In awe of women
At a recent business conference, a successful female CEO told the crowd, “If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Brothers and Sisters, we wouldn’t have gotten into the mess of 2008.” The audience laughed uncomfortably, but it’s true.
The Dalai Lama, during the Vancouver Peace Summit in 2009 quoted, ‘’The world will be saved by the western women,” a reflection of his observation during his travels across the globe of western women of all ages in a position to speak out for justice in loving and protecting the planet and its people (as opposed to women in the eastern world who are comparatively impoverished and repressed).
The Dalai Lama further quoted, “Some people may call me a feminist, but we need more effort to promote basic human values - human compassion, human affection. And in that respect, females have more sensitivity for others' pain and suffering,” meaning that women inherently bring a greater focus on nurturing and connection - i.e. love - which is the cure for the wounds of our time.
Despite presiding over mass murder (between 40 and 70 million deaths in peacetime - more than Hitler and Stalin combined) and cultural annihilation (mass destruction of books and manuscripts, artistic objects and cultural artifacts, historic sites and buildings) in an attempt to wipe clean the nation’s slate of corruption, chaos and monarchy from the time of the emperors to the authoritarian system which segregated and protected the royal, noble and upper classes, and the male gender in particular, Chairman Mao Zedong prided himself in his egalitarian values and famously proclaimed that women “hold up half the sky” - through which China did enjoy unquestionable advances after the 1949 revolution, as Mao fought to simultaneously liberate women and harness their economic potential.
I’ve always been amazed that the arts and entertainment are held in high esteem through the ages, even during periods of war and societal darkness. A movie that comes to mind is The Pianist starring Adrien Brody who escaped the death sentence as a Jew in war-torn Poland by the skin of his teeth, thanks to his musical gift set applied in entertainment settings which was a useful distraction for soldiers during war.
In setting out to feature women who dominated the world with their skills, intelligence and influence, I’ve avoided popular names like Beyoncé Knowles who needs no introduction as to her fame and wealth - throughout her career, Beyoncé has sold over 100 million records worldwide as a solo artist, and a further 60 million records with 1990s band Destiny's Child, making her one of the best-selling music artists of all time. She has won 23 Grammy Awards and is the most nominated woman in the award's history. She is also the most awarded artist at the MTV Video Music Awards, with 24 wins. In 2014, she became the highest-paid black musician in history and was listed among Time's 100 most influential people in the world for a second year in a row. Forbes ranked her as the most powerful female in entertainment on their 2015 and 2017 lists. The list goes on.
But I’m not here to talk about Beyoncé. I’m here to highlight high caliber, outstanding but lesser known (and little acknowledged) women who have kicked more dirt and shook this earth more than we give them credit for.
COO of Facebook and bouncing back from loss and grief
Sheryl Kara Sandberg is an American technology executive, activist, author. She is the chief operating officer (COO) of Facebook and founder of Leanin.org. In June 2012, she was elected to Facebook's board of directors by the existing board members, becoming the first woman to serve on its board. Before she joined Facebook as its COO, Sandberg was vice president of global online sales and operations at Google, grew the ad and sales team from four people to 4,000, and was involved in launching Google's philanthropic arm Google.org. Before Google, Sandberg served as chief of staff for United States Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers.
In 2012, she was named in the Time 100, an annual list of the most influential people in the world according to Time magazine. As of June 2015, Sandberg is reported to be worth over US$1 billion, due to her stock holdings in Facebook and other companies.
In 2013, Sandberg released her first book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The book argues that barriers such as discrimination, sexism, and sexual harassment are still preventing women from taking leadership roles in the workplace.
“A truly equal world would be one where women ran half our countries and companies and men ran half our homes.” -Sheryl Sandberg in her book, Lean In
In May 2015 while on vacation with family and friends in a secluded resort in Mexico, Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg unexpectedly collapsed and died after a regular run on a treadmill. Goldberg was a Silicon Valley executive and entrepreneur, the founder of SurveyMonkey.com, an online survey tool.
30 days after sheloshim, the Jewish mourning period, Sandberg wrote a deeply emotional and moving Facebook tribute to her late husband which saw over 911,000 likes, 78,000 comments, and 401,000 shares. The closing lines in her tribute read:
“I was talking to one of these friends about a father-child activity that Dave is not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, "But I want Dave. I want option A." He put his arm around me and said, "Option A is not available. So let's just kick the shit out of option B.”
Dave, to honor your memory and raise your children as they deserve to be raised, I promise to do all I can to kick the shit out of option B. And even though sheloshim has ended, I still mourn for option A. I will always mourn for option A. As Bono sang, "There is no end to grief ... and there is no end to love."
