Last updated May 10, 2020
These are the richest self-made women in the world. They built their fortunes all on their own, without even a business partner to lend a hand.
6. Folorunso Alakija. Nigeria. 1 billion
Folorunso’s story is not one of rags to riches. Her father was a wealthy Nigerian Chief. He had 8 wives, and Folorunso was the eighth out of 56 children.
The whole family lived in the same building, in the Nigerian city of Lagos, and occupied four floors.
When Folorunso was seven, her parents sent her to a private boarding school in Wales, England. She remained there until she was eleven. Then, the girl went back to Nigeria and attended a Muslim School.
Folorunso, the secretary
When it was time for Folorunso to choose a career, her father was adamant that she became a secretary. She was far from thrilled by the idea, but she complied. Folorunso went back to England and enrolled in Secretarial Studies at Central College London.
She finished her course and returned to Lagos. There, she found work as a secretary at Sijuade Enterprises.
A year and a half later, she got a job at the bank that, in the seventies, was called First National Bank of Chicago.
Folorunso worked at the bank for 12 years. First, as a secretary, then as Head of Corporate Affairs and, finally, as Treasury Officer.
Yet, in the early ’80s, she realized new employees who had university degrees were being promoted ahead of her.
Folorunso Alakija, the fashion designer
She was going nowhere in the banking world. So, following her heart, Folorunso quit banking and decided to study fashion. She had her own money now and could pay for her studies. So she returned to London and enrolled at the American College and at the Central School of Fashion.
In 1985, the fashion graduate was back in Nigeria. She created a clothing line called Supreme Stitches (later renamed Rose of Sharon).
A year later, Folorunso won the Fashion Designer of the Year Award in Nigeria. And her clothing line became popular among Nigerian socialites.
The oil industry
Folorunso became a successful high-end fashion designer. But she wanted more. So she started looking for new ventures.
First, she went into the printing business. Then, she heard about the oil industry and decided she wanted to be a part of it. But the government officials rejected her offers. Folorunso offered to provide catering for the industry. She got rejected. She offered transportation for the oil sector. She got rejected again.
Folorunso did not give up, though.
In 1991, the 40-year-old tried to enter the industry from yet another angle. She petitioned for a license to explore for oil. Two years later, the license is granted, and Folorunso is finally in the oil business.
She is allotted an offshore block to exploit. So Folorunso founds a company called Famfa Oil.
But then, another setback. The block she was given is too far away from the coast. Which means it is too difficult and expensive to explore. So her business partners abandon the project. But Folorunso does not.
She starts looking for new partners. Three years later, this now-billionaire teams up with Texaco. And drilling begins in 1998.
After more tough years, they finally find oil. But the celebration turns into a problem. The Nigerian government moves in to take 50% of the business… now that it will begin to earn money.
Folorunso spends the following years in court battling the takeover. In 2012, she wins the case and gets her shares back.
Today, her block produces 250,000 barrels of oil a day. And Folorunso Alakija’s has a personal fortune of 1 billion dollars.
That bank account makes her the sixth richest self-made woman in the world.
Folorunso has written three books, including an autobiography. And she helps several charities. The charities closer to her heart involve orphans and widows. Her own foundation, The Rose of Sharon, helps widows and their children.
(To read quotes by Folorunso, go here.)
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5. Sheryl Sandberg. The United States. 1.7 billion
Sheryl was raised in Miami Beach in a somewhat unusual household. Her parents helped Soviet Jews immigrate to the United States. So, often, the newcomers stayed at the Sandbergs’ home.
Sheryl was never going to settle for second best. She attended an award-winning public school in Florida. She was at the top of her class. Sheryl was the class president in sophomore year and on the advisory board in senior year.
Then, the future billionaire chose Harvard as her alma mater. There, she majored in Economics and then got her Master’s degree in Business Administration.
In 1991, at 21, she worked for two years at the World Bank as a research assistant. Then she worked in a consulting firm. And in 1995, her former teacher and boss hired Sheryl as Chief of Staff in the Treasury Department of the United States. She stayed in Washington until 2001.
Sheryl Sanders turns companies into advertising giants
Then, Sheryl decided to head to prosperous Silicon Valley, in California, for Google was wooing her.
The company had been in business for three years and had no business plan. It also lacked a steady income.
Sheryl became their business manager, then a Vice President. She focused particularly on turning Google into a sales and advertising giant.
After six years, in 2007, she wanted to become Google’s Chief Operating Officer, but the position was taken. So she accepted that same position in another start-up that was running a 56 million dollar loss: Facebook.
Sheryl decided to make the company profitable through advertising. In 2018, Facebook earned 40 billion dollars.
4. Oprah Winfrey. The United States. 2.6 billion
This television icon now has billions of dollars. But she had very humble beginnings in Mississippi.
Oprah’s mother was a teenager. And an unmarried one, at that. And soon after she had Oprah in 1954, she bolted.
So Oprah was raised by her grandmother, who lived in poverty on a farm. The television star has said they were so poor that she sometimes wore potato sacks as dresses.
