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This year, 138 women made the cut for the annual Forbes Billionaires list, a record setting number (up from 104 last year). But considering the vast number of wealthy people in the world, that doesn’t sound like very many, does it?

First of all, be aware that the vast majority of ladies on this list are wealthy thanks to inheritance, with only 24 of them who started their own businesses. 24 self-made women is a wonderfully high number compared to years past, but is still very small in the grand scheme of things. In case you’re curious, only 1.7% of all billionaires are self-made women, and they comprise a mere  17% of the women on the Forbes list. In addition, most of these 24 women co-founded their businesses with their husbands and male siblings. In contrast, most male billionaires are completely self-made.

Still, the numbers tell a very positive story for women and business, they are growing dramatically every year. According to the "American Express Open Forum",  it was estimated that there were more than 8.3 million women-owned businesses in the United States in 2012, up 54% in the past 15 years.  

So, who are these extraordinary self-made billionaires, beating the odds by a long shot? How did these women make their money? And, most importantly, was it in a way that you and I might be able to replicate?

Are you an aspiring billionaire? I admit that I certainly am, and I love to read about the women who have taken that journey before me. Let’s take a moment here to find out more about a few of these “Yes, I Can” female role models, and also offer a big thank you to for the list!

12 of the World’s Richest Women

Rosalia Mera1. ROSALIA MERA (Age 69)
$6.1 billion, Spain
Zara, Fashion Retail

Young Rosalia Mera dropped out of elementary school at age 11, to work as a seamstress. When she married in 1966, the skilled worker then helped her new husband Amancio Ortega design and make dressing gowns and lingerie in their home. Later, the couple created well known fashion retailer Zara, which was founded by Mera with her by-then ex-husband, now the world’s third richest man. She has not remarried.

Mera is now the wealthiest self-made woman on the planet, thanks in part to a 50% jump this past year in the value of Inditex, her own fashion retailer. The marriage produced two children, one of whom, Marcos, was born mentally disabled. As a result, Mera became interested in helping other children like Marcos, and is now the president of the Fundación Paideia, a charity which aims to integrate the mentally and physically disabled into society.

Mera also owns an interest in a company which make fingerprint identification kits for infants and a third company, Zeltia, which conducts research into cancer fighting compounds of both synthetic and natural origin, and particularly those bioactive compounds originating in the ocean.

Jin Sook Chang2. JIN SOOK CHANG (Age 50)  
$4.5 billion, U.S.
Forever 21, Fashion Retail  

Chang founded everyone’s favorite fashion retailer Forever 21 with husband Do Won (Don). In 1981, the couple immigrated from Korea to America and opened their first clothing store in 1984. Today Forever 21 has $3 billion in sales and operates more than 480 stores, with Jin Sook as head buyer. In an aggressive expansion plan, the couple is now opening a vast number of retail stores across Europe.

Forever 21
is a family operation with Do Won at the helm, Jin Sook in charge of merchandising, oldest daughter Linda heading up the marketing effort, and daughter Esther managing the visuals. Valuing their Christian faith, Forever 21 shopping bags feature the phrase "John 3:16," and Jin Sook and her husband attend Presbyterian church every morning at 5 a.m.

Wu Yajun3. WU YAJUN (Age 49)
$4.3 billion, China
Longfor, Property Development

Born in 1964, Wu Graduated from the Department of Navigation Engineering at Northwestern Polytechnical University in 1984.  A former journalist, Yajun founded property development company Longfor in 1994. The young entrepreneur and her team quickly turned it into a national brand, now headquartered in Beijing. Yajun held the title of “Richest Woman in China”, until her divorce in 2012 moved her down to the second richest, as well as “Fifth Richest Person in China”. Wu is also a member of the Chinese National People’s Congress.

