Some of the most influential women of our times come from diverse backgrounds, but they have one thing in common: they’ve all shown astounding leadership in their chosen fields and captured the popular imagination.
Through education, they gained enough confidence to take on the man’s world and make it a woman’s triumph.
What’s more, none of these women were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. A combination of encouraging family members and their own grit helped them rise above tough situations.
JK ROWLING, AUTHOR
I think you have a moral responsibility when you’ve been given far more than you need, to do wise things with it and give intelligently.
Much like the main character in her insanely popular Harry Potter fantasy series of books, Joanne Kathleen Rowling took a steep pathway to success. And because of her humble beginnings, her influence as a woman transcends her riches. Seven years after graduating from university, she saw herself as a failure. She had no permanent work, and she had a young daughter to take care of. But soon after she realized that something was needed to be done in her life, her own journey started to become nothing short of magical. The single mother, who was living on dole, continued to write incessantly, mostly in longhand, and gradually built up a mass of notes scribbled on scraps of paper. Rowling encountered several rejections from publishers, but then her first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was released by Bloomsbury Children’s Books in June 1997 and the rest was bestseller history.
The Harry Potter universe spawned a blockbuster Hollywood franchise and then a spin-off franchise, Fantastic Beasts, and Rowling remains an inspiration for all the right reasons – not only is she hugely wealthy, but she’s also generous. In 2000, she established the Volant Charitable Trust, which helps in alleviating social inequality and poverty.
OPRAH WINFREY, TV HOST
I trust that everything happens for a reason, even when we’re not wise enough to see it.
She had everything stacked against her. Oprah Winfrey had the wrong skin color and gender belonged to a poor family and battled childhood abuse. All she did have was a dream. Today, that dream has made her a television superstar, publisher, style icon, and inspiration for millions across the world. Using the medium of television, she created The Oprah Winfrey Show, which got celebrities to share their feelings and display their emotions; it’s considered the highest-rated daytime talk show in the history of US television. She is a believer in education and other causes, for which she has started the Oprah’s Angel Network and helped people across the world.
MALALA YOUSAFZAI, GIRLS’ EDUCATION RIGHTS CAMPAIGNER
We realize the importance of our voices only when we are silenced.
In October 2012, Taliban gunmen boarded a school bus in Mingora, Pakistan, and asked, “Who is Malala?” They turned their guns on a 14-year-old girl and shot her and two others. Malala Yousafzai was 11 when she had begun writing a diary about life under the Taliban and why girls should go to school. The diary made her famous inside and outside Pakistan, and the Taliban, which banned girls’ education, added her to their hit list. She survived the bullet, went on to became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and continues to campaign for women’s education.
SHERYL SANDBERG, TECH EXECUTIVE
It is the ultimate luxury to combine passion and contribution. It’s also a very clear path to happiness.
She didn’t start a world-changing enterprise, but she has been part of one, and what Sheryl Sandberg has really done is to give millions of career-minded women a huge dollop of confidence that they, too, can smash through the corporate glass ceiling. The daughter of an eye doctor and a college teacher, Sandberg earned a Harvard degree and worked in the US corporate world for a while, before landing the position that made her a household name across the planet – in 2007, she was appointed as the chief operating officer of Facebook, with a boss, company founder Mark Zuckerberg, who was more than a decade younger. That stint made Sandberg one of the world’s most influential women, a stature that grew further with the publication of her 2013 bestseller, Lean In, in which she was candid about the trials of being a mother and a top careerwoman – and how she handled both of these spheres.
KALPANA CHAWLA, ASTRONAUT
The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get on to it, and the perseverance to follow it.
She died doing the work she loved, and that’s all the more reason why Kalpana Chawla, the first female astronaut of Indian origin, remains an icon. The life of an astronaut may seem incredibly fascinating, but it’s also equally risky and requires one to be at the peak of their mental and physical abilities. Born in India and later an American citizen, Chawla made a whole billion-strong population proud when she made her first voyage into space, in 1997. It was her second voyage, in 2003, that killed her along with six other crew members – their damaged space shuttle couldn’t withstand the impact of the re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere; it burned up, killing the crew. Chawla knew the risk, took the job, died a hero, and she remains one till this date.
SERENA WILLIAMS, TENNIS PLAYER
Make sure you’re very courageous: be strong, be extremely kind, and above all be humble.
Williams is the winner of 39 Grand Slam titles – 23 singles, 14 doubles, and two mixed doubles. She started playing tennis at the age of four and has been ranked world No. 1 in singles by the Women’s Tennis Association eight times between 2002 and 2017. The four-time Olympic gold medallist is an inspiration for women and people of color across the world. She has tackled not only tricky serves, but also issues of body image, gender pay gap, her difficulty with childbirth and motherhood.