the rise of big business in the 1980s when The Body Shop was taking off. But by sticking to her principals, the business flourished.
Entrepreneurs should take heed. Be steadfast in your principals and values. Those qualities will shine through if you are passionate about them and will ultimately make your business more human.
5. Foster diverse talent – Olive Ann Beech
Olive Ann Beech was not a likely candidate to own and operate an aviation manufacturing company in the 1940s and ‘50s, but nonetheless she was a woman in a role filled almost exclusively by men at the time. She co-founded Beech Aircraft Corporation with her late husband Walter Beech. After his passing, she took over as president and chairman, overseeing the production of aircraft for the Korean War and supporting the United States’ space exploration program by developing products for NASA.
The moral of the story? Your best talent can come in unlikely packages. Practice fair and equitable recruiting practices and never underestimate a candidate.
Olive Ann Beach said, “Talent it where you find it; it is no respecter of men or women; young or old.”
Business owners should uphold this truth when it comes to recruiting practices and extend it to any person regardless of their race, creed, religion, or sexuality.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month this March – and throughout the year – we remember these innovative leaders who helped pave the way for more women to start businesses of their own.