Earn Entrepreneurship

10 Inspiring Self-Made Female Leaders — And How They Got There

Lindsay Tigar  |  February 28, 2023

Ready to start your own business? Here’s some real-life advice from female entrepreneurs who built successful companies from the ground up.  

March is Women’s History Month, and while at HerMoney we honor women daily, this month is a great time to continue making strides. If you dream of becoming an entrepreneur or a leader within your industry, knowing where to begin, how to make an impact and how to build yourself up can be difficult. Especially if you have already worked your way up the ladder—the thought of starting over or changing strides can be terrifying. The bad news? There’s no one-way path to success—everyone’s journey is different. The good news? That’s precisely what makes it unique—and the opportunities are endless. And the even better news? These 10 inspiring self-made leaders share their stories and their best advice for how your big idea can be a very big success.

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Just Start

When I tell my entrepreneurial story, I always mention that I didn’t know if it would work. I was sure it should, but I didn’t know if timing, resources, and clients would align to make it the success it is today. There is no such thing as ‘the right time.’ If I had waited for all those things to align before starting, I would still be waiting. So I started small and promised myself that if things continued to fall into place and work out, I would just keep going. The first sign I got that I was on the right path was when Glowbar was available to trademark. That was five years ago and since then, the business has continued to grow in ways I never imagined.” 

—Rachel Liverman, the CEO and founder of Glowbar. In January, Glowbar announced a $10 million series A funding round. With this investment, Glowbar is expected to more than double its studio count by the end of 2023, with expansion within the New York tri-state area and the eastern seaboard. 

Invest in yourself—and take time to study everything

“When you’re building ‘your own,’ there will be a lot of skills, industry knowledge, and experience you will have to teach yourself. You’ll have to tap into your networks to identify training programs, self-study courses, and coaches on your own. As a self-made leader, you don’t have a boss or manager requiring you to be accountable to learn more, so you will have to analyze your progress and monitor if you’re meeting your goals as a metric to determine when you need to learn or study something more. Also, remember, no work experience is beneath you. When starting out as a self-made leader or entrepreneur, you will wear many hats to grow your project. You’ll be the CEO, the delivery person, the executive assistant, the caterer, and the accountant—sometimes all at once. And, as a self-made leader, this will continue to occur at many points along your journey. When you’re passionate about succeeding, you must realize that none of those tasks are beneath you, and to meet your goals, you often must execute lots of tasks that you don’t want to.” 

Kelly Fair, the founder and executive director of Polished Pebbles. To date, they have assisted girls and their mothers in creating 20+ businesses, serving 1,500 students per year. They’ve also doubled revenue in the last three years. 

“Niche Down”

“When you have deep knowledge on a subject, you can present yourself as an authority and be seen as a true leader in your area of expertise. When you niche down, you can really immerse yourself in your industry, learn all of the up-to-date information and strategies, and get to know key players, movers, and shakers (and then become one of them yourself). As you cultivate that deep industry knowledge, you must take action and put yourself out there. No ‘expert fairy’ will come along and declare you as an expert for your whole industry to see! You have to take the initiative and do it yourself. Confidently presenting yourself as an expert in a particular niche allows the media, your peers, and prospective clients to see you as one and treat you as a credible authority.” 

Jen Berson, the founder of Jeneration PR and Jeneration Academy. Her company has grossed more than seven figures by sharing expert strategies with agency owners. They serve 4,000 members from 30 different countries.  

You cannot go it alone 

I started my first tea company, Zhena’s Gypsy Tea, as a broke single mom with a newborn that needed special medical care—I miraculously grew that business from a tea cart in a friend’s store to being in 20,000 grocery stores through my mission of ending poverty for tea workers through Fair Trade. After the company was taken over by a group of male investors who wanted to shift focus from Fair Trade to selling diet teas in drugstores, they eventually fired me for disagreeing with the direction. 

