The History of Women in eCommerce
March 14, 2024
by Rebecca Fox

Women have played an important but often overlooked role in shaping the world of eCommerce. Let’s take a look at the inspiring journey of women entrepreneurs, pioneers, and visionaries who have left a lasting mark on the eCommerce industry as we know it today.

Women in eCommerce Throughout History

The history of women in eCommerce is a story of resilience, innovation, and determination. Despite facing gender biases and funding challenges, women have consistently pushed boundaries and transformed the way we buy and sell online. 

From the early days of mail-order businesses to the current era of global eCommerce giants, women have been at the forefront, navigating obstacles, shattering glass ceilings, and building thriving businesses. As founders, executives, and innovators, women have left their mark on eCommerce as we know it today.

Although female business owners weren’t always commonplace, there have always been women like Eliza Lucas Pinckney, the first recorded female business owner in the United States, who defied expectations and paved the way for future generations.

Already in the 17th and 18th centuries, women were starting to own businesses like retail shops and taverns. Gradually, society shifted toward a more progressive mindset and women gained more rights and opportunities. The 20th century saw even greater strides for women in business, with increasing numbers entering the workforce and starting their own companies. 

Technological advances in the 1990s and 2000s and the rise of online stores and marketplaces further empowered women to get involved in business, turning eCommerce into a major avenue for female entrepreneurship.

Over the last few years, the number of women entrepreneurs has rapidly increased, with 26% of small business owners now being women, and we see a steady upward trend, with a 3% growth in women business owners over the last year alone.

According to the 2024 Wells Fargo Impact of Women-Owned Business Report, women-owned businesses have seen nearly double the growth rate compared with male-owned businesses between 2019 and 2023, with four times the growth within a single year between 2022 and 2023. 

Powerful Women in eCommerce

Of the many inspiring women shaping the world of eCommerce, here are just a few examples. Their stories highlight the tremendous contributions that women bring to the industry.

1. Lillian Vernon, Lillian Vernon Corporation

Lillian Vernon was one of the most successful female businesswomen in history, essentially running an eCommerce business before eCommerce was even a term. 

In 1951, at the age of 24 (while 4 months pregnant!) Lillian Vernon (née Lilli Menasche Hochberg) took a chance. She took $2,000 she had received in wedding gifts and launched Vernon Specialties from her kitchen table. Her first move? Placing an ad in Seventeen magazine, offering personalized handbags and belts at a competitive price. The response was overwhelming, generating $32,000 in orders within a short period. 

Five years later, she sent her growing customer base the first catalog of what would become the iconic Lillian Vernon Company mail-order business. This catalog competed with the well-known Sears catalog. Her success attracted major cosmetic companies like Revlon, Elizabeth Arden, Max Factor, and Maybelline, who signed distribution agreements. 

The business quickly took off, becoming the first female-founded company to be publicly traded on the American stock exchange. At its peak, annual sales surpassed a quarter-billion dollars.

In the ’90s, the online market became increasingly important, and she opened up an online catalog and website.

The company was sold in 2003 to Zelnick Media, with Vernon keeping the symbolic title of non-executive chairman. The company has since changed hands a number of times, but still exists – you can find it at www.lillianvernon.com.

Vernon was also an early champion for women’s rights in the workplace. The Women’s Enterprise Center created the Lillian Vernon Award, which is awarded to entrepreneurial women who have served their community, in honor of Vernon’s support of women’s rights.

2.  Sara Blakely, Spanx

Sara Blakely is the embodiment of the self-made entrepreneur. With only a modest $5,000 investment and a vision for revolutionizing women’s shapewear, Blakely launched Spanx from her apartment in the late ‘90s. 

The innovative footless pantyhose design addressed a common frustration for women, and Spanx quickly gained traction. Blakely strategically marketed Spanx, capitalizing on early success to grow the company into a global eCommerce leader. 

A pivotal moment came in 2000 when she appeared on Shark Tank, securing a $200,000 investment. This exposure further catapulted Spanx, transforming it quickly into a multi-million dollar company.

Today, Sara Blakely is an icon in the shapewear industry as well as an inspiration to aspiring female entrepreneurs everywhere. 

Recognized as the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire, Blakely is a vocal advocate for women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship.

3. Rosalind Brewer, Sam’s Club, Walmart, Starbucks, Amazon

Rosalind Brewer is an American businesswoman whose career has been a masterclass in shattering glass ceilings, as the first woman to become CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, group president and COO of Starbucks, and CEO of Sam’s Club.

Her journey began at Walmart in 2006, where she led innovative initiatives like store-wide WiFi installation, online order pick-up services, and online subscription programs, creating a better customer experience and setting the stage for Walmart’s future eCommerce success.

In 2012, Brewer left Walmart and became the president and CEO of Sam’s Club, the membership-only retail warehouse club owned and operated by Walmart. 

Her focus on innovation continued during her time at Starbucks starting in 2017, where she became the second-highest-ranking executive and the first woman to be COO and group president of Starbucks. 

From 2019 to 2021, Brewer served as the only black member of the Amazon board of directors, and in 2021 Rosalind Brewer became the CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance, shattering another glass ceiling as the only black woman leading a Fortune 500 company.