When Oprah was six, her grandmother died, and things took a turn for the worse. Oprah went to live with her unstable mother in a ghetto in Milwaukee. The mogul has described those years as turbulent.
Oprah eventually rebelled. So the mother, who did not know how to deal with the teenager, sent her to live with her military father in Nashville.
It turned out to be a welcomed change for Oprah. Her father provided the safe and disciplined environment she had been lacking. He even made her read a book every week and submit to him an essay about each book.
Oprah discovers her love for public speaking
It was in Nashville that Oprah discovered her love for public speaking. And there where she won a scholarship to study Communication at the Tennessee State University.
At 19, Oprah became a news anchor for the television network CBS, and later, for the network ABC.
But she has said that journalism was not for her. She was expected to be objective, but instead, she had emotional reactions to the news.
Television and the spotlight
The perfect fit came in 1978 when she started co-hosting the talk show “People are talking.” In a talk show, her empathy was no longer a problem; it actually worked in her favor by allowing her to connect to the audience.
The ratings of the show went up. So she moved to Chicago to host another talk show called “AM Chicago.”
Her ratings were such in the new show that a year later, in 1985, the program was renamed “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” It became a great success. And it earned her several Emmy and People’s Choice Awards nominations and wins during its 27-year run.
At its height, the Oprah Show had 48 million views per week only in the United States. And it was aired in 150 countries.
In 2011, Oprah was making $300 million a year. Among the thousands of people she interviewed for the show were five U.S. presidents, five first ladies, and fifteen royals, including Queen Rania of Jordan.
Oprah is also an actress. In 1985, she was cast in Steven Spielberg’s movie “The Color Purple.” She received an Academy Award Nomination for her performance. She has also starred in movies like “The Butler” (2013), “Selma” (2014), and “A wrinkle in time” (2018). Some of those films were produced by her company Harpo Productions.
Oprah Winfrey diversifies her empire
By 2012, Oprah had ended her famous Oprah Show. She moved on to greater things and co-founded the television network OWN, in partnership with Discovery Communications.
In 2015, she bought shares of the company Weight Watchers for $43.5 million and became their spokesperson. Just a few years later, her shares are worth ten times what she paid for them: $400 million. And this Queen Midas has other investments, as well.
Oprah is now worth 2.6 billion dollars and is the fourth richest self-made woman in the world.
The media mogul does not keep all her pennies to herself, either. She has donated more than $400 million to charities. Part of that sum goes to an all-girls school she founded in South Africa in 2007.
3. Meg Whitman. The United States. 4.5 billion
Meg, like Folorunso Alakija, had a fortunate beginning in life. And she, too, turned into extraordinary success.
Margaret -Meg- was born in New York in 1956. She is the youngest child of a well-to-do couple. Her father was a businessman, and some of her ancestors were senators.
Meg grew up in a nice Long Island neighborhood and went to a public school. During those years, she discovered two of her passions: science and team sports.
And, unsurprisingly, victory seems to be an important theme for this optimistic billionaire. Her favorite book is called “Playing to win.”
Meg Whitman’s mentality: You can do anything
Meg grew up thinking she could be anything she wanted. She thanks her parents for that.
Meg went to Princeton, where she got an undergraduate degree in Economics. She followed it with a graduate degree from Harvard Business School.
Meg in the corporate world
The New Yorker’s business success was about to begin. In 1979, she worked as a brand manager for Proctor & Gamble. Then, she was the vice president of Bain & Company for eight years, a vice president at Walt Disney for three years, and the president of Stride Rite. Some positions she left when her neurosurgeon husband received an irresistible job offer in a new city. The family would relocate, and she would find a new job.
In 1997, Megan got a call from a new company that wanted her as their CEO. It was eBay, headquartered in California. So this time, the family relocated to California for Megan’s career.
At the time, eBay had 18 employees and was making 4 million dollars in sales. Ten years later, when Meg left eBay, it had 18,000 employees and an $8 billion revenue.
In 2010, Whitman ran for Governor of California. She lost.
From 2011 to January 2019, she was the CEO of Hewlett Packard. She had a base salary of around one million dollars a year at the company, but she also received bonuses and other compensations. In 2016, she earned 35.6 million dollars.
Nowadays, she has a personal fortune of 4.5 billion dollars, and she is the CEO of another upstart: Quibi.
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2. Chan Laiwa. China. 5.8 billion
This entrepreneur grew up surrounded by beautiful antique furniture in the Summer Palace, one of the palaces of Beijing. But even though Chan Laiwa is part of the Chinese Imperial Family, her story is one of rags to riches.
When Chan was born in 1942, her family no longer ruled China. The Emperor had been deposed thirty years before. And by the time of Chan’s birth, the luck of the ex-ruling family was scarce. The family was impoverished, their country was being invaded by Japan, and China was soon to become a communist country.
Chan Laiwa turns her passion into a business
In the 1960s, Chan left her studies. She needed to make a living, so she started repairing furniture.
A decade later, she moved to prosperous Hong Kong and scaled her business. She now started buying damaged classical furniture, repairing it, and selling it at high prices to rich collectors.
