She was the first female billionaire in America and she did it in just one day!

While it took years of hard work and a series of books, magazines, and television shows to get there, Martha Stewart’s net worth soared to record-breaking heights when she launched Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO) in October of 1997.

Now you may be thinking what else is there to say about Martha Stewart that hasn’t been said?  Today’s article challenges that thought and the elements of Martha’s wealth that underscore the power behind her success.

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Most people recognize Martha as a businesswoman who took a small town Connecticut catering business and turned it into a media empire.  She’s earned a reputation as a tough and savvy perfectionist who unfortunately got herself into legal hot water after she committed insider trading fraud in 2011.

Naturally, this doesn’t look good. Martha’s has had her share of highs and lows both personally and professionally, like all of us.   Two made-for-television movies about her trading scandal (2003) and time spent in jail (2005), as well as an unattractive portrait written by her daughter Alexa in her book Whateverland: Learning to Live Here, are unflattering, at best.

But despite these critiques and Martha’s financial wealth and success, I can’t help but wonder if my perspective about Martha suffers from the same condemning judgments made about Cleopatra and the first woman to open a brokerage firm in the United States, Victoria Woodhull.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that Martha isn’t guilty of wrongdoings and character flaws that have littered her path to success.  But I do believe that women who are tough in the business world still face an uphill battle, especially in male bastions of power.  They can be judged more harshly, with greater scrutiny, especially when other powerful people are cheering their demise.

While this might not be the case for Martha, I do think we need to consider what it takes to succeed and stay on top in the business world.  Are these women more scrutinized because so few get there? What’s apparent is that more women are rallying together to support each other.  The number of women’s networking groups is a testament to this, but the real marker will be to garner greater support and understanding from men who currently hold positions of power.

Looking back at Cleopatra’s history, there is a wealth of interesting insight that we can connect to Martha’s story.  It speaks to how women and men perceive women in power; see Cleopatra of Egypt: The First Female Celebrity Politician.  While Cleopatra hails from ancient Greece, she is still considered ruthless and remembered most for her “celebrity” details: her love triangle with Caesar and Antony, the siblings she murdered to preserve her power, and her suicide death by poison to save face.

Why don’t we value her legacy of economic stability or recognize the common practice that many kings killed their potential heirs to preserve power?  What of Cleopatra’s contributions and protections for Egypt? Or why is the unmarried Cleopatra to blame for affairs with Antony and Caesar who were married when they had their affairs?

The same is true for Victoria Woodhull, this week’s woman in history.  She ran for President 100 years before another woman in America dared.  But she was admired only after her investments for Cornelius Vanderbilt made great returns.

When Victoria started promoting equality for women and challenging prevailing social norms around men’s accepted promiscuity and mistresses within marriage, her investment business and person were vilified in slanderous rumors.

What changed in Victoria’s abilities or did people see her differently because of her beliefs, her strength of voice or her uncompromising determination?  Newspapers suggested her success was that she was a clairvoyant or that it stemmed from her sister who had a secret relationship with Vanderbilt.

As the stories about strong women in history populate our WomanScape website, certain shared qualities surface and resurface.  In almost every case, these women have an uncompromising dedication to a passionate goal.  It’s what allows women to prevail when they are tested, questioned or labeled extreme.

Success is, in great part, built on fearlessness but also on perceptions.  This means the perceptions we have about ourselves and the way others see us.  The ability to be tough and resourceful when conflict and challenges arise shapes success.  Fear can stop us from realizing success or instill vigilance to keep us alert and adaptive.

So when I consider Martha’s story and the financial wealth she continues to create, I see a smart visionary.  She turned an opportunity to write a cookbook into a series of new businesses and connected their supply chain relationships.  Over time, she’s proven herself by identifying new opportunities and collaborations with department stores across different industries, from Michaels Crafts to companies like Sherwin Williams Paints and Bernhardt furniture.

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Is Martha’s resilience in both her personal life and business ventures truly appreciated? Martha continues to come back stronger than ever from each of the challenges she’s faced.

From her husband’s infidelity with her assistant, to a jail sentence that was disproportionately punitive (compared to other male perpetrators), Martha is a fighter.

Her latest launch – a successful cooking series Martha & Snoops Potluck Dinner Party, with celebrity Snoop Dog – is just one of her new business ventures.  Martha knows how to survive and thrive.  At 78 years of age, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Martha’s success.

Resilience and perseverance are critical strengths that anyone in business needs. While, Martha’s financial wealth has certainly come at a high price, she’s used these strengths to counter financial threats to her business and personal life, and to broker new power bases in the same way other transformational leaders like Cleopatra and Victoria did.   Perhaps these elements of wealth creation are the real drivers of new opportunities and the ability to keep moving forward in life.

Rose McInerney

Author Rose McInerney

Rose combines her love of all things artfully-designed to connect women to a shared community of learning and a richer, more fulfilled self. As a passionate storyteller, published writer, and international traveler, Rose believes women can build a better world through powerful storytelling.

More posts by Rose McInerney

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