Rag to Riches: Meet the 6 Richest Self-Made Women In the World

Women that made their billions on their own

The richest women in Forbes’ list are heiresses (good for them!). Here, though, we look at the richest self-made women, the ones that acquired their fortune on their own, even without business partners.

Last updated on: October 9, 2019.

(To see the richest self-made women that were left out of this list, and to read why, go to the bottom of this article.)

1. Chan Laiwa. China. 5.8 billion.

Chan Laiwa (Photo: David Shakbone/CCBY3.0)

This entrepreneur was born surrounded by beautiful antique furniture in the Summer Palace, in Beijing, in 1941. Although she is part of the Imperial Family, her story is one of rag to riches. The Emperor was deposed in 1912. By the time of Chan’s birth, the luck of the ex-ruling family was scarce: they were impoverished, China was being invaded by Japan, and it was about to become a communist country.

Turning her passion into a business

In the 1960’s Chan left her studies and started repairing furniture. A decade later she moved to prosperous Hong Kong, and began a business that again aligned with her passion: furniture. She bought classical furniture, repaired it, and sold it to rich collectors. In her forties she had enough money to invest in real estate. She bought twelve villas in Hong Kong, followed by others in Australia and Southeast Asia. Then, she moved back to China. And in 1988 founded Fu Wah International Group, a company that develops and manages property. The company turned Chan into a billionaire.

This real estate mogul is a philanthropist that has given millions of dollars to charities. And she created and funds the China Red Sandalwood Museum – the world’s largest museum of classical furniture.

2. Zhou Qunfei. China. 4.9 billion.

Town on a hillside next to a river
Zhou was born in the province of Hunan. In the picture, an ancient town in Hunan. (Photo: chensiyuan/CCBYSA3.0)

Zhou was born in 1970 in Xiangxiang, in the Province of Hunan. Her mother died when she was five years old. Not long after, her father lost a finger and was partially blinded in an industrial accident.

The family lived in rural China, and was poor. When Zhou was little, she helped out by taking care of the pigs of their farm. 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.” She was a good student, but by 16 she had dropped out of high school, like most girls in her town. Then, Zhou decided to move to the city, to her uncle’s house in Shenzhen.

From working in a factory to owning one

Her dream was to be a fashion designer. The job she landed, though, was at a factory that made glasses for watches. Zhou worked between 16 and 18 hours a day for a daily dollar. She was soon promoted, and kept climbing positions until she became a manager. By then she had learned a lot about glass making. And after six years, she had saved enough money -3,000 dollars- to start her own glass mini-factory… in her apartment. It was 1993.

Lucky break

She started experimenting, aiming to improve the quality of the glass. Zhou mortgaged/sold her homes a few times in order to expand her factory and pay her employees. Her lucky break came in 2003. Motorola asked if she could make a high quality glass for their V3 cell phone. She accepted the challenge and they went into business. Soon, she was working with other brands such as Sony, Nokia, Samsung, and Apple.

Her company, Lens Technology, went public in 2015. And Zhou made it into the Forbes list with 7.2 billions. She has 32 factories and 82.000 employees. Last year, due to China’s new trading policies, the 48-year-old lost some of her billions. Notwithstanding, she is the second richest self-made woman in the world.

3. Meg Whitman. 3.6 billion.

Meg Whitman. (Photo: Max Morse/CCBY2.0)

Meg isn’t exactly “rag to riches,” nevertheless, she did turn her fortunate beginnings into stratospheric success.

Margaret -Meg- was born in New York in 1956, the youngest child of a well to do couple. Her father was a businessman, and some of her ancestors were senators. She grew up in a nice Long Island neighborhood and went to public school. There she gained a love for science and team sports, which would teach her “the joy of winning and agony of defeat,” in her own words. Victory may be a life theme for this optimistic billionaire, for one of her favorite books is called “Playing to win.”

You can do anything

She has credited her parents with instilling in her the idea that she could be anything she wanted. She went to Princeton, where she got an undergraduate degree in Economics. And followed it with a graduate degree at Harvard Business School.

The corporate world

Her business success was about to begin. In 1979 she worked as brand manager for Proctor & Gamble, then she was the vice president of Bain & Company for eight years, a vice president in Walt Disney for three more years, and president of Stride Rite, among other jobs. Some positions she left in order to follow her neurosurgeon husband to a new city.

In 1997 she received a call from a new company that wanted her as their CEO. It was eBay. This time the family relocated to California so Meg could take the job. At the time, eBay had 18 employees and was making 4 million dollars in sales. Ten years later, when Meg left, it had 18,000 employees and $8 billion in revenue.

In 2010 she run 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.

Now she is the CEO of another upstart: Quibi.

4. Oprah Winfrey. United States. 2.7 billion.

Oprah Winfrey. (Photo: Greg Hernández/CCBY2.0 )

The television icon had humble beginnings in Mississippi. Her mother was an unmarried teenager. Soon after her birth in 1954, Oprah was left to the care of her grandmother, who lived in poverty, in a farm. But when the grandmother died, six-year Oprah went to live with her mother in a ghetto, in Milwaukee. Oprah has described those years as turbulent. In her teens she was sent to live with her military father, in Nashville. It was a welcomed change, for the father provided a safe and disciplined environment.

Oprah discovers her love for public speaking

It was in Nashville that she discovered her love for public speaking and 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 on for the network ABC. But she has said that journalism wasn’t for her. She was expected to be objective, but instead had emotional reactions to the news.

Television and the spot light

The perfect fit came in 1978 when she started co-hosting the talk show ‘People are talking.’ In a talk show her empathy allowed her to connect with the audience. The ratings of the show went up. And 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, earning 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 in the United States -and 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 also starred in movies like ‘The Butler’ (2013), ‘Selma’ (2014), and ‘A wrinkle in time’ (2018). Some of them were produced by her company Harpo Productions.

