When you close your eyes and think the word, “CEO,” who comes to mind? Think of another. And another. If you thought of the typical model of CEO that we often see on magazine covers and documentaries, don’t worry! As we continue to challenge the centuries-old traditions that perpetuated male-dominated conference and board rooms, women are increasingly breaking through social and political and taking the lead across industries and sectors. Says Stephanie Staiano, CSS ProSearch Sales Director.
We’ve put together a list of self-made female leaders across different business sectors who continue to inspire and disrupt their industries, all while exemplifying what it means to shatter the glass ceiling.
It’s important to note that the term self-made is objective and can mean different things, depending on who you ask. For our list, we defined someone to be self-made if they built their career without extensive support through generational wealth or relatives who were largely established in their respective industry.
Here is our list of ten self-made female CEOs to look up to:
Jen Rubio – Away
A first-generation Filipina American who first ventured into the world of business when she bought a lemonade stand from a neighbor for $20 during her childhood, Jen Rubio is the CEO, co-founder, and president of Away, currently one of the most popular luggage brands on the market. Having spent much of her early career traveling, Rubio was inspired to create the new travel brand when her luggage failed on a trip and she was left to ruminate on the lack of a stylish and durable luggage option that was also affordable. She founded Away with Stephanie Korey, a colleague from her time as head of social media at another direct-to-consumer brand, Warby Parker, and together they raised $31 million in initial seed rounds, making Away one of the largest seed financed female-backed startups.
Rihanna – Fenty Beauty and FENTY
Born Robyn Rihanna Fenty, the singer-turned-CEO grew up selling clothes alongside her father on the streets of Bridgetown, Barbados and spent the early part of her career recording demos during school holidays and moving between her home country and the US. Rihanna had already been a music and fashion icon for over a decade when she launched Fenty Beauty in 2017 with the mission to create a cosmetics company that made “women everywhere (fee) included.” The cosmetics and now lingerie brand is known for its inclusivity for all skin and body types, featuring dark-skinned and larger bodied models in their advertisements and fashion shows, and its global success has launched Rihanna into a second wave of global success.
Sarah Blakely – Spanx
Sarah Blakely spent the first years of her professional career exploring different interests, having taken the LSAT and working at Walt Disney World and as a stand-up comedian before landing a door-to-door sales position with an office supply company and getting promoted to national sales trainer at 25. As part of the typical salesperson attire, Blakely was forced to wear pantyhose in Florida heat and disliked the current appearance of what was available, but liked the fit and structure that control-top models gave her, thus catalyzing the next few years of experimenting with designs and facing rejections from companies who found no value in the design. Spanx eventually made it to retail stores like Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdales with Blakely handling all of the business operaitons, from marketing to product positioning. Having made $4 million in sales in its first year and $10 million in its second, the brand is now a staple in wardrobes across the globe and has become synonymous with control-top garments.
Oprah Winfrey – Harpo Productions and the Oprah Winfrey Network
Born to poverty in rural Missouri, raised by a single teenage mother, and eventually named the world’s most powerful woman across multiple media outlets, Oprah Winfrey is one of the most iconic and well-known examples of self-made success in every definition of the word. Beginning in radio and TV journalism, Winfrey was a co-anchor for a local evening news broadcast by the age of 19 and moved into Chicago’s local daytime talk show arena before launching her own production company, Harpo Productions. The Oprah Winfrey Show ran for 25 seasons and became a staple of American culture, discussing a wide breadth of topics such as literature, interviews, philanthropy, and global political and social events and going on to win 47 Daytime Emmy awards before Winfrey stopped submitting in 2000. The final season concluded in 2011, but Winfrey has gone on to new projects such as appearances on Apple TV Plus and Discover Plus, taking with her an incredible sense of humanity for her journalistic subjects and a keen eye for story.
Lisa Su – Advanced Micro Devices (AMD)
A first-generational Taiwanese American who majored in electrical engineering at MIT because it “seemed like the most difficult major,” Lisa Su is known for her work on semiconductor and silicon-on-insulator designs during her time as vice president of IBM’s Semiconductor Research and Development Center, resulting in new industry standards and 20% faster chips. Now the CEO and chair of AMD, Su has focused the new era of her career on diversifying the company’s reach to non-PC products and developing high-performance computing and graphics technologies in gaming, datacenter, and “immersive platforms” sectors. The company launched Ryzen in 2017, increasing AMD’s CPU market share to 11% and introducing Su as the first woman to top AP’s annual CEO compensation survey, with her 2019 pay package valued at $59.5 million.
Beth Ford – Land o’ Lakes
Beth Ford became the first openly gay female CEO of a Fortune 500 company when she took leadership of Land O’Lakes in 2018. The fifth in a family of eight children, Ford entered the agriculture business at 12 when she worked as a corn de-tasseler for $2 an hour, and later continued to work other jobs to fund her college education, including cashier, house painter, and janitor. She joined Land O’Lakes as chief supply chain and operations officer in 2011 and was eventually promoted to COO, then president and CEO by an all-male board — at the time one of the 25 women leading Fortune 500 companies. Since her appointment, Ford has led the company to implement new technologies in agriculture and to advocate for digital equity and connectivity in rural communities.
