From Pepperidge Farm to Liquid Paper to Flickr, smart women have been behind many of the great businesses of the last century. The National Women’s History Museum, the foremost authority on women’s history in the U.S., and Microsoft recently launched the online exhibit: From Ideas to Independence: A Century of Entrepreneurial Women, which highlights female entrepreneurs, their challenges and successes throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.

Entrepreneur definitionAmerican women have owned businesses as far back as the colonial settlement. It has been a bumpy ride for many female entrepreneurs, but the numbers only continue to show growth.

In September 2009, Lloyd C. Blankfein, Chairman and CEO of Goldman Sachs, declared that women’s businesses offer the “highest return on investment”. As of 2013, the number of women’s business ventures increased by 54 percent in the past fifteen years, with revenues jumping 58 percent.

The levels of success women have achieved in business are particularly impressive given that they have historically had limited access to traditional forms of capital (i.e. bank loans), mostly using credit cards and savings to launch their ventures.

This new online exhibit celebrates and shares the success stories of the last century of women entrepreneurs who have changed the way we conduct business, and the way women are perceived in business today.

Highlights of the exhibit include Elizabeth Arden, who began her career in 1910 as a nurse and then dental assistant, and later launched a skin cream and Fifth Avenue salon that turned her into a household name; and Ruth Fertel, who as a single mom in 1965, mortgaged her house to launch Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse.

The exhibit also recognizes the increasingly prominent role that technology has played in enabling women to launch and sustain new businesses. Sandra Kurtzig has been called “a legendary figure in the tech world” and “the first lady of computers”. In 1974, at a time when women were barely beginning to consider careers in high-tech, she founded what became one of the fastest-growing computer software companies in America, ASK Computer Systems. This is just the tip of the iceberg!

Ruth Fertel, Elizabeth Arden, Sandra Kurtzig, Jean Nidetch

Clicking through and learning about these incredible Women You Should Know, who have taken their ideas from concept to reality, in spite of the challenges they may have faced, offers endless sources of inspiration from which to draw. Just when you think you can’t, these stories remind you that… yes, you can!

To view the exhibit in its entirety, click here.

Photos via National Women’s History Museum