7 Female Entrepreneurs All Small Business CEOs Should Follow

From venturing into predominantly male industries to being at the cutting edge of innovation, many female entrepreneurs have blazed new trails and challenged the status quo. They can serve as virtual mentors if you learn their stories and follow their lead.

Here are seven female entrepreneurs that all small-business leaders should know about and look to for their own inspiration.

1. Anne Wojcicki

Genetic testing is a big business today, and Anne Wojcicki is a pioneer in the industry. Since co-founding 23andMe in 2006, she’s been providing people with a way to tap into their genes to get health information that can help them better their lives.

Along the way, Wojcicki overcame a number of setbacks, including being ordered by the Food and Drug Administration to stop selling the kits until she could prove the results were accurate. Her perseverance and belief in her product paid off; in 2017, 23andMe became the first company to receive FDA approval for direct-to-consumer tests that identify health conditions.

Wojcicki is an inspiration to entrepreneurs. She gave this advice in an interview with Inc. magazine: “I tell my employees they should assume that some things will resonate with people and some things won’t. And the things that don’t are not failures. They’re just something you learn from. … Most things in life don’t work, and if you don’t learn from them, how are you ever going to figure out what does work?”

Twitter: @annewoj23

2. Selina Tobaccowala

A pioneer in the male-dominated tech industry, Selina Tobaccowala was a student at Stanford University in 1997 when she co-founded the online invitation service Evite. Four years later, her company was acquired by Ticketmaster. After working as president of SurveyMonkey, she and her Evite co-founder, Al Leib, reunited in 2016 and launched Gixo, a fitness app that streams exercise classes to mobile devices.

Tobaccowala says entrepreneurs should be explicit about company culture. “My co-founder and I on our very first day literally laid out what type of company we wanted to build and what we each wanted to learn,” she explained in an interview with The Startup. “It might be trite, but there is nothing more important than the team.”

Twitter: @Selinato

3. Julia Hartz

Julia Hartz is the CEO and co-founder of Eventbrite, a platform that allows you to create and sell tickets to your own events. Launched in 2006, the company went public in 2018, making Hartz one of the very few female CEOs to lead a successful tech IPO.

One of the best lessons entrepreneurs can learn from Hartz is that her focus on achieving profitable growth was key. She started her journey by talking with customers, getting their feedback and improving the product over time.

“We are future-proofing the business by taking strong measures and a path to profitability and coming in with a strong balance sheet this year,” she said in an interview with Startup Grind. “Getting to profitability does not mean all our problems are solved. I am looking out further on the horizon.”

Twitter: @JuliaHartz

4. Brit Morin

When Brit Morin graduated from college, she moved to Silicon Valley and worked for Apple and then for Google. Those jobs gave her solid experience as well as a glimpse into how powerful tech companies are run. Although Morin had a background in tech, she also had a passion for do-it-yourself projects. She decided to combine the two, launching Brit + Co in 2011 when she was just 25 years old. Part lifestyle blog and part e-commerce platform, the site has more than 5 million visitors each month.

Morin is an inspiration for following your passion and taking a leap. “Starting a company at 25, I remember, it was one of those things [where I thought] well, men always start companies when they’re 25, so why can’t a woman do it?'” she told Vox. “I felt bullish enough to try it. The worst case — in Silicon Valley, this happens all the time, right? Ninety-nine percent fail, and you go back and you get another great job, or you start another company and try again. There wasn’t really a downside for me.”

Twitter: @Brit

5. Payal Kadakia

Payal Kadakia is the co-founder of ClassPass, a subscription-based app that lets users find and book fitness classes online. Kadakia serves as ClassPass’s executive chairman and has raised $173 million from outside investors. She believes the difference between successful and unsuccessful people is execution.

“Ideas are a dime a dozen, and people can have ideas, but you need to be able to get stuff done,” Kadakia said in an interview with CNBC.

To survive the rough patches all new startups experience, Kadakia focused on her customers’ lives. “In the beginning, when we went through the ups and downs that we went through, the thing in my head was that reservation number,” Kadakia explained. “Because without that, I wasn’t impacting people’s life and time.”

Twitter: @PayalKadakia

6. Thai Lee

Thai Lee is the president and CEO of SHI International, one of the largest IT providers in the world, with $6 billion in sales and 3,000 employees. Founded in 1989, the company sells third-party hardware and software as well as custom applications and consulting services. Forbes estimates the company’s value at approximately $1.8 billion, making Lee one of 18 self-made female billionaires in the U.S.

While achieving that level of success is a “unicorn” accomplishment, Lee has several practices that would inspire entrepreneurs. For example, she empowers her staff members to make their own decisions and she treats customers like partners.

“We have no executive parking. … We don’t have a special executive compensation plan. We try to make sure that everybody feels valued,” she said in an interview with Forbes.

LinkedIn: @Thai Lee

7. Mariam Naficy

Mariam Naficy, CEO and founder of the online design marketplace Minted, earned more venture-capital funding than any other female entrepreneur, with a $208 million round. A serial entrepreneur, Naficy created Minted as an e-commerce stationery business in 2007. However, when the goods weren’t selling, she pivoted, hosting a crowd-sourced design challenge for independent artists, producing and selling the top-voted entries.

“I’m a very disruptive person at heart — a bit of a boat rocker,” she told Inc. “I really love the artists and the designers, and I really wanted to bring their work to the world.”

Entrepreneurs can be inspired by Naficy’s willingness to change her business model as well as her pioneering into the crowd-sourced marketplace when her investors were skeptical. “It has turned into a business that is in the hundreds of millions of dollars in sales, with an incredibly vibrant community worldwide of 15,000-plus artists,” she said in the Inc. interview. “We are pushing 400 employees right now, and around the holidays, that will double to 800. It’s certainly not a ‘lifestyle’ business anymore.”

Twitter: @mnaficy

Learn by Example

All of these women have important and interesting lessons to impart to every business owner. By following their stories and ongoing examples, you should put yourself in a better position to succeed in your business. You might even become an inspiration to others.

Stephanie Vozza
Stephanie Vozza
Stephanie Vozza is an experienced writer who specializes in small business, finance, HR and retail. She has been a regular columnist for Fast Company for more than four years and her work frequently appears in Inc., Entrepreneur and Parade.

See all posts by Stephanie Vozza
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