The World's Richest Mums

Margaret C. Whitman, better known as Meg, has had a storied career. A graduate of Princeton and Harvard Business School, she worked at Procter & Gamble before moving to California with her husband, a neurosurgeon who now works at Stanford Hospital. After successful stints at consulting firm Bain & Co., Disney and Hasbro, she joined eBay, then a small tech firm with 30 employees, as chief executive. In 2004 she debuted on Forbes’ World’s Billionaires List.

It was her own mother, Whitman writes in a book published by Random House this January, titled The Power of Many, who gave her “a bias toward action.” In an interview with ForbesWoman earlier this year, Whitman discussed the relationship, explaining that her mother, who eventually learned Mandarin and visited China 80 times, had taught her that “you don’t have to be perfect to be a leader, but you can’t be timid.”

Now that bias is leaning toward the governor’s mansion, as Whitman campaigns to replace Republican California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. During her campaign she has highlighted her mother’s adventurous spirit in driving Meg and her two siblings from their home in Long Island on camping trips to California. Today she includes her husband and her two sons as influences in her love of the West Coast. They are sporty California residents, according to her campaign website, and as such are reasons she is so dedicated to the economically ailing state. “If we let California fail, we all fail,” she says. “And we love California too much to let it fail. We have to work together to make it the place of our dreams again.”

For Whitman, motherhood was not a deterrent to her success, but an aid, lending what she now says is inspiration and support during her current political endeavors.

That makes her somewhat unusual. Whitman is one of just 70 billionaire moms in the world, and one of only eight mothers to have created her own billion-dollar fortune. (By contrast, there are 555 self-made billionaires who are fathers). The rest inherited fortunes from fathers or late husbands, including the world’s richest woman and mom, Christy Walton, whose husband John, son of the founder of Wal-Mart Stores, died in 2005 when his private plane crashed in Wyoming.

Some other enterprising moms include Zara’s Rosalia Mera, whose two kids apparently watched her make dressing gowns, just before she and her now-ex husband Amancio Ortega launched the Spanish clothing line. The Gap’s Doris Fisher and Benetton’s Guiliana Benetton also started clothing companies that went global and made their families among the richest in the world.

Joanne (JK) Rowling, author of the Harry Potter book franchise, has told the story of her difficult days in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she had moved with her first child after a painful divorce to be near her sister. Rowling now has two more children with her current husband. The advance from the manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which she wrote in cafes in Edinburgh, paid rent on the meager flat she shared with her first child while they were subsisting on welfare.

Those who inherit opportunity often use it to continue their own ambitious climb. Abigail Johnson, with her father, controls Fidelity Investments. The mutual fund company, the largest in the U.S., was founded by her grandfather. She was promoted to chairman of the board of fixed income and asset allocation funds last year, and is believed by some to be her father’s chosen successor. She has raised two children with her husband.

Asia’s richest woman, Savitri Jindal, the widowed matriarch of OP Jindal Group, a steel and power conglomerate in India, has nine children, more than any woman on the list. While she is non-executive chairman, her four sons have divvied up the business and each run their own independent units. In the meantime she keeps herself busy with politics, having been re-elected in the assembly elections in her home state of Haryana last year.

But being a billionaire mom–or for that matter, the child of a billionaire mom–isn’t always easy.

Liliane Bettencourt, heiress to the L’Oreal cosmetics fortune, and her daughter have reportedly been off speaking terms as a result of Bettencourt’s patronage of a younger companion, an artist her daughter alleges accepted more than a billion dollars in gifts from the heiress. The relationship between Bettencourt and her 56-year-old daughter, Francoise Bettencourt-Meyers, is reflected in an unhappy light amid a legal complaint filed by Bettencourt-Meyers, who is dubious of her mother’s judgment in spending her wealth. Liliane denies all, but has still been ordered to undergo psychological testing before a July trial.

A similarly unfortunate rift happened when Marilyn Carlson Nelson, chief executive of the Minnesota-based hospitality company Carlson Cos., relieved her son from his role as chief operating officer in 2007. Curtis Nelson, who reportedly used controlled substances and was arrested at least once for drunk driving, was terminated for “explosive,” “inconsistent” behavior, derailing the trajectory he may have expected to follow to head the company himself.