An all-time high of 2043 people made the ranks of FORBES’ World's Billionaires, 227 of whom are women -- a jump from last year’s 202 and a record for women billionaires. They make up 11% of the list and have a collective net worth of $852.8 billion. The majority of the richest women in the world inherited their money.
For the second year running, France’s Liliane Bettencourt is the world’s wealthiest woman with a $39.5 billion net worth. The cosmetics heiress’ fortune is $3.4 billion more than a year ago, but that was only good enough to secure her a spot at no.14 on the list, down from no.11 last year. Bettencourt owns a third of L’Oreal with her children; her father, Eugene Schueller, founded the company in 1907 and passed away in 1957. The 94-year-old, who suffers from dementia, has been mired in a legal battle against former confidante and photographer Francois-Marie Banier. In 2016, Banier was ordered to pay a $400,000 fine and relinquish $90 million in assets by a French appeals court, after he was found guilty of swindling Bettencourt in 2015. Banier is appealing the decision, while Bettencourt is appealing the reduced damage payment.
The second richest female in the world is Alice Walton, who is worth $33.8 billion, $1.5 billion more than last year, but slips a spot in the yearly rankings to no.17 in 2017. The only daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, Alice has not taken an active role in the family business but is the wealthiest woman in America, primarily thanks to her share of Wal-Mart stock and hefty dividends payments. She is one of four Walton women in the ranks, who altogether are worth a combined $49.5 billion. The others are her sister-in-law Christy Walton, the widow of her brother John, and her cousins, Anne Walter Kroenke and Nancy Walton Laurie.
Rounding out the world’s top 10 richest women is a group of heiresses who may not be personally well known but who make their fortunes from big and beloved brands. That includes Jacqueline Mars, worth $27 billion, whose grandfather Frank Mars founded the world’s largest candymaker, Mars Inc., in his kitchen in 1911; Maria Franca Fissolo, worth $25.2 billion, whose father-in-law created the spread that became Nutella, and whose late husband, Michele Ferrero, built the Ferrero Group into a snacks powerhouse with Ferrero Rocher, Kinder Chocolate and Tic Tacs brands under its umbrella; and Steve Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, whose $20 billion fortune comes from her shares in Apple and Disney.
The woman who had the best year was Gina Rinehart. The iron ore magnate’s net worth jumped $6.2 billion to $15 billion, making her the richest person in her country and no. 69 in the world, a big jump from her spot at no. 127 a year ago. Unlike all the other women ahead of her, Rinehart also has bragging rights for actively building her fortune. Rinehart took her late father's bankrupted estate and rebuilt it into something much larger. Her massive Roy Hill project, a world-class iron ore mine in Western Australia, has shipped 30 million tons of iron ore in its first 14 months of production.
While Rinehart and Abigail Johnson, who became chairman of her family’s $2.1 trillion (managed assets) Fidelity Investments in 2016, have actively added to their fortunes, there is only one entirely self-made woman among the 20 richest women. Hong Kong’s Zhou Qunfei, the world’s 17th richest woman, takes the crown as the richest female self-starter; her $7.4 billion fortune makes her the 186th wealthiest person in the world.
Born and raised in a poor rural Chinese village, Zhou lost her mother as a child and was raised by a father who suffered injuries from an industrial accident. She reportedly quit school at 16 years old to look for work, and landed in a watch lenses factory that gave her shifts lasting 16 to 18 hours a day. Zhou eventually started her own watch lenses manufacturing business, and expanded to making glass covers for cell phone screens in the early 2000s. Apple’s introduction of the iPhone in 2007 increased the demand, and her glass cover manufacturer Lens Technology is now a major supplier to both the Cupertino giant and Samsung. Zhou first became a billionaire after Lens Technology went public on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange in 2015. She still runs the company as CEO and owns more than 80% of its stock.
While women as a percentage of the world’s wealthiest has not changed much over the years, self-made women are making their mark. The proportion of self-made women on FORBES’ World’s Billionaires list has nearly tripled from a decade ago from 1% to 2.7% this year. They now account for one in four women billionaires, up from 21% last year. Of the 56 self-starters who built their own fortunes, 15 are newcomers including Vietnam’s Nguyen Thi Phuong Thao (net worth of $1.2 billion) and Japan’s Yoshiko Shinohara (net worth of $1.1 billion), who are the first self-made female billionaires in their respective countries. The United States, which boasts the most billionaires in the world, has 74 women billionaires, while Germany and China are a distant second and third with 28 and 23 women billionaires respectively.