In honour of International Women’s Day this Sunday, I wanted to talk about some women who inspire me. I love running my own company. As hard as it can be balancing running a company with being a Mum, I have a fantastic support network and am very lucky to be able to be my own boss. Front Roe has been a huge amount of fun over the years but everyone gets stressed out occasionally and so sometimes I need a little reminder from some strong women who can re-ignite the work ethic flame.
There are of course hundreds of successful businesswomen in this world but I’ve chosen to write about five women who inspire my work ethic. They represent a cross-section of ages, ethnicities and industries. If ever I feel despondent, thinking about one of these women and what they’ve achieved never fails to give me a renewed sense of purpose.
Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx
Being listed as Forbes’ 93rd most powerful woman in the world for the fifth year running is pretty good going when you’re only in your 40s. Such is the case for businesswoman Sara Blakely who founded globally loved intimates brand Spanx, a pair of which has become a staple in women’s underwear drawers all over the world.
The idea came about whilst Blakely was working as a door-to-door fax machine saleswoman in Florida. Too hot to wear a full pair of tights but wanting the slimming effect that the waistband gave her, Blakely took a pair of scissors to some standard issue pantyhose and created some control pants…thus Spanx was officially born.
Despite the effort (and dollars) that went into the new venture, it was rejected by every single person to whom she presented her product. As was typical of the time, most of these ‘nos’ came from male CEOs who were not using the hosiery they were selling and so failed to see the potential behind the product. It was only after a successful meeting with a buyer from the Neiman Marcus Group (during which Blakely changed into the product herself to prove the benefits) that Spanx was picked up by the big US stores. Things snowballed from there and the company made $4 million in sales during its first year.
The Sara Blakely Foundation was founded in 2006 to help women through education and entrepreneurship and has since funded scholarships for young women in South Africa. All this whilst being a mother of four, conference speaker and part of TIME’s 100 list. This woman knows no bounds.
Joanne Rowling OBE, author
There’s isn’t a bookworm among us who isn’t astutely aware of JK’s Rowling phenomenal success as the author of the best selling book series in history. Ever.
In 1990 Jo Rowling was on a delayed train to London when she had an idea for a novel about a boy wizard- she began writing as soon as she got back to her flat. Rowling’s mother Ann passed away later that year and the first Harry Potter novel features some of Rowling’s own thoughts about grief. Sadly her mother never learnt of her daughter’s literary phenomenon.
Rowling moved to Portugal to teach English where she met and married her husband and became a mother. In 1993 her marriage dissolved and Rowling moved to Edinburgh to be near her sister. She arrived with her baby daughter and the first three chapters of what would become The Philosopher’s Stone. During this time, she was diagnosed with clinical depression and was forced to obtain a restraining order against her husband. It’s a time in her life that the author has spoken about, describing herself as being “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless.”
Despite all this, Rowling finished her first manuscript in 1995 and found an agent. The twelve publishing houses who received the novel all rejected it. When it reached Bloomsbury, the first chapter was given by the chairman to his daughter, aged 8. She immediately asked for the second. The first book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published in June 1997. The last, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was published in July 2007 and Jo Rowling beat her own record as penning the fastest selling book of all time.
Harry Potter as a brand is now worth an estimated $15 billion. Rowling lives in Scotland with her husband Neil and her three children. She is the only person to have fallen off Forbes’ rich list due to charitable giving.
Lilly Ledbetter, equality activist
Lilly Ledbetter (born Lilly McDaniel in 1938) started working as a supervisor for the tire company Goodyear in 1979. She worked the overnight shift from 7pm until 7am, subjected to daily sexual discrimination and harassment, including from one supervisor who demanded sexual favors in return for a positive performance review. An anonymous note revealed that she was being paid far less in wages than her male peers but only was this proven to be true upon nearing her retirement.
In 1998 Ledbetter submitted a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). After she filed this complaint, she was reassigned to lift heavy tires- despite being in her 60s and the District Court ruled in favor of her employer. Later that year upon taking early retirement, Letbetter filed a suit under the Civil Rights Act and was instructed to receive compensation. Almost ten years later, Goodyear appealed to the Supreme Court who overturned this ruling. Ledbetter was dismissed as being unentitled to compensation because she’d filed her claim more than 180 days after receiving her first paycheck. The fact that she hadn’t known about the discrimation was deemed irrelevant and Ledbetter lost.
Despite knowing that any change in the law would not affect her own claim, Ledbetter continued to fight and appealed to Congress for a change in the law. In January 2009 the new President Obama signed his first act into law: The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Ledbetter’s husband Charles had passed away just a few months before. By 2011, more than 350 cases had already cited the Ledbetter decision and Lilly has said “I’ll be happy if the last thing they say about me after I die is that I made a difference.”
Malala Yousafzai, Nobel Laureate
Malala Yousafzai was born in Mingora, Pakistan in 1997. When the Taliban took control of her local town and declared that girls could no longer attend school, Malala became an advocate for girls’ education, which led to the Taliban issuing a death threat against her. In 2012, on a bus home the Taliban made an attempt on her life and shot her in the head. She was immediately flown to a hospital in Birmingham, UK where she underwent several operations and months of rehab.
The Yousafzai family stayed in Birmingham where Malala attended school. Rather than sit back and enjoy her new freedom, Malala continued to campaign for education rights and in 2013 launched The Malala Fund, along with her father. The charity advocates for girls to enjoy the right to free, safe education.
In 2014, at just seventeen years old, Malala received the Nobel Peace Prize, the youngest ever recipient. In 2015, she opened a school in Lebanon for Syrian refugees girls and now studies Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Oxford while she continues to fight for education and equality.
Simone Biles, Olympic gymnast
Simone Biles has overcome and achieved more in 22 years than most can hope to in a lifetime. At the age of 3, Biles and her siblings were taken into foster care, away from their biological mother who was suffering with drug and alcohol problems. After years of moving between foster homes, Simone and her siblings were adopted by their grandparents.
After falling in love with gymnastics at a young age, Biles began training sixteen hours a week before choosing to be homeschooled, sacrificing time with her friends to be able to dedicate time to the gym. She won her first World Championship title in 2013, before winning four gold medals at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
In 2015, the world was shocked when it was uncovered that Larry Nassar, the US Gymnastics Team coach had abused as many as 300 young gymnasts in care. Although she didn’t testify, Biles has since used her platform to advocate against injustices in the sports world. She was named “Sportswoman of the Year” by The Women’s Sports Foundation in 2014, was chosen as 2015’s Olympic Athlete Of The Year by the USOC and listed as One of the Most Influential People in the World by TIME Magazine. She recently won her 25th gold medal and is currently training for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Let me know in the comments who you think are some inspiring women.