In her forties, Chan had enough money to invest in real estate. She bought 12 villas in Hong Kong. Then, she bought more in Australia and Southeast Asia.
Later on, she moved back to China. And in 1988, she founded Fu Wah International Group, a company that develops and manages properties.
The company turned Chan into a billionaire. She is worth 5.8 billion dollars.
This real-estate mogul is a philanthropist. She has given millions of dollars to charities. And since furniture remains one of her passions, she established the China Red Sandalwood Museum – the world’s largest museum of classical furniture.
1. Zhou Qunfei. China. 8.3 billion
Zhou is the richest self-made woman in the world.
Zhou Qunfei was born in 1970 in Xiangxiang, in the Province of Hunan, in China. Her mother died when she was five years old. And not long after, her father lost a finger and was partially blinded in an industrial accident.
The family was poor and lived on a farm. When Zhou was little, she took care of the pigs. Of her earlier years, she said in an interview with CNBC: “I had to constantly think about where my next meal is and how I am going to get it.”
Zhou was a good student, but by 16, she had dropped out of high school, like most girls in her town. But unlike other girls that chose to get married, Zhou dreamed of being a fashion designer. So she moved to the city, to her uncle’s house in Shenzhen.
From working in a factory to owning one
But once in the city the job, she landed was at a factory that made glasses for watches.
Zhou worked between 16 and 18 hours a day. She earned a daily dollar. She was good at her job and was soon promoted. The girl kept climbing positions until she became a manager. By then, she had learned a lot about glassmaking.
After six years at the factory, she had saved enough money -3,000 dollars- to start her own glass mini-factory… in her apartment. It was 1993.
Zhou Qunfei’s lucky break
In her apartment/factory, Zhou started experimenting. She aimed to improve the quality of the glass. Eventually, she succeeded.
In time, Zhou was able to expand her factory and hire employees. She mortgaged and sold her homes several times along the way.
Her lucky break came in 2003, after a decade of hard work. Motorola asked if she could make a high-quality glass for their V3 cell phone. She accepted the challenge, and they went into business.
The venture was a success, and Zhou started working with other brands such as Sony, Nokia, Samsung, and Apple.
Her company, Lens Technology, went public in 2015. And Zhou Qunfei made it into the Forbes list with $7.2 billion.
She has 32 factories and 82.000 employees. And now, in 2020, the 49-year-old has 8.3 billion dollars. Not bad.
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These self-made billionaires did not make it into the list because they did not make their billions 100% on their own. Some of them co-founded their empires, while others received a little help from their family when they were starting. Others, still, are fiercely private, so it is difficult to determine how exactly their companies began and if they received a helping hand. Nonetheless, they deserve an honorable mention:
Denise Coates. The United Kingdom. 7.7 billion. 51 years old. Her family owned a small chain of betting shops. In the 2000s, Denise, an Economics graduate, saw an opportunity to expand the family business online. So she bought the domain ‘Bet365’. It became a success. The company now makes around $2.7 billion a year. Her father is the chairman, and Denise and her brother are chief executives. Her yearly salary? 346 million dollars.
Wang Laichun. China. 6.2 billion. 51 years old. Wang worked for 10 years for Hon Hai Precision Industry, until 1999. In 2004, Wang and her brother Laisheng bought Luxshare, a manufacturer of components for electronics. She is now the chairwoman of this company that has Apple as a customer.
Cheng Xue. China, 5 billion. 48 years old. There is not enough information to determine how she made her fortune. She is a shareholder and vice-chairman of Foshan Haitian Flavoring, a company that produces soy sauce.
Judy Faulkner. The United States. 3.8 billion. 75 years old. Judy wanted to create software for the health care industry. So the Computer Science graduate asked family and friends for 70,000 dollars. With the money, she started her company, Epic Systems, in a basement in Wisconsin in 1979. Epic software is now used in hospitals all over the United States. The company’s annual revenue is $2.7 billion.
Rita Tong Liu. Hong Kong. 3.6 billion. 70 years old. The family of Rita’s husband owned Chong Hing Bank. When Rita decided to begin working in real estate in the 1970s, her in-laws helped her out by giving her one million dollars as a present. And Rita’s mother gave her land. Now she is the fourth richest woman in Hong Kong.
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. India. 3.6 billion. 65 years old. Kiran studied Zoology at Bangalore University and Malting and Brewing at Melbourne University. But back in India, she couldn’t get a job. At 25, she met Leslie Auchincloss, owner of Biocon Biochemicals. The duo co-founded a biopharmaceutical company called Biocon India. She is now India’s richest self-made woman.
Su Suyu. China. 3.4 billion. 70 years old. There is not enough information to determine how she began to make her fortune. Su co-founded her company, Luenmei Quantum, with her two sons.
Cheng Cheung Ling. China. 2.4 billion. 55 years old. Cheng’s husband, Tse Ping, comes from a family of billionaires. He is the founder of Sino Pharmaceutical. Cheng is the vice chairwoman of the company. And their daughter, Theresa, became the chairwoman when her father retired.