Wu and her husband of 20 years, Cai Kui, recently filed for divorce, on Aug. 6, 2012. The reason for the couple’s divorce has not been specified. Oddly, the announcement came shortly after Wang Shi, chairman of rival mainland developer China Vanke, separated from his wife. Mainland media reported that the 61-year-old Wang was in love with an actress in her early 30s. No word on what ailed Wu Yajun’s marriage.

Gayle Cook4. GAYLE COOK (Age 79)
$4 billion, U.S.
Cook Group Inc., Medical Devices

Bill and Gayle Cook started Cook Group Inc. in their Bloomington, IL apartment in 1963: Today the company has offices in the U.S., Europe and Asia! It specializes in stents and catheters that contain antibiotics. From 1996 to 2007, the couple spent $500 million to restore the luxury French Lick Resort and West Baden Springs Hotel in Indiana, adding a casino and a Pete Dye-designed PGA golf course. Offering a big “Thank You” for their philanthropy in Bloomington, the mayor proclaimed June 20th Bill and Gayle Cook Day. The Cooks also donated an estimated $10 million to Northwestern University, when the couple endowed the Bill and Gayle Cook Professor in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Cell Biology. The couple have one son (now an executive within the Cook Group), Carl, in 1962.

Diane Hendricks5. DIANE HENDRICKS (Age 66)
$3.8 billion, U.S.
ABC Supply, Roofing

Diane and her husband Kenneth Hendricks founded ABC Supply, now the nation's largest roofing, window and siding wholesale distributor. She took over the company when her husband died in 2007. In addition to ABC, Hendricks also presides over 25 million square feet of commercial property, plus another 25 smaller companies via Hendricks Holdings, including manufacturing plants, recycling businesses and pharmaceutical research.

Not just a businesswoman, Hendricks is also an artist, and has dabbled in movie producing, including The Stoning of Soraya M. about an execution in an Iranian village, and An American Carol. Active in politics, she donated $500,000 to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s re-election campaign (his biggest donor). All this is still not enough for this busy lady, as Hendricks has..... seven children. We say, “Hats off to you, Missy!”

Zhang Xin6. ZHANG XIN (Age: 47)
$3.6 billion, China
Soho China, Property Development

This story began In the 1950s, when Zhang Xin's parents, third generation Burmese Chinese, left Burma and immigrated to China, leaving behind their confectionery business. They worked as translators at the Bureau of Foreign Languages, but the couple divorced soon afterward.

Born in Beijing in 1965, Zhang Xin moved to Hong Kong at the age of 14 with her mother and lived in a room just big enough for two bunk beds. She worked for five years in small factories in order to save for an education abroad. As she has described it, the 'conditions there were similar to those in mainland China today'. By the age of nineteen Zhang Xin had saved enough money for airfare to London to study English and then Economics. She also got a Master’s Degree in Development Economics from Cambridge University in 1992. In 2013, Prior to founding Soho China, Zhang worked on Wall Street for Goldman Sachs and Travelers Group. Zhang  Xin and her husband, Pan Shiyi, founded Soho China in Beijing in 1995 and have continued to aggressively buy up real estate in Beijing and Shanghai, transforming the cities' skylines. Soho China is now Beijing’s largest property developer.

During a March of what year? interview with 60 Minutes, Xin dropped a political bomb, saying that democracy would come to China in less than 20 years. "I think Americans should know this,” she said, “ and I'm just gonna say it." She also made a cameo appearance as a Chinese merchant in the 2010 film Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. She and her husband have two children.

Doris Fisher7. DORIS FISHER (Age 81)
$2.8 billion, U.S.
The Gap, Retail

In 1969, The Gap was started by Doris Fisher and her late husband Donald, as a San Francisco-based jeans and music store. Fisher is well known as a prolific art collector, with a collection that boasts over 1,100 works by 185 artists. It focuses on 1960s contemporary art and includes a number of works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Chuck Close and Gerhard Richter. She is also a philanthropist who has donated $120 million to the KIPP Charter School Network and Teach For America.

