Women’s History Month: women entrepreneurs, founders, leaders and changemakers who inspire us

March is Women’s History Month, and our staff have been reflecting on women from history who inspire us through their ability to change the world, solve problems with innovative solutions and create world-renowned organisations.

These women guide and inspire us in our own work, to keep striving towards women’s economic empowerment and the full realisation of women’s human rights. We recognise and celebrate them here.

Oprah Winfrey

Chosen by: Helen McEachern, CEO

I’d like to nominate Oprah Winfrey. She is currently the ninth richest woman in America, and also the richest Black woman in the world, having been born into poverty in rural Mississippi to a single teenage mother. She is an incredible entrepreneur, having transitioned her hit talk show, which ran for 25 years, into a media and business empire which includes her own cable channel, OWN. Oprah has inspired so many people, especially women of colour, and is a dedicated philanthropist who uses her wealth and influence to empower and support others.

Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw

Chosen by: Alex McCall, Senior Partnerships Manager

The woman I’d like to recognise is Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, an Indian entrepreneur. She is the chairperson and managing director of Biocon Limited, a biotechnology company based in Bangalore, India. She is on the Financial Times’ top 50 women in business list and in 2020 she was named EY World Entrepreneur of the Year. Kiran is truly a remarkable woman who has fought against gender stereotypes throughout her whole career, first as a brewmaster and then as a female founder, something which wasn’t historically seen as acceptable in India. Despite her incredible success in so many areas, she remains humble and committed to fighting injustices.

Salma Okonkwo

Chosen by: Sian Watters, Head of Mentoring

Ghanaian entrepreneur Salma Okonkwo is my nominee. She is a rare female face in the energy industry and is CEO and Founder of UBI Petroleum Group. Amidst the debate on climate change, alternative energy resources and poverty, Salma Okonkwo is now building Ghana’s biggest solar farm—Blue Power Energy—which opened in 2019. Her aim to ensure that every person in Ghana, in every village, has access to green power and I find her vision truly incredible. Salma is bringing innovation, technology and incredible leadership to a rigidly male-dominated industry.

Rose Heilbron QC (1914-2005)

Chosen by: Cherie Blair, CBE QC, Founder

My hero Rose Heilbron QC (1914-2005), later Dame Rose Heilbron, was an English barrister who became a world-famous icon of the 1950s and 1960s. She was one of the two first women King’s Counsel (later Queen’s Counsel) in 1949 and the first woman Judge in England in 1956 when she became Recorder of Burnley. She broke down many barriers with a string of firsts in the legal profession. She became a pioneer for women at the English Bar and for women generally. As a QC from a working-class Liverpool background myself, she was a role model for me when growing up.

Pat McGrath

Chosen by: Lulu Nunn, Senior Communications Manager

I’m nominating legendary British makeup artist and founder of beauty product line Pat McGrath Labs, Pat McGrath. She’s an inspirational figure as someone who, as a working-class Black woman in the cosmetics industry, has carved an incredible path for herself in an industry that has excluded Black women since it began. Pat McGrath has always challenged and subverted traditional beauty standards and played a huge role in helping dismantle notions of who gets to have a seat at the table in the world of fashion and beauty. The launch of her company meant she gained even more strength as a powerful force for progress in her industry, and also as part of a broader cultural change that’s seeing predominantly white, western beauty standards taken apart.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)

Chosen by: Dermot Nicolas, Senior Programme and MEL Officer

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) is a popular choice on lists of successful women. Many know her as a nurse during the Crimean War but few are familiar with Florence as a women entrepreneur. As well as establishing a nursing training programme, she set up an invalid kitchen, a laundry and a library for entertainment. These not only demonstrate her great entrepreneurial talent but the compassionate nature of these ventures also help to distinguish her as a true social entrepreneur.