Melanie Perkins – Canva
One of the world’s youngest female CEOs of a tech startup and one of Australia’s richest women, Melanie Perkins is the co-founder and CEO of Canva, a graphic design platform valued at $40 billion as of September 2021. Perkins credits her first business venture and the beginning of her entrepreneurial drive at 14 when she began selling handmade scarves at local shops and markets in her hometown of Perth, Australia. Her passion for graphic design and interest in making it more accessible to users who were interested in simpler features led her to co-found Fusion Books in 2007 at the age of 20, a program used for designing school yearbooks. The software proved a good niche market to test the idea for Canva, which she began with her Fusion Books co-founder Cliff Obrecht. Canva was rejected by over 100 local investors in Perth and had trouble finding funding in Silicon Valley until Perkins and Obrecht were introduced to Cameron Adams, who would later join as third founder and CPO. As CEO of Canva, Perkins has been vocal about the gender disparity in tech and implements policies to eliminate bias in hiring processes, leading the company to have 41% female representation versus the industry average of 28%.
Indra Nooyi – PepsiCo
Indra Nooyi is the former CEO of PepsiCo and has consistently ranked in Forbes’ lists of the world’s 100 most powerful women. Born in Tamil Nadu, India, Nooyi studied physics, chemistry, and mathematics during her undergrad and received a post-graduate degree from the prestigious Indian Institute of Management before moving to the US to pursue her master’s in Public and Private Management at Yale School of Management. She began her post-education career as a strategy consultant for Boston Consulting Group, then moved on to Motorola as vice president and Director of Corporate Strategy and Planning, before joining PepsiCo in 1995. Nooyi became the fifth CEO of the global brand in 2006 and led the company’s global strategy and restructuring for the next decade, including the acquisition of Tropicana and mergers with Quaker Oats Company and Gatorade (a chess-like maneuver to get ahead of rival Coca-Cola, which owns the rival Powerade). Nooyi’s strategy, named Performance with a Purpose, has led the brand to create long-term growth while fostering projects for positive impact in nutrition, environment, and sustainability.
Jayshree Ullal – Arista Networks
Jayshree Ullal serves as the CEO and president of Arista Networks, a cloud networking company known for their award-winning solutions for large datacenter storage and computing environments. Ullal studied electrical engineering in her undergrad and engineering management in her master’s at Santa Clara University before beginning her career in engineering and strategy at AMD and Fairchild Semiconductor, moving on to work as director of internetworking products at Ungermann-Bass before joining Crescendo Communications, where she eventually became vice president of marketing. After Cisco Systems acquired Crescendo Communications in its first acquisition, Ullal began work on the Cisco Catalyst switching business and led the sector from its beginning to becoming a $5 million business in 2000. She was eventually named Senior Vice President of Data Center & Switching and spanned a 15-year career at Cisco before being named CEO and president of Arista Networks in 2008, leading the company to their IPO in 2014.
Karen S. Lynch – CVS Health
Karen S. Lynch credits her passion and chosen career path in health care to her family life experiences, having lost her mother to suicide at the age of 12 and her aunt to breast cancer, lung cancer, and emphysema in her 20s. Named Fortune’s Most Powerful Woman in Business in 2021, Lynch served as executive at Magellan Health Services and Cigna before becoming the first female president of Aetna in 2015, where she remained through CVS’s $70 billion acquisition a few years later. Lynch rose to leadership as president and CEO of CVS Health in early 2021, leading the company to administer the COVID-19 vaccine in more than 40,000 long-term care facilities and in pharmacies in 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington DC.
Martine Rothblatt – United Therapeutics
With a career spanning a few decades and an impressive array of different industries, Martine Rothblatt is a lawyer, author, and entrepreneur who has worked in satellite communications, the Human Genome Project, and biopharmaceuticals. Named on Forbes’s 100 Greatest Living Business Minds of the Century, Rothblatt is the creator of SiriusXM Satellite Radio and founder and chairwoman of the board of United Therapeutics, a biotechnology company known for their development of life-extending technologies in lung disease and organ manufacturing. United Therapeutics’ subsidiary, Lung Biotechnology, focuses on preserving and restoring donor lungs to make them viable for transportation and has led innovations in electric helicopters for efficient energy consumption and reducing the transportation time for transplant organs. Rothblatt came out as a transgendered woman in 1994 and has been a lifelong advocate for LGBTQIA+ rights.
Stay inspired and keep inspiring
We realize that there are systemic nuances across intersections of identity that provide advantages for some and barriers for others, so we offer this list as a surface-level look at the successful female CEOs who continue to break barriers and inspire success.
At CSS ProSearch, we take a consultative approach to placing the right candidates in the right positions to ensure success on an individual and organization-wide level, acting as a true partner in the success of both our clients and our talent. With over 50 years of combined experience, our team combines best-in-class recruiting practices, technology, research, and innovative approaches to deliver exceptional service with every engagement. Learn more here.