Fisher and her husband have three children. Sons Robert and William both serve on the company’s board, while son John also owns a significant stake in the company as well as manages the family's investment group, Pisces Inc.

Oprah Winfrey8. OPRAH WINFREY (Age 59)
$2.8 billion, U.S.
Harpo, Media

As every single person in the world already knows, Oprah Winfrey is an American media proprietor, talk show host, actress, producer, and philanthropist.The Oprah Winfrey Show was the highest-rated program of its kind in history and was nationally syndicated from 1986 to 2011. Most of Winfrey’s net worth stems from 25 years of producing her profitable daytime show, plus earnings from her production company Harpo, which also has a hand in the Dr. Phil, Rachael Ray and Dr. Oz shows.

Born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a teenage single mother and later raised in an inner-city Milwaukee neighborhood, Winfrey experienced considerable hardship during her childhood. She has spoken about being raped at age nine and becoming pregnant at 14; her son died in infancy. Winfrey won the Miss Black Tennessee beauty pageant when she was 17, and started working in radio soon after. Winfrey became a millionaire at age 32 when her talk show went national. She and her boyfriend Stedman Graham have been together since 1986; they were engaged to be married in November 1992, but the ceremony never took place.

Winfrey holds a Bachelor of Arts / Science from Tennessee State University, and also has the distinction of being the first female African-American billionaire in the world’s history.

Marian Ilitch9. MARIAN ILITCH (Age 80)
$2.7 billion, U.S.
Little Caesars Pizza, Pizza

Along with husband Michael, Ilitch built a single, humble pizza shop into the Little Caesar’s Pizza empire, which had over $3 billion in revenues last year. The couple met on a blind date in 1954, when the two went on a blind date arranged by his father--  and believe it or not, they were married one year later.  The couple founded Little Caesars Pizza five years later, and have expanded their interests to include restaurants, entertainment, sports and gambling. In fact, MotorCity Casino, helmed by Marian Ilitch is reportedly one of the largest independently owned casino enterprises in the United States— and likely the largest woman-owned casino in the U.S. as well.

Ilitch is also vice chairwoman of Ilitch Holdings, Inc., the parent company which includes Little Caesars Pizza, of course, Blue Line Foodservice Distribution, Little Caesars Pizza Kit Fundraising Program, Champion Foods, the hockey team Detroit Red Wings, baseball’s Detroit Tigers, Olympia Entertainment, Olympia Development, Uptown Entertainment and various other food service and entertainment venues under the umbrella of these businesses.The Detroit Red Wings have won four Stanley Cups under Ilitch family ownership, with Ilitch and her three daughters among only 12 women to have had their names engraved on the trophy.

In 1985, Ilitch and her husband established the charitable entity Little Caesars Love Kitchen Foundation, which consists of a mobile pizza restaurant. The Love Kitchen has fed more than 2 million people, aiding the hungry and assisting disaster victims across the U.S. and Canada. Three presidents, President Ronald Reagan, President George Bush, Sr, and President Bill Clinton have all recognized and honored the Love Kitchen.

Marian and Mike Ilitch have seven children: Son Christopher Paul Ilitch is the CEO and President of Ilitch Holdings, Inc.; daughter Denise D. Ilitch is an attorney and former co-President of Ilitch Holdings. Other children are Ronald "Ron" Tyrus Ilitch, Michael C. Ilitch, Jr., Lisa M. Ilitch Murray, Atanas Ilitch, and Carole M. Ilitch Trepeck.

Lynda Resnick10. LYNDA RESNICK (Age 69)
$2.2 billion, U.S.
Fiji Water, POM Wonderful, & more, Agriculture

Beginning in the 1970s master marketers Lynda and Stewart Resnick have built, or bought, many companies including POM Wonderful, Fiji Water and flower delivery service Teleflora.. They also own pistachio, almond and citrus farms, and a winery. Lynda ran her own advertising and marketing agency before she joined entrepreneurial forces with her husband.

