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From Bumble to YouTube: How the world’s most powerful female CEOs built their empires

What do Bumble, YouTube and Heineken have in common? They’re all led by some of this generation’s most talented female CEOs. Everyone has a backstory though and here’s how these game-changers got their start in the game.

Female CEOs

Behind some of the world’s most recognised brands today are a collective of CEOs who you mightn’t have heard of. The obvious fact is that they’re all women, but more than that, they’ve also proven to the business industry that they have what it takes to win as a driving force in their respective fields.

From Bumble to YouTube to Heineken, these are some of the most talented female CEOs changing the game in a brand-new decade.

Susan Wojcicki

Female CEOs

Company: YouTube
Revenue: US$15 billion (2019)
Worth: US$500 million
Age: 51

Susan Wojcicki took the helm of YouTube in 2014 but long before her rise as the video-sharing platform’s CEO, she was already an entrepreneur paving her way as one of today’s highest performing female CEOs. Wojcicki started her first business at the age of 11, going door-to-door selling spice ropes – plaited yarn threaded with spices – in her hometown of Palo Alto, California.

She wrote for the school newspaper before studying humanities in college and taking on her first computer science class. At Harvard University she graduated from history and literature with honours alongside plans for a PhD in economics before moving into a career in academia. Those plans shifted when she discovered her interest in technology.

She’d eventually find herself in a marketing role for Intel and it was here that a mutual friend introduced her to Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google. The duo rented Wojcicki’s garage to build the search engine and were soon renting out her bedrooms on the entire ground floor. Wojcicki welcomed the financial assistance since she and her husband were cash-strapped with a mortgage, student loan debts, and a baby on the way.

By 1999, she would become Google’s 16th employee and marketing manager. She then progressed to Senior Vice President of Advertising and Commerce, where she also oversaw Google’s Google Video Service – YouTube’s competitor at the time. Seeing YouTube’s potential, Wojcicki proposed Google’s purchase of YouTube and eventually handled its acquisition for US$1.65 billion in 2006.

Lisa Su

Female CEOs

Company: AMD
Revenue: US$6.73 billion (2019)
Worth: US$217 million (estimated)
Age: 50

What does your Macbook, Sony’s PS4, Microsoft’s Xbox One, the latest Samsung smartphone and a UAV military defence drone have in common? They all rely on AMD hardware to do their job.

Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) is the American semiconductor company that develops computer processors for both the business and consumer markets. Heading the company is Lisa Su, a Taiwanese American business executive and electrical engineer who rose through the ranks in various engineering management positions at IBM, Texas Instruments and Freescale Semiconductor before becoming the CEO and president of AMD in 2014.

Arriving in the US from Taiwan aged three, Su was encouraged by her statistician father to study maths and science. Her mother was an accountant who later became an entrepreneur and would introduce her to business concepts. Su was naturally inquisitive from a young age, explaining that she wanted to be an engineer because she wanted to know how things worked.

From the age of 10 she began fixing her brother’s remote-control cars and eventually graduated from the selective Bronx High School of Science before studying electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her earliest jobs included being an undergrad research assistant, building test silicon wafers for graduate students. At the same time, she held a summer job at Analog Devices, reinforcing her interest in semiconductor technology.

As a PhD student Su became one of the first researchers to shed light on an unproven technique for improving semiconductor technology. In 2017, Fortune magazine named Su one of the World’s Greatest Leaders.

Lynsi Snyder

Female CEOs

Company: In-N-Out Burger
Revenue: US$575 million (2017 estimated)
Worth: US$3.6 billion (2020)
Age: 37

The epitome of trendy fast food on the American west coast is undoubtedly In-N-Out Burger. As the only grandchild to Harry and Esther Snyder, who founded the first In-N-Out burger shop in 1948, Lynsi Snyder is owner and heiress to the family-owned empire.

What makes the brand special is its consistency and respect for tradition – the buns are still baked with slow-rising dough each morning, fries are hand-cut from potatoes, meat is ground in-house daily for its 333 restaurants and the recipe for its burgers and fries have barely changed in 70 years. Freezers, microwaves and heat lamps are also banned from all premises to ensure the freshness of their products.

Lynsi Snyder meanwhile was an unlikely CEO. She never graduated from college, lost her father to drug abuse, battled drug and alcohol abuse herself and went through three divorces. Her uncle, Rich Snyder, would still be the CEO today if it weren’t for his untimely passing in a plane crash in 1993. Having lost multiple family members, Lynsi eventually found strength from her Christian faith* and used her life experiences to preserve the brand’s image of 1950s wholesomeness before contributing to the growth of the multi-billion-dollar business.

Her earlier career days were spent at an In-N-Out restaurant separating lettuce leaves and working the cash register. Married at age 18, she took on a role at the company’s corporate merchandising department where she approved projects like T-shirt designs. She then rotated through various departments and taught herself about the business operations.

