Last updated May 10, 2020
These are the richest self-made women in the world, the ones that acquired 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 precisely one of rags to riches. Her father was a wealthy Nigerian Chief who 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 to attend 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. 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 she worked at the bank that in the seventies was called First National Bank of Chicago. She stayed there for for 12 years, first as a secretary, then as Head of Corporate Affairs and, finally, as Treasury Officer. Yet in the early 80’s she realized new comers who had university degrees were being promoted ahead of her.
Folorunso Alakija, the fashion designer
Following her heart, Folorunso 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, Folorunso starts looking for new ventures. First she creates a printing business. Then, she hears about the oil industry and decides she wants to be a part of it. But the government officials reject her offers to provide catering or transportation for the oil sector.
Folorunso does not give up, though.
In 1991, after several attempts to enter the industry from different angles, she settles on exploring for oil and petitions a license. Two years later the license is granted and her family business, Famfa Oil, is allotted an offshore block.
But then she suffers another setback. The allotted block was too far away from the coast and was considered too difficult and expensive to explore so her business partners abandon the project.
Ever persistent, three years later this now billionaire teams up with Texaco and drilling begins in 1998. But when they finally find oil the celebration turns into a problem: the Nigerian government moves in to take 50% of the business.
Folorunso spent 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. And Folorunso Alakija has a personal fortune of 1 billion dollars, which make her the sixth richest self-made woman in the world.
Folorunso has written three books, including an autobiography, and helps several charities. The charities closer to her heart involve orphans and widows, like her own foundation The Rose of Sharon. (To read quotes by Folorunso go here.)
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5. Sheryl Sandberg. 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 new comers stayed at the Sandberg’s home.
Sheryl was never going to settle for second best. She attended an award winning public school in Florida where she was at the top of her class, was the class president in sophomore year, and on the advisory board in senior year.
The future billionaire chose Harvard as her alma mater, both for her major in Economics and for her Master in Business Administration.
In 1991, at 21, she worked for two years in 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, at the other side of the country, in California, for Google was wooing her. The company had been in business for three years and had no business plan, nor a 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. So she accepted that same position in another newcomer that was running a 56 million dollar loss: Facebook.
Sheryl decided to make the company profitable through advertising. In 2018 Facebook’s revenues were 40 billion dollars.
4. Oprah Winfrey. United States. 2.6 billion
This television icon who now has billions of dollars, had very humble beginnings in Mississippi.
Oprah’s mother was an unmarried teenager. Soon after she had Oprah in 1954, she bolted. Oprah was raised by her grandmother, a woman who lived in poverty, in a farm. The television star has said they were so poor that she sometimes wore potato sacks as dresses.
But 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. Oprah has described those years as turbulent.
When her mother could not deal with rebellious Oprah anymore, she sent her to live with her military father, in Nashville. It was a welcomed change for the teenager, for her father provided a safe and disciplined environment.
Oprah discovers her love for public speaking
And it was in Nashville that Oprah discovered her love for public speaking. She also 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 she 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 was no longer a problem, it actually 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 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 also starred in movies like “The Butler” (2013), “Selma” (2014), and “A wrinkle in time” (2018). Some of them were produced by her own company, Harpo Productions.
Oprah Winfrey diversifies her empire
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. Just a few years later her shares are worth ten times what she payed 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-girl school she founded in South Africa in 2007.
3. Meg Whitman. United States. 4.5 billion
Meg, like Folorunso Alakija, had a fortunate beginning in life which she 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 public school. During those years she discovered two of her passions: science and team sports. And Meg says sports taught her lessons like “the joy of winning and agony of defeat.”
And, unsurprisingly, victory seems to be an important subject 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, and followed it with a graduate degree at Harvard Business School.
Meg in the corporate world
The New Yorker’s 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 years, and the president of Stride Rite. 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 eBay, it had 18,000 employees and an $8 billion revenue.
In 2010 Whitman 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.
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 one of the palaces of Beijing, the Summer Palace. But even though Chan Laiwa is part of the Chinese Imperial Family, her story is one of rags to riches.
When Chen 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: they were impoverished, their country was being invaded by Japan, and China was about to become a communist country.
Chan Laiwa turns her passion into a business
In the 1960’s Chan left her studies and started repairing furniture to make a living. A decade later she moved to prosperous Hong Kong, and scaled her business. She now bought classical furniture, repaired it, and sold it to rich collectors.
In her forties she had enough money to invest in real estate. Chan 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. She is now worth 5.8 billion dollars.
This real estate mogul is a philanthropist that 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
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 lived in a farm and was poor. 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 for a daily dollar and was soon promoted. The girl kept climbing positions until she became a manager. By then she had learned a lot about glass making.
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, aiming to improve the quality of the glass. Which she eventually did.
In time Zhou was able to expand her factory and hire employees, but for that she had to mortgage/sell her homes along the way.
Her lucky break came in 2003 after a decade of hard work, when 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 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. Nonetheless, they deserve an honorable mention:
Denise Coates. United Kingdom. 7.7 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, 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 the company that counts Apple as their costumer.
Cheng Xue. China, 5 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.
Judy Faulkner. United States. 3.8 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.
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 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.
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, and they cofounded 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 cofounded her company, Luenmei Quantum, with her two sons.
Cheng Cheung Ling. China. 2.4 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.