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4 inspirational stories from prominent women entrepreneurs

Everyone needs a little inspiration every now and then, especially all the hardworking business owners and entrepreneurs out there. For this article, we’re telling the stories of four prominent female entrepreneurs, and how they ascended to the top.

From small-town beginnings to burgeoning careers in tech, these inspirational women started in different places, but all of them worked hard to reach their current heights.

Diane Hendricks (Co-founder and chairwoman of ABC Supply)

Before she chaired ABC Supply, one of the largest wholesale distributors of roofing, siding and windows in America, and was named No. 1 on Forbes’ 2019 Richest Self-Made Women, Diane (Smith) Hendricks was one of nine daughters on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. She graduated from Osseo-Fairchild High School, located in a town of fewer than 2,000 people, in 1965.

It was a humble beginning, and Hendricks was faced with adversity in her teen years. She gave birth to her first child one month before her 18th birthday and worked as a waitress and in a factory to support her family. By 1975, the hardworking Hendricks was selling custom-built homes in Wisconsin. Later that year, she married Ken Hendricks, a roofing contractor, and they became business partners.

They spotted a need in the industry for a wholesale distributor that sold all brands of roofing under one structure. At the time, contractors were forced to visit each manufacturer’s shop individually. By 1982, they opened their first ABC Supply store in Beloit, Wisconsin.

Growth came rapidly, and in 1994 the company topped 100 stores. By 1998 ABC Supply had reached $1 billion in sales. The business continued to expand, but tragedy struck in 2007. Ken fell through a roof on a job and was killed, and Diane took full reins of the business. She guided it through the 20008 recession and led the business to its current success as a leader in the industry.

Today, Hendricks is the chairwoman of ABC Supply and worth an estimated $7 billion. She also reverted back to her small-town, Midwest roots, currently residing in Afton, Wisconsin.

Sara Blakely (Founder and owner of Spanx)

Sara Blakely’s path was originally destined for law. Growing up in Clearwater, Florida, Blakely’s father was a lawyer, and she considered becoming an attorney after graduating from Florida State University.

But she placed low on the Law School Admission Test and accepted a job at Walt Disney World in Orlando. It was a short stint at the “Most Magical Place on Earth,” as Blakely moved to office supply company Danka after three months, selling fax machines door-to-door. By 25, she had risen to become Danka’s national sales trainer.

In the hot Florida climate, Blakely despised wearing pantyhose on sales calls and wasn’t a fan of the garment’s appearance. On the side, Blakely developed a new pantyhose and presented it to a number of manufacturers in North Carolina. She was turned away by each one, but received a phone call a few weeks later from an interested party.

From there, her business was born. The company was named Spanx — Blakely used her credit card to purchase the trademark — and the brand exploded after Oprah Winfrey named it a “Favorite Thing” in 2000. Blakely is worth $1 billion today and has become a celebrity herself, guest appearing on ABC’s hit show “Shark Tank.”  

Peggy Cherng (Co-founder and president of Panda Express)

Peggy Cherng is worth an estimated $1.7 billion, making her America’s richest self-made woman born outside the United States, according to Forbes. She was born in Burma, grew up in Hong Kong and relocated to the United States to attend Baker University in Baldwin City, Kansas.

She transferred to Oregon State and eventually earned a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Missouri in 1971. She spent the next decade working in computer science and joined her husband, Andrew, in the restaurant business in 1982.

In 1983, they opened the first Panda Express, a fast-food restaurant with a Chinese twist, in a mall in Glendale, California. The owner of the mall had eaten at Panda Inn, the predecessor to Panda Express, and encouraged the Cherngs to open a business in the food court.

Ten years later, in 1993, the company expanded to 100 restaurants across the Southern California region. Peggy became president of the company in 1997 and today is the co-CEO with her husband. Two of her three daughters, Andrea and Nicole, work at the company in the corporate headquarters.

Neha Narkhede (Co-founder and chief technology officer at Confluent)

Neha Narkhede was born in India, and starting with her first computer at 8 years old, she dreamed about working in technology. She moved to the United States to attend Georgia Tech, where she eventually received a master’s degree in computer science.

Narkhede started her professional career as an intern at Oracle in 2008. But craving a more fast-paced environment, she turned to the business startup world and was hired at LinkedIn in 2010, when the company was still in its infant stages. She created a program at LinkedIn called Apache Kafka, which was used to handle the networking site’s huge influx of data.

The program took off, and by 2014, many companies adopted the Apache Kafka program. Narkhede and two other LinkedIn employees broke off in 2014 and started their own company called Confluent, a streaming data technology company that produces software used by Netflix, Pinterest, Airbnb, Verizon and more. Today, the company is worth an estimated $2.5 billion.

Narkhede alone is worth an estimated $360 million and is No. 60 on Forbes’ list of America’s Richest Self-Made Women.