The richest women in the world did not study business

richest women in the world
All smiles as one of the richest women in the world through inheritance. Source: Francois Guillot/AFP

Every time you buy a CeraVe moisturiser, Garnier shampoo, Redken conditioner, NYX lipsticks, YvesSaintLaurent clutch, Ralph Lauren Shirt or Maison Margiela perfume, you’re making the richest women in the world richer.

Specifically, Françoise Bettencourt Meyers, who reigns on the Forbes 2023 World’s Billionaires list and for the third year running.

Thanks to her stake in the company her grandfather Eugène Schueller founded in 1909, the French heiress to the global cosmetics giant L’Oréal has an estimated net worth of US$80.5 billion.

This is an eye-popping figure — but not for the reasons you think.

The richest women in the world are still poorer than the richest men in the world

There have always been rich women, especially since the 1980s and ’90s. During these two decades, many cracked the “diamond ceiling.”

Between 1980 to 2000, there were three times more women in the top 1% of earners than the period before. From 2000 to 2014, women only grew their share by 11.5%.

Bettencourt Meyers may be top of the list of the richest women in the world but have less than half the wealth of Bernard Arnault, chief executive of the luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and the #1 richest man in the world.

Bettencourt Meyers did not even crack the top 10 of the list, coming in only at 11th spot.

A 2016 paper by Gabriel Zucman, an economics professor at the University of California, Berkeley found it would take close to a century before women make up half the population of the top 1%.

And if you remove the inherited wealth of the richest women in the world, you’re left with a much shorter list of self-made women millionaires and billionaires.

A Wealth-X study in 2016 found that only 49 of the 249 world’s female billionaires are self-made.

The situation hasn’t changed much today. In Forbes’s 2022 ranking of the richest women entrepreneurs, executives and entertainers, the first spot was Diane Hendricks.

The net worth of the confounder of ABC Supply, one of the largest wholesale distributors of roofing, siding and windows in the US? US$12.2 billion.

That’s nearly seven times lesser than Bettencourt Meyers.

What’s keeping so many women out of the ultra-rich club?

richest women in the world

Rihanna may be worth more than US$10 billion but she’s still far poorer compared to the top five richest women in the world. Source: Angela Weiss/AFP

Why the list of richest women in the world is a short one

Perhaps the answer can be found in a Rihanna quote:

“There’s something so special about a woman who dominates in a man’s world. It takes a certain grace, strength, intelligence, fearlessness, and the nerve to never take no for an answer.”

The key phrase here is “a man’s world.”

Julia Pimsleur, who founded the multimillion-dollar Little Pim language-instruction company and  daughter of Dr. Paul Pimsleur the creator of the Pimsleur programme for learning foreign languages, told The New York Times:

“There is unconscious bias in the system.” This bias remains stubbornly so in the executive suite and the venture capital.

Not being super rich could be a choice as well.

“Women want the triple win — money, meaning and mobility,” Pimsleur said. “They want the big dollars. But they also want to do something that adds value. And they want freedom and flexibility.”

To understand this further, a look into the life and education of the richest women in the world is crucial.

They offer a window not just into how they got rich but also striking differences with the list of richest men in the world.

richest women in the world

L’Oreal heiress Francoise Bettencourt Meyers became the richest woman in the world when she inherited the company from her mother. Source: Ian Langsdon/Pool/AFP

The top five richest women in the world

1. Francoise Bettencourt Meyers

Estimated net worth: US$80.5 billion

“Because you’re worth it” is a line that empowers women — but also sells them a lot of hair care, skincare, sun care, makeup, toiletries and fragrances to them.

Sales amounted to 38.26 billion euros at Dec. 31, 2022. At the top of this conglomerate sits Bettencourt Meyers, who holds the biggest shares.

Bettencourt inherited one-third of L’Oréal from her mother in 2017 when she died, further propelling her worth.

She was born on July 10, 1953, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France and went to a Catholic School in her early learning years.

What sets her apart the most from other billionaires, especially old, male and white billionaires, is she’s an introvert who loves reading literature and history, or playing the piano, rather than going out to fancy parties with her socialite parents.

Tom Sanctum, a Times reporter, called Bettencourt Meyers a “serious-minded intellectual”.

At college, she majored in International Jewish-Christian relations and Greek mythology.

She went on to write two books, a five-volume study of the Bible in 2008, a genealogy of the Greek gods, and a book about hearing and deafness in 2020.

Today, a part of her legacy includes the Bettencourt Schueller Foundation, a charity she co-founded that issues grant for research purposes.

richest women in the world

Julia Koch and her three children inherited a 42% stake in Koch Industries, making her one of the richest women in the world. Source: Andrew Toth / Getty Images North America/Getty Images /AFP

2.  Julia Koch

Net worth: US$59 billion

Of all the richest women in the world, Julia Margaret Flesher Koch is arguably the luckiest.

In 1991, she agreed to go on a blind date with David Koch, referred to as the “goofy playboy” — a fortunate move amounting to a 42% stake in the Koch Industries for her and her three children.