“I started Magic Hour as my rebirth business after they closed Zhena’s Gypsy Tea. My former customers found me and started ordering again! It was a great joy to be back in my calling—helping people heal naturally through botanicals and finding that my community missed me and was so excited to support me in my new tea company. There is no such thing as truly self-made—it took a village to raise Magic Hour. When you become a self-made leader, you cannot go it alone, so my advice would be to share your idea once you are secure and confident enough to take any feedback while still sticking to your vision with those you would like to have help you. Only bring on investors if you are willing and able to manage a group dynamic for the good of the vision. You will succeed if you tie your vision to your values. My saying has always been, ‘With a mission to serve, you cannot fail,’ and this is true to this day—serve others, and you will be given flight and growth.” 

Zhena Muzyka, founder and master tea blender of Magic Hour. Magic Hour serves 60,000 active tea lovers and is a $5M+ business. 

Don’t compare yourself to others—and remember; it’s never too late

“I became a self-made leader after spending 20 years at a major pharmaceutical company. I had no experience in retail and had never taken a business class. My company has made the Inc. 5000 list for the past two years, and we are projected to grow 50 percent this year with new products launching at over 20,000 more stores. The comparison trap can be just that: a trap that can stall your momentum and keep you spinning in a world of negativity and self-doubt and leave you trapped, stuck, paralyzed, without the ability to move forward and grow… not just in your business, but personally as well. I have been there early on in my journey, and I can tell you that it never ends well. You get stuck in an endless loop of feeling less than and where your self-esteem is destroyed, leading to depression and anxiety. Don’t look at what others are doing because the world needs your gifts and talents.” 

Deeannah Seymour, the CEO and co-founder of pH-D Feminine Health. Every year since creation, they have experienced growth ranging from 40 to 100 percent, with a revenue in 2022 of $20 million. Their products are sold at stores including Target, Walmart, CVS, Walgreens, Kroger, and Publix. 

You don’t have to be an entrepreneur to be self-made

“You can be a self-made leader without starting a new venture. I firmly believe in the concept of an ‘intrapreneur’ that is self-made within a larger corporation. For example, you can look at the current processes in your company and find ways to improve them. You can think of new sales pipelines or new partnerships. Or you can mentor and coach a new cohort of employees! Entrepreneurship is often over-glamorized, and I think it’s extremely commendable to be a leader within an already-established organization.” 

Connie Lo, the co-founder of Three Ships Beauty. They grew sales from an initial investment of $4,000 to multi million dollars in a few years. From 2021 to 2022, their sales were up 40 percent in e-commerce and 60 percent in retail sales. They are currently carried in 400 retail locations and intend to be in 1,000 by the end of the year. 

Be willing to change your lifestyle

“When I mapped out my plan for 2021, I had in bold letters, start your own company. I was committed to taking the leap, even if it wasn’t perfect. I conceptualized and planned to launch Leaves of Leisure while working two other jobs and in debt, having recently purchased a home. While I didn’t launch the brand until the Fall of 2022, I set myself up for success. I worked late into the night and on weekends to create the brand and took on as much work as I could feasibly handle to fund it. I finally took my life and my dreams into my own hands and put things in motion. 

“Being a self-made leader is tough; it means you have to take the reins and create the outcome you want and it often comes at the cost of weekend hangouts with friends, lazy Sundays, and evenings binge-watching TV. While I don’t believe you should sacrifice sleep or health and wellness for any dream, there are things you just won’t have time for as you build the future, the company or the life you want. However, I think the biggest advice I can give is that sometimes our success and path doesn’t look exactly how we thought it would, and it often doesn’t happen as fast as we would like. The key is to remember that every little effort you put in adds up, and those 1% gains (that often feel depleting) eventually add up to huge gains.” 

Allison Ullo, the CEO and founder of Leaves of Leisure. Since its launch in fall of 2022, they’ve packed more than 50,000 tea bags.