Brewer is widely considered one of corporate America’s most prominent women and black female executives, a true inspiration to women everywhere.

4. Tracey Wallace, BigCommerce, Klaviyo

Tracey Wallace has been a driving force in shaping the story of eCommerce for many years, currently serving as the director of content strategy at Klaviyo and previously the editor-in-chief of BigCommerce. Her insights, thought leadership, and support for the industry have inspired countless entrepreneurs.

Wallace started her career in journalism at Elle.com and Mashable, reporting on the merging of fashion and technology – essentially, what we now call “eCommerce”. This early experience was just the beginning of her passion for digital innovation in retail.

Over the years, Wallace has led marketing teams for early-stage startups, helping them grow from $0 to $20 million in revenue. From 2014 to 2019 she was the Editor-in-Chief at BigCommerce, where she helped usher in the era of omnichannel retail. 

Having worked with several tech companies and startups throughout her career, Wallace’s extensive experience in journalism and marketing has made and continues to make a significant impact on the world of eCommerce – a great example of how women can and are making a difference in the industry.

5. Helen Vaid, Pizza Hut

Helen Vaid is a trailblazer in the world of eCommerce and business, whose career journey is a testament to her visionary leadership and unwavering commitment to driving innovation.

Helen Vaid’s career began at Hewlett Packard (HP), where she honed her skills in technology and business. 

From 2013 she went on to hold several top eCommerce roles at Walmart.com, a division of Walmart Inc., including VP of Digital Store Operations and Experience and VP of Customer Experience. Vaid led the company’s digital transformation. Under her leadership, Walmart’s eCommerce platform evolved, seamlessly integrating online and offline channels.

In 2016, Vaid stepped into a major leadership role as the Global Chief Customer Officer at Pizza Hut, driving a digital revolution in the food delivery landscape. She focused on utilizing technology to enhance customer engagement and loyalty. Introducing innovations like mobile ordering, personalized marketing, and loyalty programs, Vaid led Pizza Hut into the digital age, setting new standards for the industry.

Vaid then co-founded Foundry Brands in 2021, a digitally-native brand platform, where she served as the CEO. Under her leadership, Foundry Brands became a hub for top omni-digital brands, bridging the gap between physical and digital retail. Throughout her career, her leadership and ability to scale businesses helped shape the eCommerce landscape and set industry standards. 

Helen Vaid also serves on the board of Abercrombie & Fitch, and as a woman in leadership, she passionately advocates for gender equality, mentorship, and empowerment. 

6. Maggie Wei Wu, Alibaba

Maggie Wei Wu is the chief financial officer of Alibaba Group, one of the world’s largest eCommerce companies, with a market evaluation of over $300 billion. 

Wu has been with Alibaba for over 15 years, playing a key role in the company’s growth and success leading to its Initial Public Offering (IPO).

Her influence and leadership prowess have led her to be recognized by Forbes and Fortune as among the most powerful women in the world. 

Wu’s steadfast commitment to driving growth and innovation has solidified Alibaba’s position as a global industry leader, and her visionary leadership continues to shape the future of eCommerce, inspiring aspiring entrepreneurs to push the boundaries of possibility.

7. Mariam Naficy, Eve.com, Minted

Mariam Naficy, the CEO and Founder of Minted, has built a remarkable career in eCommerce and entrepreneurship. 

In 1998, Naficy first created and maintained Eve.com, the first beauty eCommerce brand in the United States, which was acquired by Sephora in 2007.

She then went on to found Minted, a brand that crowdsources stationery designs from online competitions, with community members voting on which designs to print and sell. 

Minted has grown rapidly since its inception, with over a million artists and designers on its platform, and generating over $100 million in annual revenue. The company’s growth has been recognized by its inclusion in the Inc. 5000 list of fastest-growing companies in the United States for several consecutive years, a testament to Naficy’s determination and the company’s innovative business model.

Besides being an entrepreneur, Naficy is also a venture capitalist and angel investor who specializes in businesses related to eCommerce, marketplaces, communities, and content. Naficy has had a big impact by making early investments in a number of companies, including Reddit, Gusto, Color, Our Place, Madison Reed, Middesk, and others.

Naficy is also a tireless advocate for women in business. She serves on the board of directors of the Anita Borg Institute and the Female Founders Fund, mentoring and inspiring aspiring entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams and break through barriers. 

The Future of Women in eCommerce

There’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to closing the gender gap in eCommerce. By supporting women already working in the industry and amplifying their accomplishments, we can make the digital world more inclusive in the long run. 

The reality is, successful women are often perceived as a threat, and have to work that much harder to get ahead. To make sure that female business leaders receive the backing they deserve, we need to encourage a more collaborative culture and diverse investment portfolios.

Initiatives such as digital literacy programs, affordable connectivity, and tailored eCommerce training can help bridge the gender gap and empower women to take part more actively in the digital world, leading to more opportunities and overall progress. 

There’s No Limit to What Women Can Achieve

The history of women in eCommerce is a testament to their resilience, creativity, and impact. By celebrating their achievements and advocating for equality, we can continue to pave the way for a more vibrant and diverse digital economy.

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