Aren’t we all just a little bit in awe of female founders? A woman who has managed to break through all kinds of ceilings, shake off naysayers, find an understanding partner and achieve a happy work/life balance. So what inspires them and what can we learn from their experiences? Julie Hoegh finds out with her pick of the best books about the women who did
THE BEAUTY QUEENS: War Paint by Lindy Woodhead
“Tyrannical, temperamental, obsessive, mercurial, despotic workaholics” – these are words Lindy Woodhead uses to describe rival cosmetic founders Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden in War Paint. In this fascinating book, we see how both women – never ones to shy away from a lie or two about their ages, backgrounds and experience – built pioneering, multimillion-dollar cosmetics empires. I was astounded by the sophistication of some of their products (this was the early 20th century), although not all are tempting to try. How about “clipping”, for example, a precursor to Botox which involved surgically cutting facial muscles to paralyse them? Other treatments had an even more medieval ring to them – Elizabeth Arden’s “muscle strapping”, for example, used a canvas and leather contraption hooked under the chin and tied over the head to “lift the facial muscles and cure slack”.
THE WELL-HEELED SHOE ENTREPRENEUR: In My Shoes by Tamara Mellon
There’s more than meets the eye to glamorous It girl Tamara Mellon, founder of Jimmy Choo. Her memoirs In My Shoes takes us on her journey from fired Vogue contributor, via drug addiction and rehab, to become founder of one of the most successful luxury shoe brands in recent years. It might be hard to feel sorry for Mellon – who grew up between Belgravia and Hollywood, attended exclusive boarding schools and holidayed on mega-yachts – but not all wealthy homes are happy homes. Mellon’s alcoholic mother, seemingly set on destroying her, hovers in the background like a horror film character. Her father, himself a successful entrepreneur, saves her through their mutual passion for building businesses. Mellon might have been materially spoiled, but she’s not lazy, and her determination and creative talent takes her past the hurdle of a failed marriage to the late Matthew Mellon, who was a banking heir all the way to the top. Meanwhile, private equity investors present further challenges to her business. A fair amount of name-dropping aside, this was an enjoyable and inspiring read.
THE ART LOVER: Out of This Century by Peggy Guggenheim
Peggy Guggenheim, one of the legendary art collectors of the 20th century, left behind a lasting legacy in the form of Venice’s stunning museum, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Peggy’s autobiography, Out of This Century: Confessions of an Art Addict, is the incredible story of her passion for art and nose for spotting some of the 20th century’s most iconic artists: Constantin Brancusi, Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Henry Moore, Alexander Calder and countless more. At the outbreak of the Second World War, she put herself on “a regime to buy one painting a day”, and surely snapped up a few bargains from desperate families. Guggenheim’s self-confessed nymphomania (reportedly more than a thousand men during her years living in Europe) wasn’t exactly conducive to a stable family life and her two children suffered. Her life was art and she didn’t really care what people thought about her. As a human being she might have had her shortcomings; as a female museum founder and art collector, however, she was second to none.
Andre Deutsch, £14.99
THE COMPUTER GENIUS: Let It Go by Dame Stephanie Shirley
If you’re looking for a truly inspiring story, find out how Dame Stephanie Shirley went from being a five-year-old Kindertransport refugee to one of Britain’s wealthiest women and most generous philanthropists in her memoirs Let It Go. Placed with kind foster parents in rural England, Shirley excelled at school and had to be moved to a boys’ school, where maths and science were taught to her level. In 1962, she founded a women-employees-only software company where, in-between nappy changes and breastfeeding, her staff would design ground-breaking software solutions for companies such as Rolls-Royce, British Rail, Tate & Lyle and Concorde (they came up with its black box). As the concept of a “female computer programmer” was an oxymoron, Shirley used the first name Steve to drum up business. Dame Stephanie always vowed to make hers a “life worth saving”. She more than delivered.
Portfolio Penguin, £9.99
THE PHILANTHROPIST: The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates
There’s a lot more to Melinda Gates than being Bill’s wife. Since co-founding the eponymous foundation in 2000, Melinda has risen to become a formidable philanthropist and leader of the world’s largest charitable foundation. Initially reluctant to step out into the limelight, Gates realised she had it in her power to change the world and, with it, came courage to speak out. The Moment of Lift is about empowering women, the core mission of Gates’s foundation, but also about her own personal transformation, from a traditional, Catholic, self-confessed “good girl” to an outspoken advocate for contraception and feminism. It’s easy when you’re Gates, you might think, but it would have been a lot easier for her to do nothing.
THE FRAUDSTER: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
Finishing off with the biggest female founder crook of them all: Elizabeth Holmes. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou, is the mesmerising story of the founder of Theranos, a health care startup poised to revolutionise blood testing. It wasn’t to be but that only transpired after Holmes had poured $1 billion into a black hole… and lied about it. Reads like a thriller.
Pan Macmillan, £9.99
Julie Hoegh is the founder of the book blog Bookstoker.com which reviews and recommends the best literary fiction, classics, non-fiction and children’s books.