The women who made themselves billionaires

Three women created their own billion-dollar businesses without a spouse or partner.

Judy Faulkner, the CEO and founder of Epic Systems, a healthcare software company based in Wisconsin; Oprah Winfrey, the media executive, actress, talk show host and television producer, and Meg Whitman, CEO and President of eBay, from 1998 to 2008. Whitman was also the CEO of Hewlett-Packard and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise before becoming CEO of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s new video streaming platform Quibi late last year. What these women have in common is that they are all billionaires who made their fortune themselves.

Faulkner, Winfrey and Whitman, all self-made billionaires, were today named today in the 2019 Forbes 400, the annual list of the richest women in the US. The women of The Forbes 400 are the wealthiest ever, with a combined net worth of US$429.7 billion, up from US$330 billion in 2018.

Faulkner, speaking in August at a keynote address at Epic Systems annual meeting, reflected on her past in keeping with the theme of the Users Group Meeting – the 1970s.

“People often think I was a hippie, but I have no idea what marijuana smells like. I was more of a nerd than a hippie, and more specifically, a math nerd,” Faulkner told around 11,000 people at Epic Systems’ headquarters in Verona, Wisconsin. She has previously said that she owes a lot to Microsoft’s Bill Gates: “It was painful to be nerdy when I was growing up and I clearly was nerdy. But I think it became a perfectly fine thing to be nerdy after Bill Gates.”

Faulkner said her culture was think “Yes, if …” instead of “No, because.” Her creed was simple: “Have fun, do good, make money.”

Faulkner said that she first worked on an electronic health records system as a project when she was pursuing a master’s degree in computer science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“There were a few real challenges to it,” she said. “One thing was, how do you keep track of time? Some things never change, like your birth date. Some things always change, like your vital signs.”

After years of encouragement from colleagues, she decided to turn the project into its own company. Epic Systems launched in 1979 as a small business located in the basement of a building, valued at US$70,000 and with two employees on staff. They built the system on a then-sophisticated 50 megabyte computer drive, she said.

Judith Faulkner Epic Systems

“You couldn’t touch it because it would corrupt the data. We walked in a wide berth around it,” she told the almost 10,000 employees who work at Epic Systems today.

Faulkner, who Forbes state has a net worth of US$3.8 billion, said that from the get-go, she designed the company to “put the patient at the centre, and all the data around the patient.” She said that decision has been key to Epic Systems’ monumental success.

One of the three self-made billionaires said that the company’s dedication to building all of its software in-house instead of acquiring the software of others remains a key difference.

“Why did we go a different direction? I was thinking about that as I was putting this show together,” she said.

“I’m a techie. And that’s the key difference. Those guys were taught things like go public, make mergers and acquisitions. What was I taught? How to program,” said Faulkner.

Other contributors to the company’s success lie in its campus and aesthetic. She said that the company values humour — hence its whimsical campus, which includes a tree house, a replica of a New York subway station and buildings based on children’s stories like Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter.

She also said that she has always tried to place employees in their own offices, instead of embracing an open layout. It’s easy to get hard work done when you’re wearing comfortable clothes and sitting in a quiet space, she said.

She told the crowd that Epic would soon launch an initiative to have its customers save 100,000 lives through improved use of the company’s technology.

Oprah Winfrey never married, never had children, and it partly explains her phenomenal success and her status among the billionaires.


Winfrey told People that The Oprah Winfrey Show helped her to see that motherhood requires serious responsibility and “sacrifice”.

“I realised, ‘Whoa, I’m talking to a lot of messed-up people, and they are messed up because they had mothers and fathers who were not aware of how serious that job is,’” she said. “I don’t have the ability to compartmentalise the way I see other women do. It is why, throughout my years, I have had the highest regard for women who choose to be at home (with) their kids, because I don’t know how you do that all day long. Nobody gives women the credit they deserve.

“I used to think about this all the time, that I was working these 17-hour days, and so were my producers, and then I go home and I have my two dogs and I have Stedman (Graham, her long-time partner), who’s letting me be who I need to be in the world. He’s never demanding anything from me like, ‘Where’s my breakfast? Where’s my dinner?’ Never any of that, which I believed would have changed had we married.

“Both he and I now say, ‘If we had married, we would not be together,’” she adds. “No question about it — we would not stay married, because of what that would have meant to him, and I would have had my own ideas about it.”

Winfrey, whom Forbes states has a net worth of US$2.7 billion, is now 65 and does not miss having any children.

“I have not had one regret about that. I also believe that part of the reason why I don’t have regrets is because I got to fulfil it in the way that was best for me: the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa,” she says. “Those girls fill that maternal fold that I perhaps would have had. In fact, they overfill — I’m overflowed with maternal.”

Read next: The CEO Magazine cover story on Oprah Winfrey

The third of the self-made female billionaires is Meg Whitman, now CEO of a new business Quibi, a new streaming service which will launch in April next year. Quibi believes customers will pay US$4.99 a month with ads and US$7.99 a month without, for a mobile-only, short-form video service. It has reportedly raised US$1 billion in funding and its investors include The Walt Disney Company, Time Warner and ecommerce business Alibaba.

Meg Whitman

“What I’m doing here reminds me of eBay in its earliest days. The consumer tech has changed a ton, but the fundamentals are the same around user experience and user interface,” Whitman told TheWrap.

Prior to Quibi, Whitman served as CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and President and CEO for the Hewlett-Packard Company before becoming President and CEO of eBay. Whitman oversaw growth from 30 employees and US$4 million in annual revenue to more than 15,000 employees and US$8 billion in annual revenue. She has also held executive-level positions at Procter and Gamble, Hasbro, The Walt Disney Company, and Bain & Company.

Whitman, who Forbes states has a net worth of US$3.7 billion, is still very much involved in politics in her home state of California. In 2008, Whitman was cited by The New York Times as among the women most likely to become the first female President of the US.

Diane Hendricks is the richest of the self-made women on the billionaires list. She and seven others, including Gap cofounder Doris Fisher and The Wonderful Company cofounder Lynda Resnick, started and worked on the businesses with their husbands.

The rest of the female billionaires inherited their fortunes from their late husbands, from other family members or through divorce. Four are actively growing their inheritance, including Laurene Powell Jobs, or working at their family businesses, like Aerin Lauder and Jane Lauder.

Read Next: Aerin Lauder shares her eight business secrets

Four women billionaires made The Forbes 400 for the first time, including two who now rank among the nation’s two richest: MacKenzie Bezos, who debuts at No. 15, after her divorce from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and Julia Koch, the widow of industrialist David Koch and the list’s richest newcomer worth US$41 billion.

Read Next: MacKenzie Bezos to donate half her fortune

The two other new billionaires are Ross Perot’s widow Margot Birmingham Perot and Janice McNair, who inherited her late husband Bob McNair’s stake in the NFL’s Houston Texans.

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