By 2010, Mark Taylor, who was a long-serving In-N-Out executive and Lynsi’s brother-in-law, handed the role over to her. At the age of 27, she was running In-N-Out at a time when it was generating an estimated US$550 million in sales across 251 locations.

*Fun fact: look for tiny bible verses printed on their burger wrappers and cups.

Marillyn Hewson

Female CEOs

Company: Lockheed Martin
Revenue: US453.76 billion (2018)
Worth: US$88.2 million (2020 estimated)
Age: 66

Some of the world’s most advanced fighter weapons wear the Lockheed Martin name and heading this American global aerospace, defence, security and advanced technologies company is arguably one of the world’s most powerful women: Marillyn Hewson.

The company itself contracts to America’s most high-profile organisations including surveillance and information processing for the CIA, FBI, IRS, NSA and The Pentagon. In 2008 alone it received US$36 billion in government contracts – the most for any company in history.

Hewson was raised by her mother who was a former member of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) – the women’s branch of the United States Army. Her father passed away when she was nine and she credits her leadership skills to her mother’s ability to raise five children on her own. Before her Lockheed Martin days, she completed a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration as well as a Master of Arts degree in economics from the University of Alabama. She’d eventually attend the Columbia Business School and Harvard Business School executive development programs.

She first joined the Lockheed Corporation as a senior industrial engineer in 1983. This was followed by numerous executive positions, including President and Chief Operating Officer, Executive VP of Lockheed Martin’s Electronic Systems business division, Lockheed Martin Systems Integration, Executive Vice President of Global Sustainment for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, President and General Manager of Kelly Aviation Center, L.P., and President of Lockheed Martin Logistics Services.

She was elected to join Lockheed Martin’s board of directors in 2012 and took the role of CEO in 2013.

Whitney Wolfe Herd

Female CEOs

Company: Bumble
Revenue: US$162 million (2018)
Worth: US$290 million (2019)
Age: 30

Being socially aware appears to be one of Whitney Wolfe Herd’s greatest talents. At age 20, while in college, she started her own business selling bamboo tote bags to help areas affected by the major BP oil spill of 2010. Wolfe Herd enlisted the help of celebrity stylist Patrick Aufdenkamp to launch the not-for-profit ‘Help Us Project’ and soon her bags found their way onto the national press circuit when they were spotted on celebrities like Nicole Richie and Rachel Zoe.

After a short stint working with orphanages in South–East Asia post-graduation, Wolfe Herd joined Hatch Labs at age 22. It was at this New York City incubator that she met Sean Rad and became involved with the startup Cardify. The project would eventually be abandoned but her connection with Rad soon saw her joining his other venture in 2012 – a dating app called Tinder – alongside Chris Gulczynski.

Wolfe Herd became the marketing manager for Tinder and is also credited for creating the app’s name. The signature flame logo is a reference to her having to use small sticks (tinder) to start the fireplace at her father’s cabin in Montana. After tensions with company executives, Wolfe Herd left Tinder in 2014 and created her own dating app designed to give women more control. Thus, Bumble was born. By 2017, Bumble had amassed over 22 million registered users.

As one of the most important women in tech today, Wolfe Herd is also the CEO of the newly acquired MagicLab, the parent company of multiple popular dating apps (Bumble, Latch, Badoo), valued at US$3 billion with an estimated 75 million users across its entire portfolio.

Mary Barra

Female CEOs

Company: General Motors
Revenue: US$147 billion (2018)
Worth: US$55.8 million (2019 estimated)
Age: 58

American motoring seems to run in the blood of Mary Barra. Her father Ray spent 39 years working for the Pontiac factory in Detroit and Barra herself graduated from the General Motors Institute where she obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. While studying she began working for General Motors at the age of 18 as a co-op student in 1980. Her job involved inspecting fender panels and hoods and she used her pay to fund her college tuition.

Barra eventually moved into a range of engineering and administrative positions within the GM group before managing an entire assembly plant. She went on to Stanford Graduate School of Business on a GM fellowship and obtained her Master’s in Business Administration degree.

Her dedication to the company would see her rise through the ranks from 2008 and by 2014, she became the first female head of an automobile manufacturer.

Ginni Rometty

Female CEOs

Company: IBM
Revenue: $US79.59 billion (2018)
Worth: US$90 million
Age: 62

As the eldest of four children whose father left when she was 15, Ginni Rometty grew up a leader when she was made responsible for the household in the evenings while her mother worked multiple jobs.

She attended Northwestern University in 1975 under a General Motors scholarship – a company for which she interned between her junior and senior years. Rometty went on to graduate with high honours alongside her bachelor’s degree in computer science and electrical engineering. In 1979, she kicked off her career at the General Motors Institute. Two years later she moved onto IBM as a systems analyst and systems engineer. From there she moved through various management jobs including sales.