In June 2015, a month into her widowhood, after a particularly lousy day, Sandberg posted on Facebook, “I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past 30 days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void.”
Sandberg bounced back from her terrible misfortune by releasing her second book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, which she co-wrote with her friend and collaborator Adam Grant, a psychologist and the author of the best sellers Originals and Give and Take.
When asked in an interview with online literary magazine, The Atlantic, on her favorite quote in her book, Option B, Sandberg said, “Joy is a discipline.”
She explained: “I don’t come to optimism every day. There are lots of hard days. Expected ones, like my anniversary last week, and unexpected ones. But I have to move forward. Everyone asks, “How do you do it?” I’ve got two kids. I have to get out of bed. They have to go to school, and I want to go to work, because I still love my job. I just met another woman who’s an artist and a widow, just like me - well, I’m not an artist, but I’m a widow. And someone asked her how she kept doing her work, and she said, “Because the rest of the parts of me didn’t die.” She said, “I’m a widow, but I’m still a mother, and I’m still an artist.”
The woman who runs the largest ridesharing platform in the world
Liu Qing or Jean Liu, is a Chinese business executive. Liu is the President of Didi Chuxing ("DiDi", formerly known as Didi Kuaidi), China's largest mobile transportation platform.
She worked at Goldman Sachs Asia for 12 years, becoming a managing director in 2012, before switching to Didi Dache serving as its chief operating officer in July 2014. After joining Didi Dache, she led the strategic merger between Didi Dache and its main competitor Kuaidi Dache which then created a new car hailing company named Didi Kuaidi (later rebranded as Didi Chuxing) in 2015.
Didi owns 95% market share in over 300 cities in China, boasts 21 million drivers in China alone and does up to 1.1 million rides per day.
Liu was born in 1978 in Beijing, China. She is the daughter of Chinese businessman and Lenovo founder Liu Chuanzhi, and the granddaughter of Liu Gushu, a senior executive banker at the Bank of China. She received a bachelor's degree in Computer Science at Peking University, and a master's degree in Computer Science at Harvard University. She received an honorary Doctor of Commercial Science from New York University.
Liu lives in Beijing with her family. In October 2015, she was treated for breast cancer at the age of 37. Liu doesn’t stop. Two months later in December 2015, she returned to work.
Didi is China’s largest operator of electric cars and plans to build its own electric vehicle charging network by 2020 to service its one million electric vehicles.
Today, Didi has established partnerships with seven of the world’s top ridesharing companies: Grab, Lyft, Ola, Uber, Careem, 99, and Taxify, and caters to more than 450 million users worldwide.
India’s richest self-made woman
Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw is India's richest self-made woman. She founded Biocon in 1978, India's largest biopharmaceutical firm and today, is Asia’s largest insulin maker.
Born and raised in Bangalore, India where she studied biology and zoology and wanted to be a doctor but failed to acquire a medical scholarship, she went to Australia to train to be a brewmaster as her father was. In 1974 she was the only woman on the brewing course and came top of her class. Upon returning to India, she struggled to find a job in an industry which was extremely male dominated.
She refused to be thwarted. A chance encounter with an entrepreneur who wanted to set up shop in India and asked if she would partner in his venture persuaded Ms Mazumdar-Shaw to launch into the business of developing and making enzymes, and gradually, into manufacturing pharmaceutical drugs.
Her early days starting the company were challenging. There was no venture funding in India and banks were fearful of lending to women because women were considered high risk. She kept knocking on people’s doors and pleading for a chance to fund her growing business - her persistence eventually paid off and she single handedly transformed a scrappy company in the sleepy town of Bangalore with poor infrastructure, power, poor quality water, unhygienic labs, low-quality research equipment, workers without advanced scientific skills into the technology hub of South India today.
First woman and first openly gay Prime Minister of Serbia
Ana Brnabic is a Serbian politician who has been the Prime Minister of Serbia since June 2017. Her government was voted into office with a 63% majority vote. She is the first woman, first openly gay and first person with Croat ethnic descent to hold the office. She is the second gay woman to hold political office, after Johanna Siguroardottir, Prime Minister of Iceland.
Serbia's population is approximately seven million. Its capital, Belgrade, ranks among the oldest and largest citiеs in Europe, inhabited since the Paleolithic Age.
At a time when the country is still homophobic, Brnabic’s coming out not just openly but openly in politics is a huge step forward.
Brnabic studied in the US and graduated from Hull University in England with a marketing MBA in 2001, before returning to Serbia to work in the wind power industry and later, for US-funded development projects.
She steps in her role as Prime Minister at a fundamental stage of the nation’s growth - Serbia is preparing for EU membership while retaining its traditionally close relationship with Russia, and nurturing a growing friendship with Beijing.
