While owning a business was once considered a men-only undertaking, entrepreneurship is now quite gender-neutral.

There were 7.8 million female-owned businesses in the United States in 2007, when the most recent Census' Survey of Business Owners was conducted. That's up more than 20 percent since 2002 and nearly 45 percent since 1997.

The National Women's Business Council reports that the growth rate has been twice as fast as that of male-owned businesses, and in the decade between 1997 and 2007, female-owned businesses added about 500,000 jobs while other privately held firms lost jobs.

The National Women's Business Council released new data this month showing that the number of women awarded federal patents and trademarks, often considered an indicator of entrepreneurial activity, is also growing at a rapid pace.

Eighteen percent of all patents went to women in 2008, compared with 14 percent a decade earlier and just 9 percent 20 years before, while the share of trademarks granted to women also increased dramatically, nearly doubling within a 30-year span.

To get to this point, there have been a number of women entrepreneurs who helped pave the way for today's female innovators. In honor of Women's History Month, here's a rundown of some famous companies that boast female founders.

Cisco— Co-founded by Sandra Lerner

Sandra Lerner founded what would become technology giant Cisco alongside then-husband Len Bosack, after the pair was unable to email each other from offices in different buildings while working together at Stanford University. Lerner's desire to connect with her beau led to them designing the multi-protocol router — the platform that launched Cisco in 1984.

While she was eventually ousted from the company in 1990, Lerner reportedly walked away with $170 million from the sale of stock options. She went on to start Urban Decay, a cosmetics company, and today she's running a certified organic and humane farm in Virginia.

Flickr— Co-founded by Caterina Fake

At age 35, Caterina Fake, who had worked as the art director for Salon.com, founded the popular photo-sharing website Flickr in 2002. The site was actually an offshoot of a game Fake was developing with Stewart Butterfield, her husband at the time. While the game quickly went bust, the photo-sharing technology they designed was a hit.

In 2005, Fake and Butterfield sold Flickr to Yahoo for a reported $35 million in cash and stock options. Fake has since co-founded the website Hunch, a site that makes recommendations based on detailed user preferences, and been named to the board of directors of the handmade online marketplace Etsy.

Liquid Paper — Founded by Bette Nesmith Graham

Liquid Paper was the brainchild of executive secretary Bette Nesmith Graham, who in the 1950s began using white, water-based tempera paint and a thin paintbrush to cover her typing errors. She sold her first bottle, originally called Mistake Out, in 1956. Graham later patented the must-have officeproduct and renamed it Liquid Paper.

After starting out with just 100 bottles a month in sales, Liquid Paper was selling 25 million bottles a year when Graham sold it for a reported $47.5 million in 1979. She passed away six months later at age 56. (And, yes, the rumors are true, she was the mother of Mike Nesmith of The Monkees).

The Body Shop — Founded by Anita Roddick

After trying her hat at running a hotel and a restaurant, Anita Roddick started The Body Shop in 1976 in England to create a livelihood for herself and her two daughters while her husband was traveling the globe.

The bath-and-body-product concept caught on, and she opened a second shop within six months, and soon launched the The Body Shop's franchise program, which has opened stores all across the world.

The company went public in 1984 and in 2006, 30 years after its founding, Roddick sold The Body Shop to L'Oréal for a reported $1.4 billion. Today, there are more than 2,500 stores in 61 different countries.

Ruth's Chris Steak House — Founded by Ruth Fertel

Following a career that included teaching and horse training, Ruth Fertel mortgaged her house in 1965 to buy a little restaurant, Chris Steak House, on the corner of Broad and Ursuline in New Orleans. A fire ravaged the restaurant in 1976, forcing her to open in a new location under a new name, Ruth's Chris Steak House.

That same year, Fertel agreed to let Tom Moran, a regular customer, open the first Ruth's Chris franchise location. Today, there are more than 130 company and franchise-owned locations around the globe.

Fertel, who passed away in 2002 at age 75, sold her majority interest in the chain to private equity firm Madison Dearborn in 1999 for an undisclosed amount.

PC Connection— Co-founded by Patricia Gallup

Seeing a significant business opportunity in the emerging personal computer industry, Patricia Gallup and co-founder David Hall established PC Connection in 1982. Using their personal savings, the duo purchased $8,000 of inventory for their direct computer supply business and placed a small ad in Byte Magazine. The ad worked, sparking a company that would grow to more than $1 billion in sales by 1999.

The company went public in 1998 and trades today on the Nasdaq Exchange. Gallup, who remains the chairman of PC Connection, has appeared on Fortune Magazine's list of top young entrepreneurs and for three years has been named to Working Woman's list of the top 50 women business owners in the United States.

Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc.Founded by Maxine Clark

Maxine Clark came up with the idea for Build-A-Bear Workshop after shopping with a 10-year-old who questioned why she couldn't just make her own stuffed toy when she couldn't find one she liked. Clark turned the idea into a business when she opened the first Build-A-Bear Workshop in St. Louis in 1997.

Today, more than 400 stores worldwide have churned out more than 100 million furry friends. Clark, who remains the company's "Chief Executive Bear," was inducted into the Junior Achievement National Business Hall of Fame in 2006 and named one of the 25 Most Influential People in Retailing by Chain Store Age in 2008.

Proactiv — Co-founded by Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields

Classmates studying dermatology together at Stanford University, Katie Rodan and Kathy Fields felt strongly about finding a better treatment for acne because both of them had lived with it at some time in their lives. After starting separate practices, the pair noticed the problems acne posed for people of all ages. The realization led them to start working on a new way to treat facial blemishes. Over a five-year period, Rodan and Fields developed a comprehensive acne skin care system, Proactiv Solution, which combines acne medicine with soothing botanicals to create an acne-fighting system designed to leave skin smooth, clean and clear.

The product, which has found success via 30-minute television infomercials, has become the top-selling acne medication in the U.S. Fields and Rodan are now working on their next project, a line of anti-aging skincare called the AMP MD System, which is currently under patent review.

Discovery Toys— Founded by Lane Nemeth

Former preschool teacher Lane Nemeth founded Discovery Toys in 1978 after becoming frustrated that she wasn't able to purchase the same educational toys that day care centers had access to. Using a $5,000 loan from her grandmother, Nemeth purchased her first batch of toys to start the direct sales company.

Over 22 years, Nemeth grew Discovery Toys into a company with $100 million a year in sales and 40,000 sales representatives.

She sold the toy company to Avon in 1997 for an undisclosed sum. Since then, she has gone on to start another direct sales company, Petlane, which offers products for all kinds of pets, including rabbits, birds and ferrets, with an emphasis on natural ingredients.

Chad Brooks is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has worked in public relations and spent 10 years working as a newspaper reporter and now works as a freelancer business and technology reporter. You can reach him at chadgbrooks@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @cbrooks76.

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10 businesses you didn't know were started by women
While owning a business was once considered a men-only undertaking, entrepreneurship is now quite gender-neutral.