The Resnicks are art collectors as well as patrons. They've donated $45 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to improve and upgrade an exhibit space that bears their names, and they also provide scholarships to their farm employee’s children, and in the surrounding communities. They also donated $20 million to the Resnick Institute at CalTech to support the development of renewable energy, and donated $15 million for The Stewart & Lynda Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA.

Jack Harris, Resnick’s father, worked as a film distributor during the 1950s. He made one movie, The Blob, which later became a cult favorite. After a brief stint at a local college, Resnick took a job at the in-house ad agency for Sunset House catalog. Resnick then founded an advertising agency, Lynda Limited, at the age of 19.

Resnick began doing occasional work for the anti-war movement during the Vietnam war era. Her friend, Daniel Ellsberg, asked to use her copy machine on nights and weekends in order to distribute top-secret military documents. Ellsberg gave these documents to The New York Times, which then published them. Dubbed the Pentagon Papers, they detailed aspects of the war hidden from the public and damaged the credibility of the Presidents involved. Resnick herself was designated an un-indicted co-conspirator for her role in the caper, and pursued by prosecutors for two years. However, after two years, legal action was dropped.

Resnick has been married twice. Her first marriage to Hershel Sinay produced two children, but ended in divorce in 1969. Resnick is presently married to Stewart Resnick, who is also her business partner. The couple lives in Beverly Hills and have a home in Aspen, Colorado. She’s also an author, having co-written a business/personal memoir, Rubies in the Orchard: How to Uncover the Hidden Gems in Your Business.

Giuliana Benetton11. GIULIANA BENETTON (Age 76)
$2 billion, Italy
Benetton Group, Fashion

Giuliana Benetton formed clothing retailer Benetton Group with her siblings in 1965. The roots of the company were formed when Benetton herself hand-knitted sweaters that her brother Luciano would peddle by bicycle. They were sold under a variety of labels before becoming the famous-around-the-world United Colors of Benetton. She and her family also own a 30% share in high-speed motorways operator Atlantia S.p.A and the roadside restaurant chain Autogrill. 2/3

Sara Blakely12. SARA BLAKELY (Age 42)
$1 billion, U.S.
Spanx, Retail

The youngest self-made female billionaire in the world, Blakely shot to riches in 2012 thanks to the success of Spanx, her reinvention of the girdle! In November 2012 she began opening the shapewear brand's first stand-alone retail stores at up-market malls on the east coast.

Blakely graduated from Florida State University with a degree in communications. She took a job at Walt Disney World after twice doing poorly on the LSAT and stuck it out there for three months. She also worked part-time as a stand-up comedian. At age 27 she moved to Atlanta and spent the next two years and her entire $5,000 in savings researching hosiery patents and visiting craft stores, to find the right material for her footless stocking concept. Eventually finding a solution, she founded a new company under the name Spanx.

Turned away by numerous mills who did not see the value of her idea, she eventually found a hosiery factory in North Carolina which was willing to make her product.  She successfully pitched her idea to Neiman-Marcus by personally taking the buyer to the ladies restroom to show her the benefits of Spanx in person;  the woman was convinced, as were the buyers for Bloomingdales, Saks, and  Bergdorf Goodman.

Blakely handled all aspects of the business from marketing, logistics, and product positioning (preferring that Spanx be sold alongside shoes rather than in hosiery).  In November, 2000 Oprah Winfrey named Spanx her favorite product of the year and sales took off. Spanx had $4 million in sales in its first year and $10 million in sales in its second year. In 2001, she signed a contract with QVC, the home shopping channel, where she sold 8,000 pairs in the first six minutes.

In 2008, Blakely married former American rapper Jesse Itzler. The couple were married in a Jewish ceremony at the Gasparilla Inn and Club in Boca Grande, Florida.The wedding was attended by actor Matt Damon and featured a surprise performance by singer Olivia Newton-John.  In 2009, they had a son, Lazer Blake Itzler.
 / Issue 149 - September 3712
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