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Who Was the Most Successful Woman Business Leader of the 20th Century?

Not too long ago a young woman I was speaking with about business asked who I thought was the first, successful American businesswoman – one who was a leader, who had an idea, and then built the idea into a large company. I must admit, her question stumped me for a moment.

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Not too long ago a young woman I was speaking with about business asked who I thought was the first, successful American businesswoman – one who was a leader, who had an idea, and then built the idea into a large company. I must admit, her question stumped me for a moment. We had spoken about John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan and Cornelius Vanderbilt, all men, of course. But then it hit me – “Margaret Rudkin.”

“Who”, she said?

I’ll bet you are thinking the same thing.

In their book, In Their Time – The Greatest Business Leaders of the Twentieth Century, Anthony Mayo and Nitin Nohria write about 25 great business leaders of the 20th Century and only one was a woman – Margaret Rudkin. (They chose the 25 from the top 100 mentioned in their national survey.)

Margaret Rudkin founded and built Pepperidge Farm during the early days of the Great Depression. She started baking bread from scratch to try and help her son, who suffered from an assortment of allergies. She then sold extra bread to other patients of her son’s doctor. The company was called Pepperidge Farm because that was the name of the property she and her husband bought in Connecticut just before the stock market crash in 1929.

Unlike other folks who just have ideas for products, Rudkin had entrepreneurial and marketing skills, too. Here are a few examples:

  1. She sold bread to grocers by making sure the bread was warm and they had fresh butter available.
  2. She focused on niche grocers because she wanted to charge more for the bread, which guaranteed her a profit.
  3. She knew the power of good publicity. Her story of a former high society lady, who nearly lost everything until she started baking bread, made a great article in Reader’s Digest. The business exploded after that.
  4. She helped invent Titus Moody, who became the television face of Pepperidge Farm’s delivery man, and then invested $200,000 in advertising in the mid-1950s – a revolutionary idea at the time.
  5. Also in the 1950s while traveling in Europe she discovered and bought the rights to very tasty and delicate cookies being produced for the Belgian royalty. Today, over 50 years later, they still sell the Milano®, Brussels®, and Bordeaux® cookies.

Lydia Pinkham

One of the first, successful businesswomen in America was Lydia Pinkham, who, like Rudkin, became successful after her husband lost almost everything in the economic panic of 1873.

Pinkham made her fortune by selling other women a vegetable concoction, mostly by mail order. Of course they later discovered the reason the syrup was so popular – it contained undisclosed alcohol. In any case, Pinkham was likely the most successful American businesswoman of the 19th century.

Other women business leaders of the 20th century you’ve likely heard of include Estee Lauder, Katharine Graham, Liz Claiborne, Mary Kay Ash, and Meg Whitman. And now, I hope, you’ll remember Margaret Rudkin every time you see a Pepperidge Farm product.

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