In 2002, she helped secure a deal to purchase the consulting arm of professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers for US$3.5 billion. The acquisition deal was the largest in professional services history at the time and it introduced IBM into the services business.

Rometty was announced the company’s president and CEO in 2012 and also became the company’s first female chief in its 108-year history. It was announced this year that Rometty would step down as IBM’s CEO with Arvind Krishna to take over.

Sonia Cheng

Female CEOs

Company: Rosewood Hotel Group
Revenue: N/A
Worth: US$20.7 billion (family worth)
Age: 39

Being born into one of Hong Kong’s richest families may have opened up countless opportunities for Sonia Cheng but make no mistake, she’s already made her own mark since stepping out as the 30-year-old CEO of the Rosewood Hotel Group.

Cheng is the granddaughter of Hong Kong billionaire Cheng Yu-Tung and in 2011, she took charge of the family’s hotel business when their New World Hospitality Group acquired Rosewood from its Texan owner for US$229.5 million. Since then, Cheng has been pivotal in leading the hotel’s aggressive international expansion, which now spans 28 outposts in 16 countries. Her goal? To turn Rosewood into a brand that will appeal to younger affluent customers.

Cheng’s earlier years were spent studying applied mathematics at Harvard. Upon graduating, she went to work as a real estate investment banker for both Morgan Stanley and private equity firm Warburg Pincus. In this time, she learned how small companies operated and grew to become listed companies. She also learned how to build efficient management teams and how to deal with a variety of issues associated with managing growing businesses.

Moving into her role at Rosewood, then 30-year-old Cheng was met with scepticism from rivals and observers who labelled her the ‘daughter of a tycoon, playing hotel’. There were doubts that she would be able to live up to her father and grandfather’s legacy but today she’s changing that perception thanks to the humility instilled in her from strong family values. Growing up, Cheng was able to see how her father and grandfather gained the respect and loyalty from their teams in order to work towards a goal.

She subsequently spent the first two years immersed in the hotel industry looking at the finer details of how different departments operated – from housekeeping to human resources to operations to sales and marketing. As of 2020, the Rosewood Hotel Group announced 32 new projects in its development pipeline – the most ever in the company’s history.

Maggie Timoney

Female CEOs

Company: Heineken USA
Revenue: €21.89 billion (2017 global)
Worth: N/A
Age: 54

Upon being named the first female executive of one of the top five American beer companies, Maggie Timoney did something unconventional. In the trade group’s annual meeting in San Diego, among a crowd of mostly male beer distributors, she proclaimed: “I’ll be judged on my results, not on whether I’m male or female. I was put in this job not because I am a woman. I was put in this job because Amsterdam believed in me.”

One can credit that kind of staunch competitiveness to Timoney’s early days spent as a basketballer. Born in Ireland as the youngest of four children, she grew up playing in teams and it was here that she nurtured her connection between winning in sports and business. She learned that though there were girls’ and boys’ teams, when it came time to challenge outside teams, they needed to combine teams in order to have enough players for a shot at winning. Basketball would ultimately teach her resilience, confidence and self-empowerment.

While studying at college in New York, Timoney began working in the wholesale alcohol business. She’d eventually join Heineken USA in 1990 as a national planning manager in sales before progressing to more senior roles in the brand’s homeplace of the Netherlands, and then to Canada as general manager. She’d eventually return stateside where she became the senior vice president of HR – an area she knew nothing about but succeeded in regardless. Her tenure at Heineken learning about strategic planning, global partnerships and international distribution soon spanned more than 20 years until she was promoted to the top job.

In 2018, Timoney spoke about her newfound responsibility: “I know I have a tremendous amount of responsibility on my shoulders to deliver for Heineken USA, to deliver for the industry, to deliver for myself and my family and for female leaders and young girls everywhere who say, ‘Yes, yes, I can be there’.”

Safra Catz

Company: Oracle
Revenue: US$39.1 billion (2020)
Worth: US$1.1 billion
Age: 59

Safra Catz was six-years-old when she immigrated with her family to the United States from Israel. There wasn’t anything too extraordinary with her upbringing, having completed school before studying law at university. She started her career as a banker and investment banker and then progressed to the managing director role at Lufkin & Jenrette. She would eventually reach the senior vice-president role there before moving to join Oracle in 1999 holding that same title. Her talents saw her move up the ranks fast, having become a member on the board of directors in 2001 and then president in 2004. Her biggest achievement with Oracle came with the acquisition of competing software rival, PeopleSoft. Catz oversaw the US$10.3 billion takeover which also earned her the CFO role. By 2009 she’d be ranked as one of the most powerful women in business. After Donald Trump’s election she was earmarked alongside other high profile CEOs like Apple’s Tim Cook, Amazon’s Jeff Bezoz and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg to take up roles in the incoming administration. Today Catz is regarded as the highest paid female CEO of any American company. She’s also been a member of the board of directors at The Walt Disney Company since 2017.

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