Before the 20th century, women were operating businesses as a way of supplementing income. In many cases, they were trying to avoid poverty or making up for the loss of a spouse. The ventures that these women undertook were not known as entrepreneurial at the time; many of them usually had to bow to their domestic responsibilities. The term entrepreneur is used to describe individuals who have ideas for products and/or services that they turn into a working business. In earlier times, this term was reserved for men.

Women became more involved in the business world only when the idea of women in business became palatable to the general public. However, this does not mean that there were no female entrepreneurs until that time. In the 17th century, Dutch Colonists who came to what is now known as New York City, operated under a matriarchal society. In this society, many women inherited money and lands and, through this inheritance, became business owners. One of the most successful women from this time was Margaret Hardenbrook Philipse, who was a merchant, ship owner, and also involved in the trading of goods.