What do a mixed martial-arts fighter, a Starbucks CEO and the founder of the Warrior Dash obstacle course race have in common? The power and the platform to change the world. We selected five of this year’s most inspiring (and unlikely) people who share a desire—and a track record—for inspiring the best in others.
Never underestimate the potential of a college thesis to change the world. Teach for America, a nonprofit focusing on educational reform, was conceived as a senior thesis by Princeton student Wendy Kopp in 1989. Back then there was a national teacher shortage, academic outcomes for low-income students were not improving, and inequity ran rampant.
“Kopp had a big idea: If our country was going to address this problem, more leaders had to make it their life’s work, and they would need to be grounded in the issues at the classroom level,” according to Teach for America’s website.
“I felt the whole world was open to me because of the privilege of my own education. But I knew that this wasn’t true for everyone,” Kopp said during a commencement address at Boston University in 2013. “That despite our aspiration to be a land of equal opportunity, where children are born in this country still determines the educational opportunities they’ll receive and, as a result, their prospects in life.”
So she began recruiting high-performing, driven college graduates to teach in under-sourced urban and rural schools in the short term—often forgoing large potential salaries in other professions—and to impact education reform in the long term.
Now, 27 years later, that model holds true. In 2015 Kopp’s Teach for America was composed of roughly 8,800 corps members (active teachers) in 52 urban and rural regions nationwide as well as 42,000 alumni at work in various sectors. The organization has experienced sustained growth in applicants, corps members, regions and operating budget.
Although some have criticized the program for requiring recruits to make only a two-year commitment to teaching, research released last year shows that the majority stay in teaching beyond that commitment, often for five years or more.
“Many stay in the classroom. Others leave. Both paths matter because to set things right, we need leaders in all areas of education and social justice united in a vision that one day, all kids will have access to an excellent education,” according to the website.
In 2007 then-recent college grad Joe Reynolds founded Red Frog Events LLC in Chicago to host races throughout the country—events much different than typical 5K races. Complete with cargo nets, fire pits and barbed wire, Red Frog’s events, including its signature Warrior Dash, are designed to make participants conquer obstacles and push their limits in ways they never thought possible.
Since earning $50,000 in revenue that first year, and inspiring an entire industry of Obstacle Course Racing (OCR), Reynolds grew Red Frog to $10 million in revenue in 2010, with millions of participants coming back for more. And it’s easy to see why.
Last August on the Warrior Dash blog, a frequent runner, Brandy, shared her transformational race experience. “It wasn’t until my first Warrior Dash that I remembered how important my health had been to me,” says Brandy, whose weight had climbed to nearly 300 pounds when she was 24 years old. “I remembered that, once upon a time, I enjoyed movement, just for the sake of moving.… I wanted more, and I wanted to get better at it.… Reclaiming an active lifestyle made me happy, and that spilled over to how I interacted with my family.”
This type of experience isn’t uncommon, according to the blog: “Nearly all of us face obstacles with our body image, overall health, family and personal relationships at some point in our lives. Sometimes, however, the biggest obstacle we face is within ourselves. Brandy found a way to overcome her inner obstacles through Warrior Dash.”
As Red Frog CEO and founder, Reynolds has also made strides off the course, implementing an employee-centric culture and the “World’s Best Benefits Package,” according to the company, which includes free health coverage, unlimited vacation days, a paid sabbatical every five years and a birthday massage.
Reynolds is also dedicated to giving back through his events, and Warrior Dash has partnered with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to help raise $25 million for a new proton therapy center in Memphis. This past fall, at Warrior Dash Tennessee and the culminating Warrior Dash World Championship, the top fundraising team presented St. Jude with the 2015 fundraising check. Since 2013 runners have raised more than $12 million.
“The patients at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital aren’t fighting imaginary monsters. They’re fighting for their lives,” says the Warrior Dash website. “Let’s send these kids back to the playground. It’s time to get dirty.”
The star of this mixed martial-arts fighter continued its rise in 2015. Formerly undefeated in MMA, Ronda Rousey, 28, is the first UFC Women’s Bantamweight Champion and the last Strikeforce Women’s Bantamweight Champion. In 2008 the California native became the first American woman to earn an Olympic medal in judo at the Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Her 2015 accolades include being voted the Best Female Athlete Ever in an ESPN poll and topping Business Insider’s list of the 50 “Most Dominant Athletes Alive.” Rousey even crossed over to the big screen in 2015 with appearances in Entourage and Furious 7, and she’s reported to be playing herself soon in a movie based on her 2015 autobiography, My Fight Your Fight.