Be willing to bet on yourself 11/10 times

“There will be days you want to give up, moments of fear and times of absolute elation, but remember that you can do hard things and must push yourself through the uncomfortable. Learn everything you can about every role in your business; you will have more empathy towards your team, create better structure as you grow and be able to identify gaps before they become challenges. Gratitude is the mother of all happiness, so think of problems as puzzles and be thankful for the journey. Begin with the end in mind and a roadmap with a mindset of hoping for the best but prudently planning for the worst. And above all, put the most important things first—family, faith, friendships—and keep it all in perspective.”

—Jamie O’Banion, the CEO and founder of BeautyBio. They have enlarged their retail footprint by 415% in the last two years and are in over 2,000 stores globally.

You need patience and perseverance 

“When I look back on the course of my life, I am still shocked and heartbroken and overcome. I lost everything when I left Syria to save myself and my daughter. The country was on the edge of turmoil, my personal life was in shambles, and I was far from where I had imagined myself… My daughter and I left the country with nothing—leaving it all behind. I honestly didn’t know where our next meal would come from in the following days. It was really scary. The life I knew was left behind in Syria. But this is where I struggle with the expression ‘self-made.’ As a family, we talk a lot about what privilege means and our support networks. As we look around us and see so many refugees from our own country with absolutely nothing, I am so grateful that I had a family to help me to rebuild. 

“So much of my strength comes from my family. My mother was my greatest support and inspiration as I rebuilt my life and in the early days of building Afia. I would call her all the time for advice, support and encouragement, which got me through the tough times. Being an entrepreneur is a long journey. You will hit a lot of obstacles and have moments that feel like a huge success. Learn from all of it. I am a big believer that things happen for a reason. And in my darkest times, it’s helped me keep going. I am an optimist, and I find strength in that and always look for the light, the lessons, and the takeaways. So my biggest advice is to stay optimistic, stay determined and don’t let yourself be deterred by obstacles. No journey is without its share of obstacles.” 

—Farrah Moussallati Sibai, co-founder and president of Afia Foods. Afia has doubled distribution each of the past two years–including 200% growth in retail distribution in the last year. This was supported by signing partnerships with large-scale retailers, including Whole Foods, Giant Foods, and Harris-Teeter, and growing with existing retailers like Sprouts.  

A woman in a male-dominated space can stand out

“I grew up in a middle-class family outside of Philadelphia and went to MIT with the support of financial aid. I graduated in 2010 with two bachelor’s degrees in economics and management science and an offer to join the investment banking division at Barclays. The day after graduation, I rented a U-Haul and drove myself from MIT to NYC with only the money I’d earned through summer internships and part-time jobs in my bank account.

“I spent the next 10 years building a career in investment banking and private equity, including working at Goldman Sachs from 2012 to 2020. In 2020 I received a compelling offer that would have accelerated my career at another investment firm. The night I left Goldman, I was introduced to a plum liqueur that inspired me to create a spirit that reflected what I felt was missing from the alcohol space; something truly delicious, versatile and not too sweet or strong that I could sip on throughout an entire evening. Now, as an entrepreneur in the spirits space, instead of feeling uncomfortable as the only woman in the room, I take confidence in the fact that the men in the room notice you and remember you are there.

“My team at Goldman once advised a famous client on buying a professional sports team. In early meetings, I made sure I was the go-to numbers person, answering their thoughtful questions in detail. As the opportunity progressed, more senior partners from the firm got involved. The team eventually grew so big that someone decided I was too junior to attend the meetings. After not attending one meeting, I was abruptly invited back for the next one. Upon arriving, the client rushed towards me (through a sea of senior partners in dark suits), giving me a hug and announcing, ‘the brains of the operation are here.’ I later discovered that the client had asked for me at the meeting I wasn’t invited to, and the partners told them I was on vacation. I was never excluded from a meeting with that team again.” 

—Jenn Toyzer, co-founder and CEO of UME Plum Liqueur. In the last year, they grew revenue over 5X; in the last six months, they have more than tripled their retail sales. They also increased online sales from less than 1% of their business in October 2022 to over 20% by December.


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