Woman Entrepreneur Makes the Fortune 500

Anne (Liz) Claiborne was born in Brussels, Belgium to American parents. Her father was a banker who taught her to appreciate art while her mother taught her to sew. Liz and her parents left Europe in 1939 with the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. They returned to Louisiana where they had a prominent heritage.

Liz’s father didn’t believe in formal education and encouraged her to become an artist. Liz wanted to be a fashion designer instead. When she was 21, Liz won a fashion design competition sponsored by Harper’s Bazaar magazine. This led to the career she wanted to have in New York City. But Liz became frustrated that fashion designs were not addressing the needs of working women.

Liz and her husband and two others decided to form their own company using her name. The designs of Liz Claiborne, Inc. were immediately popular. They branched out to include shoes, perfume, and men’s clothing to their product line. They had the right design concept at the right time as more and more women were entering the workforce.

In addition to changing the concept of fashion design, she also changed the layout in retail stores. She required stores that sold her clothes to set up a separate area for them. This has become the trend with other designers as well.

Five years after Liz Claiborne, Inc. was created, it went public. Then five years later, Liz Claiborne, Inc. became the first company created by a woman to make the Fortune 500 list.

She and her husband retired from active management of the company when she turned 60. They formed a foundation to support environmental causes including the funding of the Nature Series on PBS. She died of cancer at the age of 78.

Liz Claiborne was a pioneer in both fashion and retail. But her breakthrough as a woman in what had been dominated by men may have been her greatest achievement. In 2021, there were 41 women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.

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“I learned to always take on things I’d never done before. Growth and comfort do not co-exist.”– Virginia Rometty (CEO of IBM)

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