Entity highlights the lives of 4 businesswomen who came from humble beginnings.Photo via Instagram / @unit.city

How many steps do you need to take to get to where you want to be? What kind of dreams do you have for your future? Historically, women were taught to aspire to marriage, motherhood and homemaking. But as society’s values and expectations continue to change, various women are showing us that anyone can be successful.

The following four women demonstrate that you don’t have to be born wealthy in order to pursue your dreams. Each of these women have stories that prove just how powerful women can be when they create their own opportunities and use their passions and fervor to see their goals through.


Even in the midst of an increasingly digital society, Ursula Burns managed to salvage a company into a profitable business. As CEO, she stopped a major acquisition of the company and then transformed the company into a technology and services enterprise. Forbes lists her as number 34 on their list of “Power Women” in 2016. Burns is the first African-American woman to lead a Fortune 500 company and, according to Forbes, in 2015 “she helped generate $18 billion in revenue.”

Burns shares her story on the Lean In website, where she tells people, “Dreams do come true, but not without the help of others, a good education, a strong work ethic and the courage to lean in.” According to Burns, she was raised by “a wonderful mother in the rough and tumble public housing projects on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.” In that neighborhood, many people discouraged her and told her that she had “three strikes against [her]: [she] was black. [She] was a girl. And [she] was poor.”

But her mom consistently encouraged her and urged her to ignore the labels other people had assigned her. When she got older, despite her fears of moving, she attended Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, where she had to work harder to catch up with other students. According to her, “I was an oddity in a sea of predominantly white males. I doubted myself big time.” In college, she started as a chemical engineer, but then switch to mechanical engineering.

After graduating, she tells Lean In that she describes her life as a “series of lean in moments.” She took an internship with Xerox in upstate New York, went to an Ivy League for graduate school, signed on with Xerox and then worked her way up from there. Because of her courage to push herself, she overcame her fears, showing other women and minorities the kind of “education and self-respect [needed[ to take risks, dream big and someday pay it forward.”

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Roxanne Quimby, best known for her Burt’s Bees venture, started as “a divorced mother living without electricity” who washed her children’s diapers by hand in water heated on a wooden stove. She tells Inc., “I lived that way because I didn’t want to compromise; I didn’t want to be part of the [capitalist] problem.” But when she realized that her “informal vow of poverty” was limiting her children’s opportunities, she used her M.B.A. and creativity to start something from scratch.

When she was 36, she met Burt Shavitz, a reclusive beekeeper who was selling honey on the side of the road for $12 a gallon. Quimby had been working as a waitress at the time and according to her, she immediately saw a business opportunity. Quimby decided to sell the honey in smaller beehive-shaped jars to tourists to make more money. She tells Inc., “I made pretty handmade labels and [then] started making candles out of the beeswax. I’d make $200 a day.”

However, this wasn’t a consistent salary. Some days, she wouldn’t make enough money, her house fell apart and her car struggled to start. But Quimby continued to believe that success “doesn’t come from one brilliant idea, but from a bunch of small decisions that accumulate over the years…you shouldn’t underestimate the amount of work [and fear] that are involved.”

So over the years, she began selling other products, starting with beeswax lip balm. From there, she saw that the balm sold 10 times faster than beeswax furniture polish. Then she and Shavitz sold moisturizing cream. According to Inc. Quimby had reached $3 million in sales by 1993. After that, she decided to leave Maine to go to North Carolina for more aggressive business-recruiting machines, less unemployment tax and other business benefits. Eventually, it was her series of small decisions that led to Burt’s Bees being the successful name brand it is today.

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Zhang Xin is, according to Telegraph, not just one of China’s richest self-made women, but also one of the richest women in the world. Forbes reports that her current net worth is $3.3 billion. She didn’t start out that way, however. Telegraph writes that Xin spent her childhood in “a grim five-story block on the outskirts of Beijing, eating canteen-produced rice from an iron bowl alongside other offspring of toiling Chinese workers.” As a teenager, Xin was a factory worker who worked 12-hour shifts. By the time she was 20, she had made enough money to earn a Hong Kong passport and fly to Britain.

In Britain, she attended the University of Sussex with the help of scholarships and grants. After graduating Sussex, Xin then attended  the University of Cambridge to complete her master’s degree. She began working at investment firm Goldman Sachs but then eventually moved back to Beijing where she met her husband and started her own property development company known as SOHO.

As she thinks to the road to her success, Xin tells The Sunday Telegraph, “It’s been a gradual build up for so long. I remember the days when we were struggling to pay salaries and the bills, and then us moving slowly from a company in debt, with strict cost controls, to gradually, with more profits, becoming more relaxed. We went from taking the cheapest possible flights to being able to fly business class.”

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She’s Got Papers is a growing stationary empire that seeks to help people say things “the write way.” As Women You Should Know writes, Smith’s business was “launched against all odds [and] designed to counter the increasingly impersonal nature of our tech-obsessed world.” She’s Got Papers is a female-focused collection of elegant, classic designs and witty messages to help you say “thanks.”

But before becoming CEO of a growing company, Smith started as a single mother who found herself pregnant at 18 years old. She tells Women You Should Know that being a single mother taught her to “depend on [herself] and no one else.” She was living in Brooklyn, NY, at the time and was on welfare, but she continued to work until she was an executive assistant on Wall Street. As she continued her lifestyle as a working mother, Women You Should Know writes that Smith was “mesmerized by visits to Papyrus and Hallmark; she was intoxicated by stationary, handwritten notes and cards.”

On the She’s Got Papers website, Smith writes that she had always been passionate about messages and paper. She got her first journal in fifth grade and has since kept various journals. Smith, after deciding to pursue her passions, brainstormed with her sister about creating a “stationary brand for and about modern women that had etiquette and self-expression at its foundation. She launched her business in 2009 and ran it as she worked as a full-time mother and full-time Wall Street assistant.

Today, She’s Got Papers sells note cards, correspondence cards, magnets and even journals. According to Women You Should Know, Smith “attributes her tenacity to her mother, her appreciation of proper etiquette to her grandmother, her entrepreneurial spirit to her grandfather and her drive to see her dream through to the encouragement of her sister.” Smith is where she is today because she had a dream and was courageous enough to pursue it.

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Edited by Ellena Kilgallon

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