One of the world’s most exclusive clubs, the Forbes billionaires, has admitted more women than ever before. There are 1,645 billionaires in this year’s list and nearly 10 percent of them are female; that’s a 25 percent rise from last year. The magazine published its annual rankings on Monday, putting Bill Gates with his $76 billion back at the top again.
It is good news on face value, but on closer inspection, most of these women have inherited their money, as opposed to building their own wealth. The likes of Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook and a self-made billionaire, are the exception rather than the rule. Sandberg is worth $1.05 billion. She saw her own shares in Facebook go up by 130 percent last year and she has 12 million of them. She also saw success with her book Lean In, with advice on how to get ahead as a woman in a man’s world.
A Walmart heiress takes both the first and third place in the top ten, Christy Walton ($36.7 billion) and Alice Walton (34.3 Billion) respectively. In second place is Liliane Bettencourt, the French heiress to the L’Oreal fortune with $34.5 billion. Bettencourt is now 91 and the richest woman in France.
Christy Walton, the widow of John who was founder Sam Walton’s, son, increased her own asset base by investing in First Solar shares. She has remained in the top spot for four of the past five years. Alice is her sister-in-law, and Sam’s daughter.
There are 268 new names on this year’s list and of those, 42 are women. To put it into perspective, only five of those are self-made. Along with Sheryl Sandberg there is Folorunsho Alakjaa, 63,of the Nigerian company Famfa Oil, with $2.5 billion, pictured above. She has attributed her choice of career to God, saying He led her down the path. From the UK comes Denise Coates, with her $1.6 billion made through online gambling in Bet365, a business she co-owns with her brother; and from China, Lia Xiaomeng ($1 billion) of Suning Appliances and Wang Laichun(also $1 billion) of Shenzhen Luxshare Precision.
Daughters who have benefitted from parental accomplishment include Sandra Mera Ortega. Her mother Rosalie was the co-founder of the Zara brand, part of the global clothing firm Inditex. Then there is Perenna Kei, who at 24 is the youngest billionaire. Perenna is the child of Ji Haipeng, and the majority shareholder (85 percent) in his real estate business, Logan Properties. Kei has nudged out Dustin Moskovitz, the Facebook co-founder, who was previously the youngest billionaire. Not much is known about this young woman, and there are no photos of her in the public domain. She is said to have a degree in economics from one of the London universities.
Granddaughters have also inherited. Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer and Jane Lauder, both the grandchildren of Estee Lauder have joined the list, aged 44 and 41, and with personal fortunes of $1.1 and $1.5 billion. They both work in the cosmetic company named for and established by their grandmother.
Bill Gates has resumed his ascendancy after a surge in the value of Microsoft, even though this only accounts for 20 percent of his total wealth. He got richer by $7 billion last year, allowing him to outstrip Carlos Slim of Mexico. This is despite Gates’s massive philanthropic efforts which see him giving away large sums of his money. He has remained the world’s richest man for fifteen years out of the past two decades. Gates recently announced that he intends to concentrate on the work of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and to limit his time with the software company by sitting on the board. Their focus is on tackling global health and poverty issues.
Other familiar names take top rankings in the Forbes list. Warren Buffet, The Koch brothers. Larry Ellison. Between them the top ten billionaires hold $507 billion. Their combined wealth is larger than the entire economy of Norway, Poland or Belgium.
Should women be inspired or disappointed by the latest rankings? They are infiltrating the richest ranks, but very slowly, and mostly through inheritance. Only one woman, Meg Whitman, is on the list by virtue of working for someone else, which is the reality for most working women. Whitman is the CEO of Hewlett Packard. Others, like Sara Blakely who started underwear company Spanx, fashion designer Tory Burch and media mogul Oprah Winfrey, are all there by dint of their own empires.
The Forbes billionaires list may have seen a 25 percent increase in women, but as Sheryl Sandberg would advise, they may have to lean in a lot harder if they are to ever dominate what remains a man’s list in a man’s world.
By Kate Henderson