20 Best Biographies for Women in Business

[del.icio.us] [Digg] [Facebook] [Mixx] [Reddit] [StumbleUpon] [Twitter] [Email]

June 28th, 2011

Business students and professionals alike can greatly benefit from gorging on their forebears' biographies, memoirs and autobiographies — no matter their demographic. But considering difficulties faced by both historical and contemporary women, it makes sense that the female executives, entrepreneurs and innovators would seek out role models with whom they can better identify. Please do not take this listing as a comprehensive guide to the lives behind the stories, but rather a small sample for contemplation before further inquiry. It attempts to list a nicely broad swath of industries, perspectives and backgrounds, from fashion to some harrowing Bolivian mines…and all that sits between.

  1. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own by Axel Madsen: Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel revolutionized fashion with her keen creativity and business acumen, and this biography peers into the celebrated woman's life and times. Author Axel Madsen blends the deeply personal with the impressively professional, painting Chanel as a three-dimensional individual enjoying high glamour and suffering wrenching tragedy.

  2. On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker by A'Lelia Bundles: Although she weathered an incredibly difficult life of poverty and oppression from an early age, the brilliant businesswoman and philanthropist Madam C.J. Walker eventually earned the "first black female millionaire" honor after developing and marketing African-American hair care products. She also opened up some great career opportunities for African-American women, ensuring them more options beyond domestic servitude, providing important historical and cultural context (and commentary) for biographer A'Lelia Bundles.

  3. Global Girlfriends: How One Mom Made It Her Business to Help Women in Poverty Worldwide by Stacey Edgar: This autobiography chronicles the humble beginnings and subsequent success of Stacey Edgar's Global Girlfriend initiative, though it focuses more on her work than her personal life. This amazing business offers up career opportunities for oppressed women worldwide, offering them fair pay, a nurturing environment and opportunities for creativity and growth.

  4. Self-Made Man: One Woman's Year Disguised as a Man by Norah Vincent: More of a sociological work on arbitrary gender perceptions and roles than a straight-up business piece, Self-Made Man nevertheless provides some fascinating insight into uniquely masculine struggles. Norah Vincent lived as a man for an entire year, even taking on a sales position that sheds light on some issues male workers face that their female peers might not ever realize.

  5. Oprah: A Biography by Kitty Kelley: Until the iconic lifestyle guru herself finally gets around to publishing her memoirs — and, come on, everyone knows she probably will! — most readers wanting to know more about Oprah Winfrey's life turn towards this popular, albeit unauthorized, biography. Through a series of interviews, she hears what relatives, friends and lovers have to say about one of America's most successful, hardworking and humanitarian media moguls.

  6. Honeybee: Lessons from an Accidental Beekeeper by C. Marina Marchese: The founder of Red Bee Honey reflects on her fascination with all things apiary, gleaning plentiful professional and personal lessons in the process. Even those without any real connection to or interest in the natural world and cosmetics — C. Marina Marchese sprinkles her memoir with some cool recipes — can still walk away from this autobiography with something to ponder.

  7. Autobiography of Mother Jones by Mother Jones: As one of the most influential working-class labor leaders in the United States, Mary Harris "Mother" Jones' passion for socioeconomic justice earned her the moniker "The Most Dangerous Women in America." Regardless of one's political leanings, reading her autobiography opens up an interesting historical perspective on business and economics.

  8. Let Me Speak! Testimony of Domitila, a Woman of the Bolivian Mines by Domitila Barrios De Chungara: Another landmark piece in the worker's rights movement, this time taking readers inside the horrific conditions of Bolivian mine shafts. Both a glimpse into history and a treatise on keeping employees as safe and healthy as possible, Let Me Speak! looks at big business through the eyes of its most marginalized demographic.

  9. Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World's Most Famous Doll and the Woman Who Created Her by Robin Gerber: Ruth Handler co-founded Mattel with her husband Elliot and launched the iconic Barbie doll in 1959, changing the entire toy industry (and, many say, perceptions of women's bodies) forever. But her life was not an easy one, and she spent her remaining decades creating prosthetics for fellow women who underwent mastectomies.

