11 Powerful Female Entrepreneurs Who Started with Nothing

The past several decades have spawned some of the most powerful female entrepreneurs in the world today. Finding success throughout a wide variety of business areas, their immense strength and perseverance has seen each of them become incredibly influential in shaping the modern business world. As such, it’s no surprise that many of these women have enjoyed similar success as inspirational speakers.

As a specialist after dinner speakers agency with more than 15 years’ worth of experience behind us, Champions After Dinner Speakers is fortunate to have worked with some of the most inspirational women in business today – many of whom have conquered circumstance in their meteoric rise to the top. Here’s our list of 11 powerful female entrepreneurs who started with nothing.

1. Oprah Winfrey

oprah winfrey

Undoubtedly one of the most famous female entrepreneurs around today, no list of top female entrepreneurs would be complete without Oprah Winfrey. Having experienced a tough childhood marred by poverty, Oprah decided to focus her efforts on a media career at an early age. Her victory at an oratory contest was crucial to securing her the scholarship she needed to pursue her education at Tennessee State University.

Having worked in several junior roles in the local media, Oprah eventually moved to Chicago in order to present talk show AM Chicago. Turning the show into an almost overnight success, the show was famously renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show. Her success in the role soon led to the show being broadcast nationally in the mid-1980s, and it wasn’t long before Oprah achieved widespread popularity as a television producer, talk show host, actress and philanthropist, becoming a multi-billionaire in the process. To this day, Oprah continues to be considered one of the world’s most influential women.

2. Olivia Lum

Singaporean businesswoman Olivia Lum went from living in a shack without running water to becoming one of the world’s most revered businesswomen. At the age of 28, Olivia decided to found Hydrochem, which would later evolve into global environmental solutions company Hyflux. With limited funds at her disposal, Olivia famously sold both her car and her residence in order to raise the money needed to fund the venture. Since then, Olivia has become one of Singapore’s leading business icons, having built a net worth of more than £400 million.

3. Indra Nooyi


Indra Nooyi is widely-known for having served as the Chief Executive Officer of Pepsi for more than a decade. Showing immense strength in pursuit of her life goals, Indra left her home in India to pursue success in the United States, where she was awarded a master’s degree in Public and Private Management.

Having gained experience with companies such as the Boston Consulting Group, she made the move to Pepsi during the mid-1990s. Finding immense success in her role, she played a crucial role in shaping the company’s global strategy for many years. Indra has been consistently recognized as one of the world’s most powerful women and leading female keynote speakers ever since.

4. Ursula Burns

Raised by her single mother and growing up in social housing in New York, Ursula Burns’ background was far from privileged. Nonetheless, she pursued a degree in mechanical engineering and eventually found work with Xerox, a document technology company with more than 35,000 employees around the world. Starting as a summer intern, her hard work and dedication eventually led her to become the company’s Chief Executive Officer. Since then, she has continued to fulfill a number of senior positions with the likes of VEON and Uber, proving her relevance as an inspirational business icon.

5. Kat Cole

Having dropped out of college, Kat Cole worked as a waitress before eventually finding success as the President of retail bakery giant Cinnabon. Partly raised by a single mother, Kat was able to turn things around through sheer determination and hard work. Now functioning as the Group Director for Focus Brands, Kat went on to become one of the world’s most inspirational multi-millionaires.

6. Michelle Mone

michelle mone

The founder of lingerie company Ultimo, Michelle Mone grew up in Glasgow as an only child. Her home life proved to be challenging, losing her brother to spina bifida at an early age. She pursued a career in marketing early on in her career but was eventually made redundant. She overcame adversity upon setting up her own business, finding considerable success in the lingerie sector. Since then, she has been widely recognised for her business ventures, as well as being elevated to the House of Lords in 2015. Furthermore, she has also found success as one of the country’s most sought-after motivational speakers.

7. J.K. Rowling

JK Rowling

The mastermind behind the world-famous Harry Potter books, celebrated author and entrepreneur J.K. Rowling was faced with numerous challenges prior to her success with the franchise. Whilst in the process of writing what would become Harry Potter, Rowling found herself jobless and suffering from the turmoils of a failed marriage. She came to rely on welfare benefits during this time, but was able to focus her efforts on writing nonetheless. Since the publication of her first Harry Potter book, Rowling would eventually go on to become the world’s first billionaire writer.

8. Zhang Xin

Born into a broken home and raised in a small room in Hong Kong, Zhang Xin is one of the inspirational entrepreneurs in the world today. Eager to pursue her dreams of becoming a successful businesswoman, she worked in numerous small factories in the hope of saving enough money to pursue the relevant education. Once she’d saved up enough, she moved to London, supporting herself by working in a fish and chip shop upon her arrival.

After completing her studies, Zhang Xin went on to become a co-founder of Hongshi, the company which would eventually become SOHO China. The company soon became the largest property developer in China, leading Zhang Xin to become involved in many high-profile development projects both in Beijing and Shanghai. Since then, she has become an inspirational figure in global business, amassing a net worth of more than £3.5 billion.

9. Rita Sharma

Having set up a flourishing business from her garage, Rita Sharma is one of Britain’s most successful female entrepreneurs. The face of successful travel agency Worldwide Travels and Bestattravel.com, Rita has come a long way from her early days as a college dropout. Serving as an inspiration to entrepreneurs from all walks of life, Rita’s success is a testament to the power of perseverance.

10. Jean Brownhill Lauer

As the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Sweeten.com, Jean Brownhill Lauer is no stranger to success. Without the funds to attend college, Jean succeeded on hard work alone, capitalising on her good grades. She founded property mediator Sweeten in 2011 and soon found immense success in the sector. To date, the company has overseen a vast number of notable renovations, raising millions of pounds worth of funding in the process.

11. Hilary Deveyhilary devey

Hilary Devey had a tough time growing up. The family lost everything after her father was declared bankrupt, and Hilary left school at the early age of 16. She worked in numerous positions for several years before conceiving an idea that would radically transform the freight industry. Without the funds required to turn her idea into a reality, her self-belief led Hilary to sell her house. Today, her company Pall-Ex is a significant player in the freight industry, proving that her self-belief was well-placed.

About Champions After Dinner Speakers

Having established flourishing relationships with many of the country’s leading speakers, Champions After Dinner Speakers has been connecting clients with their ideal inspirational female speakers for over 15 years.

Alternatively, if you would like to book one of our female business speakers for your next corporate event, contact the Champions Speakers agency by filling in our online contact form or by calling one of our dedicated booking agents directly on 0207 1010 553.