Lee was born in Uiryeong County to Samsung founder Lee Byung-chul and his first wife Park Du-eul as the youngest of eight children. She attended Ewha Girls' High School and then majored in art at Ewha Womans University before marrying. After ten years of being a homemaker she became a sales executive at Shinsegae Department Store in 1979 and then its Chairwoman in 1997 after the company was separated from Samsung.
During her time as chairwoman Lee has been fined on three separate occasions. The first was in 2006 for 350 billion won ($300 million) after she hid 800 billion wons worth of stock under different names. In 2012 by the Fair Trade Commission fined Lee 4 billion won ($3.4 million) for charging different transaction fees. Then in 2015 she was fined 70 billion won for hiding 380,000 company shares worth 80 billion won ($68 million) under different names.