Born on April 12, 1962, in Des Moine, Iowa, to parents with a furniture store called Flesher’s, Julia attended the University of Central Arkansas.

She graduated with a degree, then decided to make the move to New York.

Here, she managed to get a job as an assistant to fashion designer Adolfo, who dressed the rich and famous, including First Lady Nancy Reagan.

Julia met David on a blind date, but she never wanted to see him again. “I’m pleased I met that guy because now I know I never want to go out with him,” she says.

However, they met by chance six months later, started dating, fell in love, and got married in 1996.

Both Julia and David are famous for donating millions to the David H. Koch Foundation, which supports medical research, education, and the arts.

However, it is said that since David passed, Julia has cut down massively on donations and lives a quiet life with the children.

richest women in the world

Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, is among the richest women in the world. Source: Rick T. Wilkin /Getty Images North America/Getty Images/AFP

3. Alice Walton

Net worth:US$56.7 billion

Alice Louise Walton is the daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, the third richest woman in the world.

Walton was born on October 7, 1949, in Bentonville, Arkansas and grew up there with her three brothers.

She attended a public school and went on to Trinity University in San Antonia, Texas, to pursue a BA  Economics and Finance.

After graduating, she chose to work at a Walmart store as a buyer of children’s clothes.

She then sought to begin her career in finance by taking on the role of equity analyst and money manager at First Commerce Corporation.

She also had a short stint at brokerage firm EF Hutton.

What’s interesting is despite studying for relevant degrees that would have taken her far in the business world, she chose to focus on curating art.

She eventually established the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in her hometown as a dedication to local art and artists.

For all her philanthropic work, the University of Arkansas awarded her with an honorary Doctor of Arts and Humane Letters in 2012.

richest women in the world

Jacqueline Mars is one of the richest women in the world and is credited with making key decisions in the company. Source: Paul Morigi/Getty Images for National Archives Foundation/AFP

4. Jacqueline Mars

Net worth: US$38.3 billion

If you love Skittles, Snickers or M&M’s, you would have heard of the American confectionary company called Mars, Incorporated.

The woman who inherited the billion-dollar company is Jacqueline Mars, and she is worth US$38.3 billion today.

Mars was born on Oct. 10, 1939, in Washington to Forrest Mars, Sr. and Audrey Mars. She had a relatively normal childhood alongside both her older brothers.

The chocolate and candy company by then was already making waves in the industry for its austere business practices and flourishing.

But it is said that her father was frugal and didn’t spend unnecessarily, except on their education.

Instead, the children did chores and ran errands to earn an allowance like any regular child did at that time.

Jacqueline started her schooling years at Miss Hall’s School in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Once she graduated from there, she attended a women’s liberal art college, Bryn Mawr College, where she pursued a degree in anthropology in 1961.

Mars took a pause from studying to get married and raise her three children.

In 1982, she joined the family company as president, and in 1999, Mars and her brothers took over completely once their father passed.

Mars ended up working here for 20 years, driving the company’s expansion while they strategically took over other pet brands.

Despite being handed a golden ticket at birth, Mars, now 84, has always placed importance on charity.

Her great love for horses saw her buy a farm in Virginia that trains horses used by the Olympics medallist.

She also donates to the Australian Outback Doctors and National Symphony Orchestra, among other causes.

richest women in the world

Miriam Adelson and her husband, Sheldon, didn’t have an easy life growing up but they worked hard with the opportunities given to them. Source: Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP

5. Miriam Adelson

Estimated net worth: US$35 billion

Miriam Ochshorn Adelson is a physician with the fortunes of a casino owner. Most of her wealth can be traced to the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, the casino business of her husband Sheldon Adelson.

Before this, however, Miriam was born in Tel Aviv, Israel to parents who were forced to flee Poland because of the Jewish persecution taking place.

She grew up under the dark shadow of the Holocaust, recalling her mother’s tears at the loss of family who perished at concentration camps.

“When I was young, I learnt that my mother lost almost her entire family. My father also lost beloved family members. I grew up feeling my parents’ pain.”

Despite such trying times that had no doubts left Miriam in turmoil, she finished high school at the Hebrew Reali School of Haifa.

In later years, she would go on to describe her high school as a model for the Adelson Educational Campus.

She recalls that back in high school, upper schoolers were expected to have a major; she chose biology at that time.

Miriam then went on to enrol at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Microbiology and Genetics.

From a young age, Miriam realised her passion for sciences and wanted to take up a profession that would enable her to help people.

She joined Tel Aviv University to study medicine, where she graduated with an MD magna cum laude from the Sackler Medical School.

She also attended Rockefeller University in New York on an exchange programme focused on treating drug addiction, which later became her speciality.

In 1993, she opened a substance abuse centre and research clinic, and in 2020 founded another one with her husband Sheldon.

This clinic was known as Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Research Clinic in Las Vegas.

She has been awarded the prestigious US Presidential Medal of Freedom for her medical, philanthropic and humanitarian achievements.