From full time housewife to billionaire chairwoman of an agricultural conglomerate
Margarita Louis-Dreyfus is one of the richest women in the world with a net worth of US$6.4 billion (€5.7 billion). She is the chairperson of Louis Dreyfus Holding, the parent company of Louis Dreyfus, a seller and processor of agricultural goods which trades more than 80 million tons of commodities (grains, soybeans, coffee and cotton) a year, had revenues of US$43 billion in 2017 and US$19 billion in just the first six months of 2018.
Margarita wasn’t born into an influential family nor did she have an executive job waiting for her. She was orphaned at age 11 when her parents died in a train accident. Raised by her grandfather, she graduated with a diploma in accounting and became a computer circuit-board salesperson. She met Robert Louis-Dreyfus in 1988 on a flight between Zurich and New York. They married three years later, had three sons and Margarita became a full time mother and homemaker.
Margarita entered into the business world by necessity. Before Robert’s death in 2009 from leukemia, Margarita promised to safeguard the business. Following his death, she steadily strengthened her grip on the management of the company, and rose to chairperson in 2011. Today, Margarita controls 96.2 percent of the parent company, after years of legal wrangling with other members of the Dreyfus clan.
From prison to social enterprise
In the UK, 85% of women are behind bars for nonviolent crimes. Barbara Burton was one of them. At age 55, she found herself behind bars serving out a 30-month sentence for her part in a mortgage fraud racket. Upon her release from prison, like many who have gone before her, she was filled with shame and doubt - who would employ a middle-aged women with a criminal record? Five years later she would return to prison, this time, to promote her social enterprise BehindBras, which officially launched in June 2017.
Less than 10% of women who leave prison find a job and almost half (45%) are reconvicted within a year. BehindBras aim to train women serving time in prison with employable skills in fashion, retail and associated creative industries so they could rebuild their life with a fresh start upon their release. According to Barbara, having work reduces reoffending by 20%.
The UK textiles industry generates £11 billion every year and is growing in size, with 15,000 jobs expected to be created in UK textile manufacturing by 2020. Major brands including River Island, Asos and John Lewis are investing more in onshore production and others are following suit.
BehindBras offers a holistic approach to retraining female convicts, from personal development to stitching, fashion design, retail management, social media marketing and business marketing.
Southeast Asia’s best finance minister
Sri Mulyani Indrawati is an Indonesian economist who currently serves as the Minister of Finance of the Republic of Indonesia, a position she has held since July 2016 (and previously from 2005 to 2010). During her tenure as Finance Minister from 2005 to 2010, Indrawati earned a reputation as a tough reformist, and was hugely credited for strengthening the economy of Indonesia by increasing investments as well as steering Southeast Asia out of a debilitating financial crisis from 2007 to 2010. Prior to her first term as Finance Minister, she was the executive director of the International Monetary Fund and represented 12 economies of Southeast Asia.
Between 2010 and 2016, Indrawati served as the World Bank's Managing Director and Chief Operating Officer. In this capacity, she often represented the World Bank Group at the G20 (an international forum for the governments and central bank governors from 19 countries and the European Union). She also chaired the International Development Association (IDA) − the World Bank's fund for the poorest countries.
Back in her role as Finance Minister, Indrawati has vowed to clean up the tax office, an institution long beset by corruption. It was a challenge she took up with mixed success the first time around. She’s confronting it again: In a country of 260 million people, only about 10 million filed a tax return in 2015. Now Indrawati plans to revamp the overall taxation system and double the number of auditors to widen the tax base.
Singapore’s guiding star
At night at a remote campsite while on vacation in New Zealand, Jenny Lee gazed at the stars and was powerfully struck by its vast expanse. Singapore was so small, she realized. She was only 14 then.
"No one told me that the world was bigger, I just discovered it," Lee recalled.
For Lee, that galaxy of possibilities translated into an adrenaline-pumping world of tech startups.
Lee took to studying electrical engineering, worked on jet aircraft and years later, moved to Shanghai and rose to become one of the most respected investors on the Chinese tech start-up scene.
Currently a partner with venture capital firm GGV Capital, Lee has the Midas touch, having led investments in many Chinese tech start-ups, shepherding them to public listings on United States stock exchanges such as Nasdaq and bourses in mainland China and Hong Kong. Lee focuses on the tech, Internet, mobile and gaming sectors. In her 12 years as an investor, she has invested in about 30 companies, out of which, fewer than five companies have failed.
Her most recent triumph was when she led GGV's investment in Xiaomi, the fast-rising Chinese mobile phone upstart now worth more than US$45 billion.