Beyond her athletic prowess—which is inspiring on its own—Rousey is outspoken and unapologetic about several issues near to her heart. She has gained tons of attention outside of the sports realm thanks to her personal slogan, “Don’t Be a DNB.”
“I have this one term for the kind of woman my mother raised me to not be, and I call it a do nothing b****. A DNB. The kind of chick that just tries to be pretty and be taken care of by someone else,” she says on her website.
Instead, Rousey calls for women to become independent, contributing members of society.
A former bulimic, she speaks openly about her struggles with the eating disorder and encourages women to fight societal pressures and develop a positive body image. “Women are constantly being made to feel the need to conform to an almost unattainable standard of what’s considered attractive so they can support a multitude of industries buying [stuff] in the pursuit of reaching this standard,” she recently said in a Reddit Ask Me Anything session.
Because of her history with eating disorders—and the fact that her father committed suicide when Rousey was 8—she partnered with Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services in Southern California in 2014 to raise money and awareness for mental health, using the #EraseTheStigma hashtag on social media. (Funds from her popular “Don’t Be a DNB” T-shirts also benefited the nonprofit.) The organization gave her an award for her efforts.
The fighter is also a proponent of apraxia awareness, as Rousey struggled with the speech disorder as a child due to birth complications.
In April, Starbucks chairman and CEO Howard Schultz announced that the company’s College Achievement Plan, which first launched in 2014, would begin offering 100 percent tuition coverage for Starbucks employees in the United States in partnership with Arizona State University. Previously only available to juniors and seniors, the change will offer the opportunity to enroll in a four-year bachelor’s degree via ASU’s online degree program to all eligible part-time and full-time staffers. Starbucks will provide tuition reimbursement at the end of each semester.
“Everyone deserves a chance at the American dream,” Schultz said in a news release. “The unfortunate reality is that too many Americans can no longer afford a college degree, particularly disadvantaged young people, and others are saddled with burdensome education debt.
At the time of the announcement, almost 2,000 staffers had signed up for the plan, which offers participants their choice of 49 undergraduate degree programs via the top-ranked online program. Starbucks hopes to see at least 25,000 employees graduate by 2025, investing up to $250 million or more.
“By giving our partners access to four years of full tuition coverage, we will provide them a critical tool for lifelong opportunity,” Schultz said. “We’re stronger as a nation when everyone is afforded a pathway to success.”
Plus, Starbucks and ASU have promised to steer staffers on their educational journey by providing students with individualized guidance in the form of enrollment counselors, financial-aid advisers, academic advisers and success coaches.
“Partnerships like this one show how innovative strategies can expand access to college for thousands of students,” Arne Duncan, then U.S. Secretary of Education, said in the release. “I hope more institutions and companies will take their lead to collaborate on ways we can all do more to make higher education more attainable and affordable.”
Named one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time in 2013, 2014 and 2015, Malala Yousafzai became an inspiration for women—especially girls—around the world by the ripe old age of 11.
Born in Mingora, Pakistan, and raised by a family that owns schools, Yousafzai grew up believing in the right to education for all people, despite Taliban efforts to keep women out of schools. At age 11, she began advocating her viewpoint, gaining attention through her blog for the BBC and a New York Times documentary about her daily life.
Then, while boarding a school bus in October 2012, Taliban gunmen shot Yousafzai three times at close range, one bullet skimming her forehead. Initially in critical condition, the courageous girl persevered, recovering in England amid a flood of global support.
She was soon back on her feet, traveling the globe to receive accolades, including Pakistan’s first National Youth Peace Prize, and using the international spotlight to continue delivering her message. Yousafzai even inspired a United Nations petition that helped ratify Pakistan’s first Right to Education Bill.
“One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world,” she said during a speech at the U.N. Youth Assembly nine months after the assassination attempt.
In 2014, at age 17, Yousafzai received the Nobel Peace Prize for her “struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education.” She became the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate.
Her work continues to this day. Last July, on her 18th birthday, Yousafzai opened a school for young female Syrian refugees in Lebanon, funded by her Malala Fund nonprofit. Also last year, Yousafzai won a Grammy for the audio version of the children’s edition of her memoir, I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban ; had an asteroid named in her honor; and saw the release of the documentary He Named Me Malala.
This article appears in the January 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine.