5 Women-Led Businesses Absolutely Crushing the Stock Market Right Now

Despite making up more than half of the population, women have historically held a much smaller portion of leadership positions at companies large and small. According to recent data, only 6% of the 500 companies in the S&P 500 are led by female CEOs, barely over 30 companies.

The math is a little better if we look at the Fortune 500 -- the 500 largest U.S. companies, both public and private -- with 74 female CEOS as of 2022, according to the World Economic Forum. But we are still talking about less than 15% of the biggest companies in the U.S. However, the trends are improving; 20 years ago, only seven Fortune 500 companies had women in the top job, so there is progress.

Let's not bemoan this gender disparity; as Theodore Parker (and later Martin Luther King, Jr.) said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." The number of women stepping into leadership positions is rising. So let's instead celebrate the wonderful successes of five companies that have been market-crushing investments -- all led by women CEOs.

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These five women-led companies have beaten the S&P 500

Since the beginning of 2018, these five companies have proven better investments than the S&P 500:

  • Arista Networks (NYSE: ANET): 165% in total returns
  • Chart Industries (NYSE: GTLS): 174% in total returns
  • The Hershey Company (NYSE: HSY): 158% in total returns
  • Progressive Corp (NYSE: PGR): 173% in total returns
  • Zoetis (NYSE: ZTS): 149% in total returns

Over the same period, the S&P 500 -- which represents about 80% of the value of all U.S. publicly traded stocks, making it a good proxy for the total stock market -- was up 66.6% in total returns. So this group hasn't just outperformed the broader stock market; it has, on average, generated more than double its returns over the same period. That's pretty incredible.

Now, to be fair, the CEOs of these five companies haven't all been in the big chair for the past five years, though some in this group have been in executive roles at these companies for a long time. Let's take a closer look at each of the five and the women who lead them.

Arista Networks

Founded in 2008 by Andy Bechtolsheim and Kenneth Duda (both on the company's executive leadership team), Arista is a leading networking equipment and services company. Its CEO, Jayshree Ullal, has been head of Arista since its founding, leading it from its start-up in 2008 to its 2014 initial public offering (IPO) and through today.

Under her leadership -- along with a very strong co-founder executive team -- Arista has gone from less than $400 million in annual sales at its IPO to $4.4 billion in annual sales and is still growing. Even more impressive than that 12-fold revenue growth is the cash-cow 2,850% increase in free cash flow per share since its IPO. With more growth in its future and a top CEO and leadership team in place, Arista belongs on investors' lists of stocks to research.

Chart Industries

A leading manufacturer of cryogenic gas processing and storage equipment, Chart Industries went through some CEO turmoil prior to Jillian Evanko taking on the job. Her predecessor, Bill Johnson, was named CEO in May 2017 and was fired barely a year later. Before becoming CEO, Evanko was Chart's CFO and chief accounting officer -- critical roles for Chart, which counts acquisitions as a big part of its business strategy.

Evanko's strong financial background has served her well with Chart and its incredibly cyclical business, and her leadership has served shareholders very well. Under her CEO tenure and prior financial leadership, Chart's stock has more than tripled, while revenue has increased 120%.

Chart's future depends heavily on the success of its 2022 acquisition of Howden. Actually larger than Chart by revenues, the company took on a lot of debt and issued stock to fund it, so this move certainly raised the stakes. If Chart makes it work, Evanko's legacy will be set.

Hershey

The sweet-treats maker has been a sweet investment under CEO Michele Buck, who has been with the company since 2005. Buck became CEO in March 2018 and also serves as board chair. Prior to being named CEO, she was the chief operating officer and had held multiple operations leadership roles before that. She has been a director since 2017.

Add it all up, and you have a deeply experienced leader not just in her chosen industry but also within Hershey. As a board member, she has helped set Hershey's long-term goals and strategies, and as an executive, she has been central to executing on them. Since joining the executive team in 2016, Hershey's stock has more than tripled, nearly doubling the S&P 500's returns over the same period. A major reason is its free-cash-flow growth over that period, up almost 130% per share on a modest 42% revenue growth.

Progressive

Tricia Griffith has been CEO of the insurance giant since 2016, but her tenure with the company started in 1988 as a claims representative. She's a real-world example of someone starting (almost) in the mailroom and working their way up to the executive suite, where she has served in several roles over the past two decades.

Like Michele Buck at Hershey, Griffith's long tenure with her company and time as an executive and board member have served the company and shareholders well. Progressive's stock has gained 305% since Griffith became CEO in 2016, and the third-largest U.S. insurer is still growing.

Zoetis

Originally part of Pfizer, Zoetis is one of the largest animal health companies in the world, producing medicines, vaccines, and diagnostics products. CEO Kristin Peck was one of the Pfizer executives who led the IPO of Zoetis as an independent company in 2013. Peck has been CEO since 2020 and a board member since 2019. And at 51 years old, she is set to continue leading for years to come.

Global trends -- livestock healthcare spending and increased pet ownership and dollars spent on care -- are favorable for Zoetis. Zoetis "only" generated 35% in total returns during Peck's tenure, in line with the S&P 500's gains. But its earnings per share -- probably a better measure of management's performance -- is up 47%. With strong tailwinds (more people are buying pet insurance) and a highly capable and tenured leader in Peck, Zoetis is positioned as another likely future outperformer.

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Jason Hall has positions in Chart Industries. The Motley Fool has positions in and recommends Arista Networks, Chart Industries, and Zoetis. The Motley Fool recommends Progressive. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.