The crowning of Gina Rinehart as Australia’s richest person on Forbes magazine’s Australian rich list, with a fortune of $9 billion, is a historic moment for female entrepreneurship in this country.

There is just one other woman on the Forbes list of the 40 richest Australians, and just 15 women on BRW‘s Rich 200 list. Quite simply, the idea that a woman would sit on top of Australia’s wealth ladder would have been largely unthinkable even five years ago.

While Rinehart inherited her mining empire Hancock Prospecting from her father Lang Hancock, she bristles at the idea she inherited wealth — and with good reason.

When Hancock died in 1992, he left his daughter a company teetering on the edge of collapse. The China-driven resources boom was more than two decades ago, and Lang’s poor business decisions — including a failed attempt to sell iron ore to Romania — had left the business with crippling cashflow problems and huge debts.

Rinehart set about turning the business around, and exploiting the huge iron ore resources Hancock Prospecting owns.

The huge rise in Rinehart’s fortune — up from $US2 billion to $US9 billion is a little deceiving as Forbes underestimated her fortune last year. (Disclosure — I assisted with some Forbes valuations, although not that of Rinehart.)

Nevertheless, it is true that Rinehart’s rise has been as fast as it been large.

Back in 2002, the 1.25% royalty Rinehart receives from every tonne of iron ore sold by Rio Tinto subsidiary Hamersley Iron was delivering Hancock Prospecting about $10 million a year. Rising commodity prices means that amount has risen to about $170 million.

On top of this, Rinehart has a half share in the Hope Downs mine, run by Rio Tinto in a joint venture. This project is thought to deliver up to $700 million a year at present.

What makes Rinehart particularly fascinating is that her empire is only at the start of a large expansion program.

Rinehart has plans for another Pilbara iron ore mine, called Roy Hill, plus two giant coal mines in Queensland, worth an estimated $15 billion.

Turning these plans into mines represents Rinehart’s greatest challenge — they will require the raising of vast amounts of finance (a process Rinehart is currently undertaking, by selling stakes in some projects to finance others), the building of infrastructure such as train lines and ports, and the construction of a series of huge mines.

She will also need to manage these expansion plans against the backdrop of shifting commodity prices. Right now, the markets (and China’s economy) is in Rinehart’s favour. But will these conditions last long enough for her to carry out her expansion plans?

Rinehart’s biggest entrepreneurial tests lie ahead of her, but there will be other tests too.

Rinehart clearly has things to say — particularly about the mining tax and what she sees as a need to stop investment dollars leaving Australia — and a platform to say it from, thanks to her purchases of stakes in Ten Network and Fairfax Media.

But how will she try to shape public opinion and government policy? Does she have any realistic hope of doing either? Does the notoriously media shy entrepreneur really want to step into the limelight.

It’s going to be fascinating how the Rinehart story — and her amazing fortune — develops over the coming decade.

This first appeared on SmartCompany.