In this article, we have chosen to profile five women who wield extraordinary influence. Through their work, Maya Angelou, Melinda Gates, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Indra Nooyi and Maria Shriver have changed the lives of countless people around the world. They have challenged the way men and women think about business, education, politics and life. Today, they continue to inspire us all to reach our fullest potential.
Maya Angelou: Liberated by Knowledge
As an author, poet and speaker, Maya Angelou has shined a light on a world of prejudice, injustice and poverty unfamiliar to many Americans. Through a series of six autobiographies, including the critically acclaimed I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings published in 1970, Angelou inspired readers with her own transformation from victim of racism to empowered young woman. Through writing and speaking to audiences around the globe, she continues to admonish people to reach their fullest potential.
“I think always the moments which challenge you most are probably the ones which have the greatest lifetime importance,” she tells SUCCESS.
Following a childhood of struggle and sorrow, including rape at the age of 7, Angelou was an unmarried 17-year-old when she gave birth to a son. But motherhood was the impetus for achievement. “To improve myself and him and his life, I studied. I began to really be careful about what I was doing and how well I was doing it. I had always been a reader—I just became a deeper reader. I made a bee path to the libraries. I educated myself because I wanted him to have some answers,” she said. “That was the greatest single impact on my life.”
Angelou traveled the world, acted, danced, sang, composed music and wrote plays. She became fluent in Spanish, French, Italian, Arabic and West African Fanti. She worked with civil rights activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
“When we come to it We must confess that we are the possible We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world.” — Maya Angelou, from A Brave and Startling Truth
Angelou’s self-directed education helped her see beyond the hatred and prejudice that could have shaped her worldview. “In so many ways it helped me to know that the world did not end at my front door, nor at the borderline of my state, nor even at the United States—and that human beings are more alike than we are unalike,” she said. “All of that liberated me from some of the ignorance that can make a person mean and cruel and prejudiced and stupid. Education has helped me understand that this is my world, but no more mine than yours.”
That knowledge helped Angelou find her place in the world— which is anywhere she wants to be. “Being a human gave me the right to look for the larger life, the biggest life a human being can have. That I was black or 6-feet tall or female or poor growing up had nothing to do with the fact that I’m a human being,” she said. “There’s nobody beneath me and nobody above me on the rate of being a human being.
“Success is liberation. I’m free from the ties with which ignorance binds us. I’m free from that. I don’t dislike any group of people. I can be proud of the action of a stranger. I can be happy for the success of a person I’ve never shaken hands with. I’m free.”
Indra Nooyi | ‘Performance with Purpose’
PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi is known for her intelligence and keen business strategies, as well as being a deeply caring person who, as her predecessor in the job has said, “can relate to people from the boardroom to the front line.”
At the helm of a $43.3 billion conglomerate, which employs more than 185,000 people in 200 countries, Nooyi’s mission is to drive profits while maintaining a focus on what’s good for people and for the planet—“performance with purpose,” she calls it. Nooyi has undertaken an ambitious long-term effort to reinvent the soda and snack-food giant to offer healthier choices such as fruit juices and oatmeal.
And the world has taken notice; Forbes and Fortune list Nooyi as one of the world’s foremost female business executives and U.S. News & World Report asserts that she is one of America’s best leaders. Already, Nooyi has seen the company through significant changes, including divesting its YUM Brands Inc. holdings, including Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut. She also championed acquisitions of Tropicana, Quaker Oats and California-based Naked Juice.
“We recognize our responsibility to address diet and nutrition concerns around the globe,” Nooyi says on PepsiCo’s Web site. “We’re mindful of the way the world is changing, and we’re listening to experts who provide deep insights and enabling solutions. As a result, we’ve made steady progress transforming our portfolio, for example, by introducing new products that offer improved nutrition.”
“You can change and shape attitudes and opinions… by simply ascribing positive intent.” —Indra Nooyi, from a Columbia University commencement speech
Born in Madras, India, Nooyi earned her undergraduate and MBA degrees in her home country and started her career there. But, she says, her life was shaped by a desire to come to the United States. She did that in 1978 to earn a master’s degree in public and private management at Yale.
“Leaving India was a big choice and a scary choice—no one in my family had left the country,” she says. “Deciding to stay here was a big decision because it was leaving the cocoon of my family.”
