How much money have you made during the pandemic? Perhaps you saved a bit from all those shawermas and sandwiches you didn’t buy? If we’re honest, it’s unlikely to have made you a billionaire. For that, you will have had to do somewhat more than end your shop-bought sandwich habit. Or maybe not. The new Forbes list of the world’s 2,755 billionaires features the full range of talents: from entrepreneurs who’ve created something huge, to those born – or who married – into immense wealth. While the global Covid crisis has led to large-scale job losses and laid waste to entire industries, those at the top of the pile have been doing rather nicely: a new billionaire has been created every 17 hours, with that list including more female names than ever before.
A 36 per cent annual increase in very, very wealthy women brings their total number to 328, with a combined fortune of $1.53 trillion. That’s an almost 60 per cent increase since this time last year.
If it still sounds like a small proportion of the total, that’s because it is – 500 new names were added in the latest list. But it does mean a slightly bigger minority of women are smashing through that glass ceiling – among them, a new world’s youngest self-made female billionaire.
Whitney Wolfe Herd, the 31-year-old American co-founder of the dating app Bumble, is worth $1.3 billion and joins the list for the first time after taking her company public in February. In many ways, her story is a modern parable. Raised in Utah, her high school years included a formative experience with an allegedly abusive boyfriend. After university, she became a co-founder of dating app Tinder but left in 2014 and filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the company. (Tinder denied her allegations but settled out of court for a reported $1 million.)
Out of all this came Bumble, an app that allows women to message men first, which Wolfe has said she was motivated to create by a wish to end the ‘misogyny’ of the dating market.
"For all the advances women had been making in workplaces and corridors of power, the gender dynamics of dating and romance still seemed so outdated. I thought, what if I could flip that on its head?" she explains on her company’s website. Bumble now has more than 100 million users worldwide, while Wolfe Herd is married to a man she did not meet on a dating app (businessman Michael Herd), which might be the only old-fashioned part of her story.
Like the tech bros of Silicon Valley, Wolf Herd works punishing hours. "I get no downtime," she once said. "I don’t get a weekend." This, however, might have changed since her son Bobby, now one, arrived. The family split their time between their two Texas homes and travel a lot. In true young billionaire style, Wolfe Herd celebrated her 30th birthday with a party on a yacht off Capri in Italy.
Glamour is a lot of hard work
Elsewhere on the list, the American reality television and social media star Kim Kardashian makes an equally modern addition. The 40-year-old enters at number 2,674, with an estimated fortune of $1 billion. Her wealth comes from two businesses – KKW Beauty and Skims clothing – plus her TV show, endorsement deals and smaller investments. "Not bad for a girl with no talent," she has said of herself.
Her success illustrates the riches to be found at the top of the self-promotion game for a few lucky women, and has spawned a generation of copycats inspired by the lavish Los Angeles lifestyle of America’s selfie Queen. Though currently divorcing rapper Kanye West, she lives with her four children in a mansion said to be worth a cool $60 million.
And for all the 21st century fairytales dotted through the female billionaire list, less progress in gender equality has been made than meets the eye. Scan the 10 richest women in the world and you’ll notice none have built their fortunes from scratch. From Francoise Bettencourt Meyers, 67, the French heir to the L’Oreal empire and richest woman in the world with a net worth of $73.6 billion, to the American MacKenzie Scott, 50, who owes her position as third richest woman in the world to her divorce from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, the most reliable routes to immense wealth appear to remain either birth or marriage.
"It’s a bit depressing," says Professor Heather McGregor, head of the business school at Heriot-Watt University. "If you go through person by person, they’ve either divorced someone, they’re someone’s daughter, ex-wife, granddaughter or widow, and so it’s all derived wealth."
This pattern is reflected in Britain, where the two richest women inherited their fortunes. Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken, 66, is the wealthiest woman based here, with a net worth of $16.7 billion, followed by Kirsten Rausing, the 68-year-old Tetra Pak heiress, whose net worth is $13.9 billion.
Denise Coates, number three on the British list, is the richest UK self-made woman, with a $6.5 billion fortune from the online gambling company Bet365, of which she is co-chief executive. The 53-year-old mother-of-five from Stoke-on-Trent trained as an accountant, took over the Coates’ betting shops and became managing director at 22. She then sold them and launched her online bookie in 2001. It became the biggest private sector employer in her home city, facilitating more than $65 billion in bets annually.
Last year, Coates netted Britain’s biggest ever salary of £421 million, almost equivalent to the combined pay of all FTSE 100 chief executives. Added to this tidy sum came a £48 million dividend payment from her 50 per cent stake in the business that she owns with her brother John.
Coates, who is reportedly building a sprawling luxury home in Cheshire and drives an Aston Martin DB9 sports car with customised licence plates, fiercely guards her privacy. But in a rare interview, she once described herself as the "ultimate gambler" – which might go some way to accounting for her success.
"You have to take risk to get reward and the kind of risks you need to take to build this kind of empire are usually deeply incompatible with other things you’re trying to do," says Prof McGregor. "Most [women] would be prioritising raising a family. Entrepeneurial risk is largely taken by men."
Even for those women inclined to throw everything at their ideas, there remain significant obstacles. "It’s quite difficult to raise the money as a woman," Prof McGregor points out. "There’s definitely a bias against investing in women’s start-ups."
British entrepreneur Lara Morgan cites another reason for the limited number of female billionaires from the UK (there are none in the top 10) compared to their American counterparts: "Too many times they take on bad advice... I don’t think female entrepreneurs in Britain are as bold as brass." There is, she says, a different language of enterprise in other countries, which is only slowly improving here. "Thirty years ago, there’s no way you’d have said loudly ‘I’m starting my own company’."
Today, at least, more female entrepreneurs have been taking a leaf from the playbook of Miuccia Prada, the 71-year-old Italian fashion billionaire. "I’m very proud of my job," she once said. "I earn my own money, which is a huge thing for a woman."