Meet five of the world’s richest self-made women

Female entrepreneurs are taking charge of their financial futures and changing the rules of the game, experts say

Wu Yajun, chairperson of Longfor Properties, is one of the world's richest self-made women with a net worth of $14.5 billion. Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

The world’s richest self-made woman is property investor Wu Yajun, who had a net worth of $14.5 billion as of March 6, according to the real-time Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

However, Ms Wu's net worth pales in comparison to that of the world's richest person, Tesla founder Elon Musk, who also happens to be a self-made billionaire and has a personal fortune estimated at $216bn. Ms Fan is placed 150th on the list.

Although their net worth has been affected by recent economic tension, the figures serve to indicate that despite their gains, women are a long way off from gender parity on this front at least, according to Jessica Robinson, founder and managing director of Moxie Future, a Dubai-based company that seeks to empower female investors and help them to grow their wealth through responsible and sustainable investing.

“Globally, it is estimated that women now own over one third of the world’s private wealth and, increasingly, it is self-generated,” Ms Robinson says.

“That said, women continue to face an uphill struggle when it comes to money and building enough capital to see them through their lifetimes.”

Most of us are familiar with the gender pay gap, a term used to denote the difference in earnings between women and men. However, women also face other financial gaps, says Ms Robinson, who is also the author of Financial Feminism: A Woman's Guide to Investing for a Sustainable Future.

Female-founded start-ups in the US received only 2.2 per cent of total venture funding in the first eight months of 2021, according to a report by research company PitchBook.

Similarly, the investment gap means that women are putting aside less money than men and, consequently, missing out on critical opportunities to grow their wealth, Fidelity Investment said in its 2021 Women and Investing report.

Women tend to keep extra money (besides retirement and emergency funds) in cash, while more than half of American women earning more than $50,000 tend to have cash savings of $20,000 and above, the survey found.

Meanwhile, the retirement gap indicates how far behind women are than men at the end of their lives. In the UK, for example, women typically live four years longer than men but have 51 per cent less in retirement savings, the Fidelity data shows.

“The [situation] urgently needs to change,” Ms Robinson says. “When it comes to money and wealth, there are certainly institutional and societal [and often unconscious] biases against women that we all need to address because economic empowerment benefits us all.”

However, women are beginning to take charge of their financial futures and are changing the rules of the game, Ms Robinson says.

Women are using their wealth to focus on female-founded or female-focused companies, as well using their financial voice by seeking out sustainable and impact investments, she says.

“We have overwhelming evidence that women prioritise positive environmental and societal impacts when making investment choices. The good news is that women are now financial game-changers in their own right.”

As the world celebrates International Women's Day, we look at some of the wealthiest self-made women and how they got there.

Wu Yajun

Chinese property tycoon Wu Yajun is the chairwoman and co-founder of Longfor Properties, a Beijing real estate investment company.

An engineering graduate, she began her career at a gas meter company in her home town of Chongqing and spent several years as a journalist and editor. In 1995, she launched a property business with her former husband, businessman Cai Kui, with an initial capital investment of 10 million yuan ($1.5m).

Ms Wu is now one of China’s richest women. A significant portion of her wealth comes from private equity investments, including in technology companies Uber and Evernote.

With an estimated net worth of $14.5bn, Ms Wu has seen her wealth increase by $1.28bn over the past year, according to Bloomberg data.

Fan Hongwei

Fan Hongwei is the chairperson of Hengli Petrochemical Company, the largest maker of chemical fibres in China.

The Dalian-based business produces a range of polyester chips and filaments for use in the apparel, packaging, electronic and pharmaceutical industries. The company posted revenue of 178bn yuan in 2020.

Ms Fan, 55, began her career as an accountant and now has a net worth of $12.7bn. She is married to Chen Jianhua, the chairman of Hengli’s holding company, whose net worth is estimated at $7.37bn.

Mr Chen was a chemical fibre and silk salesman in the 1990s. He and Ms Fan pooled their funds with a bank loan of 3m yuan to buy a failing textile factory in Wujiang, Suzhou. She stepped in as general manager.

The couple restructured the company of 27 employees into one of the largest weaving businesses in the world, adding petrochemicals and refining to their operations.

Ms Fan owns a 45 per cent stake in Hengli Petrochemical, according to Bloomberg.

Melanie Perkins

Even those who haven’t heard of Melanie Perkins will probably have used Canva, the design software she co-founded in 2013.

Ms Perkins set up the company with Cliff Obrecht, now her husband, and technical co-founder Cameron Adams in Sydney, Australia.

Although the graphic design start-up initially faced investor scepticism, it now has 60-plus million monthly active users in more than 190 countries, with companies such as Marriott, Salesforce, Intel and PayPal on its enterprise plan.

Ms Perkins, who is also the chief executive of Canva, showed an entrepreneurial streak early on. By the age of 14, she had started her first business, selling handmade scarves at shops and markets in her home town of Perth.

At 22, she and Mr Obrecht founded yearbook publisher Fusion Books from her mother’s kitchen. It is now the largest yearbook publisher in Australia.

Ms Perkins, 34, who has Filipino and Sri Lankan ancestry, has a net worth of $5.9bn, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Falguni Nayar

As someone who began her entrepreneurial journey a few months shy of 50 years of age, Falguni Nayar defies those ubiquitous 40-under-40 compilation lists.

As the chief executive and founder of e-commerce company Nykaa, she is the only woman to lead a unicorn in India. The term refers to privately held start-ups with a valuation of more than $1bn.

In November, Ms Nayar took the company public. Within a day, its shares had surged 89 per cent and the company was worth about $13bn, although the price has since retreated.

Ms Nayar, 59, launched Nykaa in 2012 to sell beauty products online, disrupting a market that relied on small neighbourhood shops.

The company soon became India’s leading e-commerce beauty retailer, selling 300 domestic and international brands. Sales were buoyed with demo videos from some of India’s most famous actors and celebrities. The company now operates about 84 brick-and-mortar shops across the country.

Before she started Nykaa, Ms Nayar spent about 20 years at private-sector lender Kotak Mahindra Bank, where she ended as the managing director of investment banking.

She has a net worth estimated at $4.9bn, according to Forbes magazine.

Sheryl Sandberg

One of the few female billionaires on most rich lists who is not an entrepreneur, Sheryl Sandberg’s fortune is thought to come principally from shares in Facebook owner Meta. She has been chief operating officer of the social media company since 2008 and is credited with turning an online hangout into a successful business.

Under her stewardship, the company's revenue has grown from $272m in 2008 to $117bn in 2021.

Born in Washington, the Harvard University alum was vice president of global online sales and operations at Google before moving on to Facebook. Before that, she served as chief of staff for then US Secretary of Treasury Lawrence Summers.

Ms Sandberg, 52, is currently estimated to have a net worth of $1.6bn. Her wealth accrues largely from the sale of Facebook stock.

She also has private equity investments, notably in Globality, a company that uses artificial intelligence to source service suppliers while promoting economic inclusion.

Updated: June 22, 2023, 2:18 PM