After Yale, she began a successful climb up the career ladder, joining PepsiCo in 1994 as senior vice president of corporate strategy and development, followed by a stint as chief financial officer. In 2006, she was named CEO.
Nooyi, 61, admits her journey has been incredible: “To get to where I am today, and if you look at where I started, the two points don’t connect.”
What she loves most about America is the freedom to be herself. A wife and mother of two girls, Nooyi speaks to her own mother twice a day. She continues to wear a sari to some events, sing karaoke and play electric guitar. A cricket player in college, she’s become a baseball fan. And while she openly admits that getting to the top has not come without sacrifice or regrets, she is proud to be a citizen in a country where opportunities and advantages go to people based on their abilities and hard work.
Maria Shriver | Empowering Others
California’s first lady is on a mission to change the world—but she has no intention of doing it alone. Rather, Maria Shriver seeks to inspire others to become architects of change. “My dream is to help empower not just my own kids but other people in my community and in my world,” she says.
An award-winning journalist and best-selling author, Shriver’s greatest legacy could be in transforming the California Women’s Conference into the largest and most successful event of its kind, and in extending its reach through ongoing programs to empower people with education and resources to change their lives and the world around them.
Under Shriver’s leadership since 2004, the annual California Governor & First Lady’s Conference on Women, now known simply as The Women’s Conference, has grown from a small government initiative to help small-business owners to a two-day event that draws almost 20,000 women from across the state. High-powered speakers have included Warren Buffett, Indra Nooyi, Christiane Amanpour, Mehmet Oz, Rachael Ray, Condoleezza Rice, Jean Chatzky and Jamie Lee Curtis. Sessions cover a wide range of topics, including business skills, finances, health, politics and parenting.
Shriver charted her own course early with a career in broadcast journalism. After working for local stations in Philadelphia and Baltimore, she became a co-anchor on CBS Morning News in 1985. She went to NBC in 1986, and she was a co-anchor on Sunday Today and NBC Nightly News, earning an Emmy for coverage of the Seoul Summer Olympics. In 1989 she became a contributing anchor on Dateline NBC, where she received a Peabody Award in 1998 for a documentary on welfare.
“It’s your life. Go with your gut.” —Maria Shriver, from Ten Things I Wish I’d Known Before I Went Out into the Real World
Shriver met Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1977 at a Kennedy family charity event, and the couple married in 1986. After Schwarzenegger became governor in 2004, NBC relieved Shriver of her position, citing potential conflict of interest. Shriver, who says she went into journalism, in part, to avoid politics, had not been enthusiastic about her husband’s decision to run for governor, much less about becoming first lady. But it didn’t take long for Shriver to find her new purpose.
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Shriver purposefully shaped The Women’s Conference into a yearlong effort to empower women and families through an assortment of WE philanthropy programs. Funded by The Women’s Conference, and not the state, these programs provide business-skills training and economic empowerment, scholarships, counseling services and support for military families, leadership training for young women, and health services in developing countries. In conjunction with the state, WE Serve connects individuals with more than 25,000 volunteer opportunities across California. The economic impact of the hundreds of millions of volunteer hours equates to more than $17 billion in services annually.
Shriver is working to expand The Women’s Conference’s influence online. “I’ve really tried to approach the conference in a holistic way—to look at everything women and families need and approach it that way,” she says.
In addition to her work with the conference, Shriver is also a successful author. Her latest book, Just Who Will You Be? came out in April.
Though she may not have been thrilled with the prospect of becoming personally involved in politics, she says, “I wouldn’t have been able to do any of this had I not become first lady.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg | All People Created Equal
After graduating at the top of her class from a prestigious law school, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nonetheless passed over for jobs with New York law firms and refused even an interview for a U.S. Supreme Court clerkship. Being “a woman, a Jew and a mother to boot” was a little more than many prospective employers could handle in the early 1960s, Ginsburg has said.
Today a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg is hailed as the person most responsible for successfully challenging laws that encouraged gender discrimination. As director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union during the 1970s, she helped bring about constitutional protections against sex discrimination for women and men through a series of cases she brought before the high court.