  10. The Road to Someplace Better by Lillian Lincoln Lambert: The daughter of poor Virginian subsistence farmers, Lillian Lincoln Lambert eventually shattered molds as the first African-American woman to graduate from Harvard Business School. Her amazing, inspiring autobiography chronicles the passion, hard work and occasional desperation that went into her eventual academic and professional success.

  11. Martha Inc.: The Incredible Story of Martha Stewart Omnimedia by Christopher M. Byron: Love her or loathe her — no real middle ground apparently exists — Martha Stewart undeniably left an impact on business and media alike, particularly when it came to profiting off traditional homemaking activities. In this detailed biography, Christopher M. Byron explores her controversial public life, staggering financial success (some of it actually legitimate!) and personal history.

  12. Suits: A Woman on Wall Street by Nina Godiwalla: Suits tells the very real story of a Zoroastrian banker who finds herself interning in the Manhattan offices of J.P. Morgan Chase — and discovering some highly disconcerting things about Wall Street's treatment of minorities and women. Nina Godiwalla presses on with the hopes of pleasing her parents, particularly her father, but ultimately concludes that such a high-pressure, low-tolerance atmosphere just doesn't gel well with what she needs and wants.

  13. Seducing the Boys Club: Uncensored Tactics from a Woman at the Top by Nina DiSesa: Although more of a guide than a straight-up biography, McCann Erickson New York advertising executive Nina DiSesa certainly pulls from her own life to offer up advice. Many of the concepts regarding "making it in a man's world" might seem gendered to some readers, but it nevertheless provides an interesting — sometimes disheartening — glimpse at patriarchy's role in the corporate world.

  14. Life on the Line: One Woman's Tale of Work, Sweat, and Survival by Solange De Santis: Solange De Santis put her investigative journalism skills to work on a GM assembly line in Ontario, keeping a detailed diary for 18 months. From there, she pointed out some startling safety, health and sexual harassment violations, but pointed out that the workers certainly did pour a hefty amount of blood, sweat and tears into their responsibilities.

  15. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Despite the Taliban ripping away her teaching career and shoving her under veritable house arrest, courageous and clever Kamila Sidiqi used the opportunity to flex her entrepreneurship muscles in defiance. When her father and brother were forced to flee, she ended up in charge of her five sisters, keeping them alive through semi-underground seamstress services.

  16. 20 Years at Hull-House by Jane Addams: Women and men alike working in the nonprofit sector — and general readers with a particular interest in humanitarianism and philanthropy — might want to pick up this classic memoir about a successful, influential settlement house. Jane Addams and her partner Ellen Gates Starr kept Hull House operating for over two decades, helping new immigrants better adjust to American life by forging tight-knit communities.

  17. Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea by Linda Greenlaw: Whether working on land or the sea, the captain of swordfish vessel Seahawk offers up some incredible stories and advice regarding leadership, bravery and pressing on despite severe setbacks. Following a decade-long separation from fishing, Linda Greenlaw reflects on her return and the challenges she faced as the only American woman leading a swordfish boat and expedition.

  18. All Things at Once by Mika Brzezinski: Best known as the co-host of MSNBC's Morning Joe, Mika Brzezinski opens up about all the issues associated with trying to having a career, a husband and children — and unfortunately often neglecting the latter in favor of the former. For seasoned and novice businesswomen alike, her successes and failings can serve as valuable lessons in what to do and not do when simultaneously working and starting a family.

  19. Tough Choices: A Memoir by Carly Fiorina: Carly Fiorina never really set out to be a businesswoman, but ultimately ended up serving as Hewlett-Packard's CEO of Technology for 6 years before her 2005 dismissal. Once amongst America's most powerful corporate women, she eventually published Tough Choices as a rumination on life in the boardroom — and how her decisions ultimately came to shape her rise and fall.

  20. The Letters of Sylvia Beach by Sylvia Beach: Literature aficionados recognize Sylvia Beach as the Shakespeare & Company owner and operator partly responsible for Ernest Hemingway's career. But her influence spread much, much further than that, and this work collects her correspondence with such luminaries as Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and plenty more.

Leave a Reply