20 Best Biographies for Women in Business - Part 1

by Florine Church

Business students and professionals alike can greatly benefit from gorging on their forebears' biographies, memoirs and autobiographies — no matter their demographic. But considering difficulties faced by both historical and contemporary women, it makes sense that the female executives, entrepreneurs and innovators would seek out role models with whom they can better identify.

Please do not take this listing as a comprehensive guide to the lives behind the stories, but rather a small sample for contemplation before further inquiry. It attempts to list a nicely broad swath of industries, perspectives and backgrounds, from fashion to some harrowing Bolivian mines…and all that sits between.

   1. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own by Axel Madsen: Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel revolutionized fashion with her keen creativity and business acumen, and this biography peers into the celebrated woman's life and times. Author Axel Madsen blends the deeply personal with the impressively professional, painting Chanel as a three-dimensional individual enjoying high glamour and suffering wrenching tragedy.

   2. On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A'Lelia Bundles: Although she weathered an incredibly difficult life of poverty and oppression from an early age, the brilliant businesswoman and philanthropist Madam C.J. Walker eventually earned the "first black female millionaire" honor after developing and marketing African-American hair care products. She also opened up some great career opportunities for African-American women, ensuring them more options beyond domestic servitude, providing important historical and cultural context (and commentary) for biographer A'Lelia Bundles.

  3. Global Girlfriends: How One Mom Made It Her Business to Help Women in Poverty Worldwide by Stacey Edgar: This autobiography chronicles the humble beginnings and subsequent success of Stacey Edgar's Global Girlfriend initiative, though it focuses more on her work than her personal life. This amazing business offers up career opportunities for oppressed women worldwide, offering them fair pay, a nurturing environment and opportunities for creativity and growth.

4. Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man by Norah Vincent: More of a sociological work on arbitrary gender perceptions and roles than a straight-up business piece, Self-Made Man nevertheless provides some fascinating insight into uniquely masculine struggles. Norah Vincent lived as a man for an entire year, even taking on a sales position that sheds light on some issues male workers face that their female peers might not ever realize.

5. Oprah: A Biography by Kitty Kelley: Until the iconic lifestyle guru herself finally gets around to publishing her memoirs — and, come on, everyone knows she probably will! — most readers wanting to know more about Oprah Winfrey's life turn towards this popular, albeit unauthorized, biography. Through a series of interviews, she hears what relatives, friends and lovers have to say about one of America's most successful, hardworking and humanitarian media moguls.

20 best biographies for women in business part 1


6. Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper by C. Marina Marchese: The founder of Red Bee Honey reflects on her fascination with all things apiary, gleaning plentiful professional and personal lessons in the process. Even those without any real connection to or interest in the natural world and cosmetics — C. Marina Marchese sprinkles her memoir with some cool recipes — can still walk away from this autobiography with something to ponder.

7. Autobiography of Mother Jones by Mother Jones: As one of the most influential working-class labor leaders in the United States, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones' passion for socioeconomic justice earned her the moniker "The Most Dangerous Women in America." Regardless of one's political leanings, reading her autobiography opens up an interesting historical perspective on business and economics.

8. Let Me Speak! Testimony of Domitila, a Woman of the Bolivian Mines by Domitila Barrios De Chungara: Another landmark piece in the worker's rights movement, this time taking readers inside the horrific conditions of Bolivian mine shafts. Both a glimpse into history and a treatise on keeping employees as safe and healthy as possible, Let Me Speak! looks at big business through the eyes of its most marginalized demographic.

9. Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her by Robin Gerber: Ruth Handler co-founded Mattel with her husband Elliot and launched the iconic Barbie doll in 1959, changing the entire toy industry (and, many say, perceptions of women's bodies) forever. But her life was not an easy one, and she spent her remaining decades creating prosthetics for fellow women who underwent mastectomies.

10. The Road to Someplace Better by Lillian Lincoln Lambert: The daughter of poor Virginian subsistence farmers, Lillian Lincoln Lambert eventually shattered molds as the first African-American woman to graduate from Harvard Business School. Her amazing, inspiring autobiography chronicles the passion, hard work and occasional desperation that went into her eventual academic and professional success.


Read about more biographies for women in Part 2 of 20 Best Biographies for Women in Business. 


Arabella Bianco said...

Hi Deborah, thank you for these great biographies. I would like to add Josephine Baker if that's OK.

Born in 1906 into the poverty of St. Louis, Josephine Baker was a remarkable woman and entertainer. I have just finished reading 'The Josephine Baker Story' by Ean Wood which chronicles her incredible life.

She began her singing and dancing cabaret shows in America, but moved to Paris after experiencing racial intolerance. There she starred in the Folies Bergeres, and also toured extensively.

During World War II she worked as an undercover agent and was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, the highest decoration in France.

Always a leader for civil rights, she adopted twelve children of all colours and creeds, her 'rainbow' children.

Late in life she experienced financial difficulties, and was evicted from her french chateau, but then rescued by Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco.

She died in 1975 after having become famous again, performing at such venues as the London Palladium and Carnegie Hall.

A legend in her own time.

Deb Bailey said...

Hi Arabella - Thank you so much for the Josephine Baker bio. She's one of my favorites! She lived such an interesting life and certainly is legendary. Thanks for your comments!

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to inform you and your readers of this very important fact - Madame C.J. Walker’s historic company still exists today and has never stopped manufacturing all of the original hair oils! Anyone who visits our website at http://www.madamewalker.net can view and purchase the full product line. The website also contains valuable information about the stock / asset sale and Raymond Randolph’s purchase of the original Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company in 1985 from the Walker Trustees in Indianapolis, Indiana and how his family continues to keep Madame Walker’s “true” legacy alive. Due to our ownership of Madame’s historic company and the historical documents and memorabilia of the company, the Randolph Family can provide the most detailed and historically sound information about Madame C.J. Walker and her company by calling toll free, 866-552-2838 or going to the contact us page of our website.

Angela Randolph

Deb Bailey said...

Angela, Thanks for updating us about Madame C.J. Walker's company. It's great to hear that it is still in existence. She's an iconic figure that women entrepreneurs today can learn from. Thanks for your comments!

A'Lelia said...

Hi Deborah,
Thanks so much for including On Her Own Ground, my biography of Madam Walker, with the other iconic women on your list. As Walker's great-great-granddaughter and as president of the Madam Walker Family Archives (the largest private collection of Walker photos, business records, personal correspondence, clothing and artifacts), it is a joy for me to share her story with others. Today our family proudly celebrates the legacy of the Walker women through our archives, books, speeches and the Madam Walker Theatre Center (a National Historic Landmark). We'd love for you and your readers to visit our websites.
A'Lelia Bundles

Deb Bailey said...

Hi A'Lelia,
I'm excited to have the author of Madame Walker's bio (and Madame Walker's great-great-granddaughter) stop by the blog! Thanks so much for sharing this information with us.
Thank you for your comments!

avril said...

Very interesting list, I will definitely read some of these books after I finish the Top 9 biographies by Yuri Mintskovsky.
Two year ago I had no idea that biographies can be so educative and fascinating....I first read such a book when I got one as a birthday present and since that moment 90% of my lecture contains biographies.

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