According to Forbes, only 1.7 per cent of the world’s richest women are self-made. In honour of International Women’s Day tomorrow (March 8), Emirates Woman celebrates 10 of the most inspirational women in the fields of fashion, beauty, real estate, online, architecture and media. 

The following 10 most powerful women are listed in no particular order. Simply read their stories of success and be inspired.

J.K Rowling (main image)


INDUSTRY: Novelist

BACKGROUND: Joanne Rowling        grew up in Chepstow before studying French and Classics at Exeter University. After a stint in London she moved to Portugal as an English teacher, where she met her husband and had her first daughter. Sadly, the marriage ended shortly after and she moved to Edinburgh in the mid-1990s where she relied on state benefits.

ROUTE TO WEALTH: The 49-year-old had already outlined her Harry Potter series and begun writing the first novel, but finding herself unable to work due to the high cost of childcare, she focused on completing the book. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone was published in 1997. The series quickly topped the bestseller lists, and the first film adaptation was released in 2001. She continues to write novels across adult and children’s genres.


Chan Laiwa

WORTH: US$4.1bn

INDUSTRY: Property

BACKGROUND: Born in 1941 at Beijing’s summer palace, Chan Laiwa is a descendant of the Royal Manchu family. But at the time of her birth the family had just collapsed, and been stripped of their riches and property. Laiwa grew up in wretched poverty. She left school in her teens and ran a small furniture restoration business. By the 1980s she was successful enough to move to Hong Kong.

ROUTE TO WEALTH: While in Hong Kong she saved enough money to invest in 12 villas. She began buying and selling property on a large scale, and her gut instinct for a good  asset. She founded Fu Wah International Group in 1988 and since then has developed 1.5 million square metres of property. She is one of the richest women in the world and donates millions to disaster relief and charitable trusts each year.


Wu Yajun

WORTH: US$4.3bn

INDUSTRY: Real estate

BACKGROUND: The 50-year-old Beijing resident began her career as a property journalist after gaining a degree in engineering. She was the editor of a news agency in China before setting up real estate development company Longfor Properties.

ROUTE TO WEALTH: Yajun’s years as a journalist proved vital in building up her contacts in regional and national government. She launched her company in 1995 and was initially based in Chongqing, but the business grew rapidly and was floated on the Hong Kong stock exchange in 2009, attracting high-profile investors such as the Singaporean government.


Meg Whitman



BACKGROUND: The New Yorker was born in 1956, the daughter of a Wall Street trader and a stay-at-home mum. She earned a degree and a Harvard MBA all by the time she was 23.

ROUTE TO WEALTH: After a string of positions with high-profile companies like Procter & Gamble, and Disney, Meg was offered the position of CEO with eBay in 1998. A small company with a new culture, it seemed like an unusual choice for the successful and traditional Whitman, but under her watchful eye the company saw sales of US$7.7bn within the decade. She is now the chief executive of HP.



Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey

WORTH: US$2.7bn


BACKGROUND: Born in 1954 to an unmarried teenage mother, Oprah spent the first six years of her life with her grandmother, who was so poor she made Oprah dresses from potato sacks. She moved to Milwaukee in 1960 with her mother, who worked long hours as a housemaid. Winfrey ran away from home several times, and lived with other family members until she settled with her father.

ROUTE TO WEALTH: Winfrey secured a full scholarship to Tennessee University, where she studied communication. She secured a job as a news anchor at a local TV station and began to rise quickly through the ranks. By the mid-1980s she was the most popular talk show host in America. She now owns her own TV channel and is North America’s only black billionaire.


He Qiaonv


INDUSTRY: Landscape architecture

BACKGROUND: Born in 1966 in the maritime province of Zhejiang, her name means ‘Lucky Lady’. Determined to test that idea she headed for Beijing and managed to earn a forestry degree in 1988, a domain traditionally restricted to men.

ROUTE TO WEALTH: She founded her first landscaping company in 1992 but was hit with a series of setbacks, including withdrawal of investment funds and clients not paying bills. She held on, though, and began to have work exhibited at prominent venues across Beijing. Her womanly touch, good English skills and forward thinking urban landscape designs made her a favourite, and her business went from strength to strength. Today she owns a 54 per cent share in the company she founded.


Elena Baturina

WORTH: US$1.1bn

INDUSTRY: Construction

BACKGROUND: Born into a working class family in Russia, Elena worked in a factory before securing a place at the Moscow Institute of Management. In1991 she launched plastics company Inteko, which specialised in crockery and utensils.

ROUTE TO WEALTH: As the 1990s progressed, Elena began diversifying the company’s portfolio and hit the jackpot with construction materials. She had a rocky ride through the 2008 financial crisis, but her new company, Patriot, focuses on affordable housing.



Sara Blakely

Sara Blakely



BACKGROUND: After failing the entrance exam for law school, Sara became a fax machine salesperson. Irritated by the way she looked in cream trousers, Sara began cutting the feet out of her tights and wearing them underneath to control her backside and stomach, and smooth out cellulite.

ROUTE TO WEALTH: Realising she was on to something Sara tried to get companies to buy her idea. When no one was interested she founded Spanx 14 years ago with just US$5,000 in savings and no formal business training. She convinced a company to make a prototype of her product, and her energy and passion led to its success. In 2012 she became the youngest self-made billionaire in the world at age 40.


Giuliana Benetton

WORTH: US$2.4bn


BACKGROUND: “The 76-year-old from Treviso, Italy, is the second oldest of four siblings, and the only woman. Her father rented bicycles for a living but died when Giuliana was 12, forcing her older brother to find work in a fabric store. To support the family she co-founded Benetton along with her brothers Luciano, Carlos and Gilberto.”

ROUTE TO WEALTH: Giuliana began knitting sweaters that her brother Luciano would sell from his bike. Using bold, bright colours unusual for the time, they proved incredibly popular. In 1965 the four siblings founded The Benetton Group and they now sell their clothing line at over 5,000 stores in 120 countries.


Doris Fisher

WORTH: US$3.3bn


BACKGROUND: Doris grew up in San Francisco, and later married long-time family friend Don. The son of a cabinetmaker, he secured a business degree and began looking for the right opportunity to start his own company.

ROUTE TO WEALTH: One day in the mid-1960s, Don asked Doris to exchange some jeans he’d bought for a different size. Doris was horrified to find the Levi’s display at Macy’s hidden in the basement with very limited choice. The Fishers decided to open a store stocking every possible size and style combination of Levi Jeans, as well as music. It was a hit and began to expand. Their company, The Gap, now operates 3,400 stores worldwide with over 137,000 employees.

Images: Getty