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Ranks of self-made female billionaires growing

When Meg Whitman won the Republican nomination for California governor on June 8 it was a first for a Republican woman in the state.
Image: Whitman
Meg Whitman hopes her deep pockets will help take her all the way to the governor’s office in Sacramento.Michal Czerwonka / Getty Images
/ Source: Forbes

When Meg Whitman won the Republican nomination for California governor on June 8 it was a first for a Republican woman in the state. It was also the first time a female candidate ever contributed so much of her own money to a political campaign. Whitman, 54, worth an estimated $1.3 billion when we last totaled her wealth back in March, has spent more than $70 million on her campaign so far and has reportedly said she's willing to double that number to get elected.

It is an audacious sum, but even more notable is the fact that Whitman has so much cash to spend in the first place. Twelve years ago Whitman was just another rising female executive with an admirable track record at such firms as Procter & Gamble, Disney and Hasbro. Then in 1998 she took a leap of faith and accepted a job as chief executive of eBay, then a small tech firm with 30 employees. The payoff was equity in the burgeoning company.

Thanks to that decision, Whitman soon joined the ranks of the 1,011 billionaires in the world. Rarer still, she's one of just 14 female billionaires in the world right now who earned their fortunes, rather than inherited them. The richest of them is China's Wu Yajun, worth $3.9 billion and ranked 232nd in the world in March when we published our 2010 Billionaires list. By contrast, 665 men are self-made billionaires including the three richest people in the world, Carlos Slim Helú, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

Among the 14 women, who represent just 2 percent of all self-made billionaires, at least five of them started their business with their husbands, brothers or sometimes both. Giuliana Benetton, 72, originally knitted sweaters that her brother Luciano would then peddle by bicycle. Rosalia Mera, 66, helped then husband Amancio Ortega make dressing gowns and lingerie in their home; they eventually divorced but she kept a stake in the now multibillion-dollar apparel maker Inditex, best known for its Zara stores. Doris Fisher, 79, and her late husband Donald started the Gap in 1969.

Some of the others who got wealthy on their own include Oprah Winfrey, 56, and J.K. Rowling, 44, both of whom overcame tough personal odds to strike it rich in media and entertainment. Both women have big years ahead: "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter," based on Rowling's books, is opening on June 18 at Universal studios and the film, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 1" is being released in November. Oprah meanwhile is enjoying her last days as the queen of daytime TV; next year, she will move her talk show to a night slot on the new Oprah Winfrey Network cable channel. A few other wealthy women entrepreneurs like Martha Stewart and Marvell Semiconductors Weili Dai were once billionaires but have since fallen below the cut.

All of these self-made female billionaires have impressive personal stories, but the dearth of them is itself a story, and begs the question of why so few?

One explanation has to do with the fact that while women in the United States start their own businesses at roughly twice the rate of men, they are still playing catch-up in most parts of the world. "Women are still at the beginning of their journey to entrepreneurship or higher levels of entrepreneurship," says Sharon Hadary, the former and founding executive director of the Center for Women's Business Research. According to that group, only 20 percent of all businesses over $1 million are women-owned enterprises.

Another issue is financing. Research from the Kaufmann Foundation shows that women-led tech companies typically launch with capital at levels 30 percent to 50 percent less than those led by men. They also raise much less venture capital, accounting for just 8 percent of invested venture money in 2008. "For whatever the many reasons, women are not participating in this high-growth, wealth creation end of the economic spectrum," says Sharon Vosmek, chief executive of Astia, a nonprofit that advises female entrepreneurs.

Then there are more fundamental issues related to personal goals. It seems that men more often define success in monetary terms while women focus on vision and mission. "Men tend to start businesses to grow them to be large and to be the boss while women start them to do something meaningful and to make a difference," notes Hadary, who now consults on women's leadership through her firm Sharon Hadary & Co.

"Becoming a billionaire isn't their objective," she adds, "As women, many are less likely to have a goal of generating personal wealth, though we are starting to see more and more of that motivation among the younger generation." Instead they are typically more focused on building companies that reflect their values, provide employment opportunities, do what's important to them and have the opportunity to fulfill family goals.

Teresa Nelson, McCandless Chair in Entrepreneurship at the Simmons School of Management concurs: "Research shows that women are drawn to organizations that provide values beyond wealth."

One place where women do seem to be catching up, or catching on, faster is China, where seven of the 14 self-made female billionaires have made their fortunes. The booming Chinese economy has been a big factor, creating more opportunities, giving them access to a huge consumer population and also cheap labor.

Women now contribute about half of household income, up from 20 percent in the 1950s, according to Shaun Rein, founder of the Shanghai-based China Market Research Group, who commented on the phenomenon in an earlier Forbes story on China's female billionaires.

Chinese female business owners recently made quite an impression on Kristina Bouweiri, head of $15 million (estimated sales) Reston Limousine in the Washington D.C., area, who recently returned from the Global Summit of Women in Beijing. "These are the first women in history able to take advantage of the industrial revolution. My first impression is that it's been easier for them in some ways. The opportunities have been greater. They seem to think a lot bigger," says Bouweiri. "They are kicking butt and making money."

Let's hope they and all women are just getting started.