Diversifying

In 2012 Oprah co-founded, with Discovery Communications, the television network OWN. In 2015 she bought shares of the company Weight Watchers for $43.5 million and became their spokesperson. The shares are worth $400 million today. She has other investments, as well.

So far, the media mogul has donated more than $400 million to charities. Part of that sum goes to an all-girl school she founded in South Africa on 2007.

5. Sheryl Sandberg. United States. 1.7 billion.

Sheryl Sandberg. (Photo: Michael Wuertenberg/CCBYSA2.0)

Sheryl was raised in Miami Beach, where her parents ran an organization that helped Soviet Jews immigrate to the United States. Often, the new comers stayed at the Sandberg’s home. Sheryl attended an award winning public school in Florida. She was at the top of her class, was class president in sophomore year, and on the advisory board on senior year.

The future billionaire chose Harvard as her alma mater, first for her major in Economics, and then for her Master in Business Administration. In 1991, at 21, she worked for two years in the World Bank, as a research assistant. Then in a consulting firm, and by 1995 her former teacher and boss hired Sheryl as Chief of Staff in the Treasury Department of the United States. She stayed there until 2001.

Advertising giant

Then Sheryl decided to head to prosperous Silicon Valley, at the other side of the country, in California. Google was wooing her. The company had been in business for three years and had no business plan, nor an steady income. Sheryl became their business manager, then a Vice President. She focused particularly in turning Google into a sales and advertising giant.

In 2007 she was ready to become Chief Operating Officer, but the seat was taken in Google. So she accepted that position in another newcomer that was running a 56 million dollar loss: Facebook. And started strategizing to make the company profitable through advertising. By 2010 they had gone from 70 million to 700 million customers. Now they have 2.2 billion. And in 2018 Facebook’s revenues were 40 billion dollars.

6. Folorunsho Alakija. Nigeria. 1 billion.


Folorunsho Alakija interviewed by Bishop T.D. Jakes

Folorunsho, like Meg, had a fortune upbringing. She was the eighth out of 56 children. Her father was a Nigerian Chief who had 8 wives. The whole family -the 8 wives with their children- lived in the same building, in the city of Lagos, and occupied four floors. When Folorunsho 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 to attend a Muslim School.

The secretary

When the time to choose a career came, her father was adamant that Folorunsho became a secretary. Far from thrilled by the idea, she complied. And went back to England to inscribe in Secretarial Studies at Central College London.

After finishing her course she returned to Lagos to work as a secretary at Sijuade Enterprises. And a year and a half later at the bank that in the seventies was called First National Bank of Chicago, where she worked for 12 years. First as a secretary, then as Head of Corporate Affairs and, finally, as Treasury Officer. In the early 80’s she realized new comers who had university degrees were being promoted ahead of her.

A successful fashion designer

Following her heart, she quit banking and returned to London to study fashion, at the American College and at the Central School of Fashion. In 1985 she was back in Nigeria creating her clothing line Supreme Stitches (later renamed Rose of Sharon). A year later she won a national award: Fashion Designer of the Year. And her clothing line became popular among Nigerian socialites.

The oil industry

Hugely successful as a high-end fashion designer, Folorunsho starts looking for new ventures. First she crates a printing business. Then, she hears about the oil industry. And decides she wants to be a part of it. Her offers to provide catering or transportation for the oil sector are rejected by government officials.

In 1991, after several attempts to enter the industry from different angles, she settles on exploring for oil, and petitions a license. In 1993 it is granted: her family business, Famfa Oil, is allotted an offshore block. Since the block was considered too difficult and expensive to explore, her partners abandon the project.

But in September 1996 she teams up with Texaco, and drilling begins in 1998. When they find oil, the government moves in to take 50% of the business. Folorunsho would spend years in court battling the takeover. In 2012 she won the case and got her shares back. Today, the block produces 250,000 barrels of oil a day.

Folorunsho has written three books, including an autobiography, and is involved in several charities. The charities closer to her heart champion orphans and widows, like her own foundation The Rose of Sharon. (To read quotes by Folorunsho go here.)

Honorable mentions

(Back to the top)

Some self-made billionaires cofounded their empires, others received a little help from their family when they were starting, and others, yet, are fiercely private, so it is difficult to determine how exactly their companies began. These are the billionaires that fall into any of those categories – and therefore were skipped in the article above -:

Denise Coates. United Kingdom. 9.2 billion. 51 years old. Her family owned a small chain of betting shops. In the 2000’s Denise, an Economics gradute, saw an opportunity to expand the family business online and bought the domain ‘Bet365’. It became a success. The company now makes around $2.7 billion a year. Her father is the chairman, Denise and her brother are chief executives. Her yearly salary? 346 million dollars.

Cheng Xue. China, 4.2 billlion. 48 years old. There is not enough information to determine how she made her fortune. She is a share holder and vice chairman of Foshan Haitian Flavoring, a company that produces soy sauce.

Rita Tong Liu. Hong Kong. 4 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 1970’s, 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.

Judy Faulkner. United States. 3.7 billions. 75 years old. Judy wanted to create a 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, and the company’s annual revenue is $2.7 billion.

Cheng Cheung Ling. China. 3.7 billions. 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.

Wang Laichun. China. 3.6 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 the company that counts Apple as their costumer.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. India. 2.5 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, and they cofounded a biopharmaceutical company called Biocon India. She is now India’s richest self-made woman.

Su Suyu. China. 2.5 billion. 70 years old. There is not enough information to determine how she began to make her fortune. Su cofounded her company, Luenmei Quantum, with her two sons.

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