Growing up in a working class neighborhood in Brooklyn, Ruth Bader was strongly influenced by her mother, who taught her always to be a lady and to be independent. Her mother died of stomach cancer the day before Ruth graduated high school.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree from Cornell, she enrolled at Harvard Law School. That same year she married fellow law student Martin Ginsburg. After he graduated and took a job in New York, she transferred to Columbia Law School where she tied for first in her graduating class. The transition gave her the opportunity to be the first woman on both the Harvard and Columbia law reviews. Despite an excellent academic reputation, Ginsburg received no job offers. And even with a recommendation from the dean of Harvard Law School, she was denied an interview for a Supreme Court clerkship.
So Ginsburg went the academic route, becoming the second woman on the law faculty at Rutgers, where she co-founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter in 1970, the first journal in the United States to focus exclusively on women’s rights. As a nontenured professor, she reportedly hid her second pregnancy by wearing oversized clothes to retain her position.
From 1972 to 1980, Ginsburg taught at Columbia, becoming the school’s first tenured female professor. She also lectured on gender discrimination and wrote the first textbook on the subject in 1974. During that time, she argued cases for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. One case attacked a Social Security Act provision that discriminated against men, denying widowers the same monetary benefits awarded to widows. Another case centered on a nursing school’s admissions policy barring male students. Ginsburg won five of the six cases she argued and effectively changed the court’s treatment of gender-based complaints.
“My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.” —Ruth Bader Ginsburg
In 1980, she was nominated to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and in 1993, to the U.S. Supreme Court, becoming the second woman named to the high court.
At her confirmation hearing, she recalled challenges she faced early in her career. “Race discrimination was immediately perceived as evil, odious and intolerable. But the response I got when I talked about sex-based discrimination was ‘What are you talking about? Women are treated ever so much better than men.’ ”
Treated for colon cancer in 1999, Ginsburg didn’t miss a day on the bench. Recently treated for early-stage pancreatic cancer, she was back hearing oral arguments within three weeks.
Ginsburg, 83, has often been the swing vote during her time on the bench, but when the matter is discrimination, her mission and message of equality are consistent and clear.
Melinda Gates | Preparing Tomorrow’s Leaders
Melinda Gates believes there is one way out of poverty: education. As co-chair and co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, she is committed to improving education and enabling more students to attend and graduate from college.
Credited by her husband for her desire to work full time on foundation efforts, Melinda Gates helps drive a daunting list of initiatives, including expanding educational opportunities in the United States and improving health and reducing extreme poverty around the world.
Bill and Melinda Gates plan to give as much as $100 billion of their massive Microsoft fortune during their lifetimes. With a belief that every life should have equal value, they target spending on efforts that can effect the greatest change throughout the world.
The Gates’ philanthropy has infused optimism into areas they’ve targeted—inspiring more medical students to choose careers in global health and bringing real hope to educators struggling with limited resources at failing schools.
The foundation, launched in 2000, has invested almost $4 billion in education—$2 billion in high schools. The money has helped provide teacher training, increase curriculum standards and provide needed resources in 2,600 schools in 45 states and D.C.
“If you are successful, it is because somewhere, sometime, someone gave you a life or an idea that started you in the right direction.” — Melinda Gates, valedictory speech, Ursuline Academy, 1982
“Completing high school ready for college is a key transition point in the path out of poverty. A second transition is earning a post-credential with value in the workplace,” Melinda Gates said at the Forum on Education. “If young people fail to make the first transition, it’s unlikely they will make the second. If they fail to make the second, it’s likely they will be poor. Helping millions of low-income Americans navigate these two transitions is the core of our work in the United States.”
Melinda French Gates grew up in a middleclass Dallas family that made education a priority. Valedictorian of her high-school class, she earned both undergraduate and MBA degrees from Duke University in just five years. She was one of 10 MBA students, and the only woman, to start at Microsoft following graduation in 1987.
She met Bill Gates at a public relations event in New York. While reluctant when the CEO asked her to dinner a few weeks later, the couple hit it off. They married in 1994. Melinda’s career at Microsoft continued to advance until 1996 when she was named a trustee on Duke University’s board. She served on that board until 2003.
Extremely protective of the family’s privacy, Melinda Gates, 52, does not relish the spotlight. But others are quick to give her credit. Warren Buffett has been quoted saying she helps Bill Gates be a better decision-maker because she tends to see the whole picture. Another friend, rock star and humanitarian Bono, says he and Bill Gates share a tendency to become enraged by poverty and needless loss of life. “What we need is a much slower pulse to help us be rational,” Bono told Fortune. “Melinda is that pulse.”
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in May 2009 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy and comprehensiveness.