How much money have you made during the pandemic? Perhaps you saved a bit from all those Pret meatball wraps you weren’t buying? 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, published this week, 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 to the list over the past 12 months alone. But it does mean a slightly bigger minority of women globally 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.
“So many of the smart, wonderful women in my life were still waiting around for men to ask them out, to take their numbers or to start up a conversation on a dating app,” she explains on her company’s website. “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women had been making in workplaces and corridors of power, the gender dynamics of dating and romance still seemed so outdated.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?” Bumble now has more than 100 million users worldwide, while Wolfe Herd is now 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, Wolfe 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, for both business and pleasure. In true young-billionaire style, Wolfe Herd celebrated her 30th birthday with a party on a yacht off Capri in Italy.
Elsewhere on the list, the American reality TV 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 lucky few women, and has spawned a generation of copycats inspired by the lavish Los Angeles lifestyle of America’s selfie queen. Married to rapper Kanye West, Kardashian lives with her four children in a mansion said to be worth a cool $60 million.
But 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 through the names of the 10 richest women in the world and you’ll notice none has built their own fortunes from scratch. From Françoise 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 and member of the British honours committee for the economy. “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. I’m not saying these people don’t do well when they’ve got that, but it is very challenging to know why there aren’t more people [who have created their own wealth].”
This pattern is reflected in Britain, where the two richest women also 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 TetraPak heiress, whose net worth is $13.9 billion.
Denise Coates, number three on the British list, is the richest self-made British 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 (of whom four siblings were adopted from the same family) 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 firm in 2001. It became the biggest private sector employer in her home city, and facilitates 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” – a remark that 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 McGregor of the lack of self-made women on the Forbes list. “Most [women] would be prioritising raising a family. Entrepreneurial risk is largely taken by men.”
Even for those women inclined to throw everything at their enterprise, there remain significant obstacles.
“If you did have a great idea and were willing to take the risk, it’s quite difficult to raise the money as a woman,” 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 UK women in the female billionaires’ club (there are none at all in the top 10), compared with 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 - something that is improving here, but slowly. “Thirty years ago, there’s no way you’d have said loudly ‘I’m starting my own company’,” she says.
Today, it is at least clear more female entrepreneurs have been taking a leaf from the playbook of Miuccia Prada, the 71-year-old Italian fashion billionaire who features on Forbes’ list. “I’m very proud of my job,” she once said. “I earn my own money, which is a huge thing for a woman.”