On the 2012 list of The FORBES 400 Richest Americans, there are a total of 45 women, accounting for 11% of the list. They span the country, residing in states from Texas to Wisconsin and California, and hold most of their wealth in companies they built or inherited. The top 20 richest women alone control an estimated $160 billion—more than the entire GDP of New Zealand.
One new addition to this elite group of women hails from Madison, Wisconsin. Judy Faulkner is the founder and CEO of Epic Systems, which sells electronic health records. More than 40% of the U.S. population will have its medical information stored in an Epic digital medical record by next year. Faulkner’s addition to The Forbes 400 brings the number of self-made women on the list to five, from four last year.
The richest woman and sixth richest person in the U.S. is Christy Walton, with an estimated net worth of $27.9 billion. The 57-year-old is the daughter-in-law of Sam Walton, who founded retail giant Wal-Mart with his brother James in 1962. She inherited a significant holding in the company and other investments from her late husband John Walton, a former Green Beret and Vietnam War medic, who died in an airplane accident in 2005. One stock she inherited from him was First Solar, a onetime high-flying solar panel maker whose shares have tumbled 75% in the last year. That drop narrowed the difference between Christy’s net worth and the next richest woman, her sister-in-law Alice.
Heiress Alice Walton (ranked No. 8 overall), the daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam, is worth an estimated $26.3 billion and is a noted philanthropist. Last year, she opened Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in the town of Bentonville, Ark., hoping to make the Wal-Mart hometown a world-class art destination. The company also made Walton relatives Ann Walton Kroenke (No. 79) and Nancy Walton Laurie (No. 100) multi-billionaires.
Most of the country’s wealthiest women inherited their fortunes from husbands, fathers and grandfathers, but that doesn’t mean they sit around getting their nails done. Some are extremely involved in the family business. Abigail Johnson, the fourth richest woman in America, has worked for Fidelity Investments since 1988. Today she is president of Fidelity’s biggest business units, helping run the company that her grandfather founded, which manages $1.6 trillion in client funds. Johnson is expected to succeed her 82-year-old father, “Ned,” the current CEO, when he steps down.
Similarly, 92-year-old Anne Cox Chambers (No. 32) continues to sit on the board of mega-media company Cox Enterprises, which her father founded in 1898. Meanwhile, Carlson Inc., owner of hotel chain Radisson and restaurant chain T.G.I. Friday’s, was founded by Curt Carlson in the 1930s and is now jointly owned by his daughters Barbara Carlson Gage and Marilyn Carlson Nelson, who are tied as the twelfth richest women in the country. Barbara runs the family philanthropic foundation, and Marilyn is the current chair of the board and former CEO.
Also new to this year’s list is Laurene Powell Jobs, America’s fifth richest woman and the widow of late Apple cofounder and tech visionary Steve Jobs. After inheriting his stakes in Apple and Walt Disney, she became the richest woman in Silicon Valley with an estimated net worth of $11 billion. She is expected to put her billionaire status to good use. A strong advocate of education and immigration reform, she sits on the boards of several nonprofits, including the NewSchools Venture Fund, Conservation International and College Track, which she founded to help underserved students get into and graduate from college. She is also the founder and chair of the Emerson Collective, an organization that works with entrepreneurs to advance education.
On the entire FORBES 400 list, there are only a handful of self-made female billionaires—about 1%. For years, media mogul Oprah Winfrey reigned as America’s wealthiest self-made woman, reaping the rewards of the Oprahshow though her solely-owned production company Harpo. However, in recent years her net worth has remained steady at an estimated $2.7 billion, and this year she is surpassed by Gap co-founder Doris Fisher and ABC Supply co-founder Diane Hendricks, both with fortunes estimated at $2.9 billion. Meg Whitman, the newest chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, also belongs to this elite group, thanks to shares of eBay and other investments worth an estimated $1.7 billion.
One self-made billionaire woman who didn’t make The Forbes 400: Spanx founder Sara Blakely. The minimum needed to get on list this year was $1.1 billion, and Blakely, with an estimated $1 billion fortune, just missed the cut.
No matter how they amassed their wealth, these women are undeniably some of America’s most powerful and are likely to remain at the top of the financial food chain for years to come.