Rebecca Enonchong

Chosen by: Nora Bendzius-Drennan, Partnerships Development Manager

I’d like to recognise Cameroonian-born tech entrepreneur, founder and CEO of AppsTech Rebecca Enonchong. She is also a mentor and advisor to several Africa-based technology start-ups and sits on various boards dedicated to entrepreneurs and investors building companies in Africa. Thanks to her work championing and promoting technology entrepreneurship in Africa, she has quite rightly received widespread recognition. I often think of her brilliant advice: “Work hard, think big and never give up. When you do experience success, stay humble. Success is not linear; you will experience ups and downs. Humility helps keep it all in perspective.”

Stacey Abrams

Chosen by: Efe Olokpa, Programme Manager

The woman I’m nominating is Stacey Abrams, an American politician, lawyer, voting rights activist, and author. In 2018, just 55,000 votes prevented Stacey from becoming the first Black woman governor of Georgia, reigniting a debate about how voter suppression in Georgia may have shaped the outcome. In 2019, she set up Fair Fight Action to tackle voter suppression and alleviate the barriers to the election process for voters in Georgia and around the nation. Her efforts have been widely credited with boosting voter turnout in Georgia, managing to help register at least 800,000 new voters in for the 2020 US presidential election.

Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

Chosen by: Georgia Beattie, Senior Partnerships Officer

Nellie Bly (1864-1922) is my nominee. She was a was an American journalist in the late 1800s and she pioneered the way for investigative journalism whilst fighting for reform in favour of mental health awareness and women’s rights. She was the first woman and one of the first foreigners to visit the war zone between Serbia and Austria, and once secretly had herself inducted into a mental asylum to gather evidence of maltreatment, prompting the asylum to implement reforms. Through her writing alone, she directly and actively challenged stereotypes surrounding women and their abilities outside of the home AND all during the late 1800s, which for me, makes her an amazing and pioneering woman.

Hawa Abdi (1947-2020)

Chosen by: Hanan Noor, Programme Officer

The inspiring woman I’ve chosen is Hawa Abdi (1947-2020) also known as Mama Hawa. She was a Somali human rights activist and physician. She was also the founder and chairperson of the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation. Her life was packed with extraordinary generosity, care, and compassion, and she worked to improve the lives of women, children, and displaced people in Somalia.

Nina Simone (1933-2003)

Chosen by: James Mitchell, Programme Officer

I’m nominating singer, songwriter and activist Nina Simone (1933-2003). She created ineffable, evocative, transformative music that voiced the struggles endured by millions around the world in the 1960s and beyond. Songs such as 'To Be Young Gifted and Black' and 'Backlash Blues' expressed the pain of racial injustice, and became instrumental for the Civil Rights Movement. In 'Four Women' she railed against racist beauty standards in the United States, while in 'Mississippi Goddam' she channelled anguish over racist murders by decrying political inaction. Her astonishingly powerful arrangements and performances serve as indictments against the injustice that she and countless others experienced then and still to this day.

Dr Sue Black

Chosen by: Sian Hawkins, Director of External Affairs

Dr Sue Black is a computer scientist and digital skills expert and entrepreneur, and someone I’d like to recognise for Women’s History Month. She set up the first online network for women in tech in the UK, and led the successful campaign to save Bletchley Park, where the enigma code was broken in WW2. At the age of 25, with 3 children, Dr Black had to flee to a women’s refuge and at the age of 26 was a single mother living in a council flat. She took up an evening course in Polymath, followed by a degree in computing and then a PHD in software engineering. A truly inspiring woman.

Lady Phyll

Chosen by: Sarah Daniels, Senior Communications Officer

My nominee is Lady Phyll, a Black British lesbian, political activist, co-founder of UK Black Pride and also the Executive Director of the Kaleidoscope Trust, which works to uphold the human rights of LGBT+ people in countries around the world where they are discriminated against. She is constantly campaigning against racism, homophobia and sexism through her work and on social media but I also really admire her positivity, energy and persistence as she continues to fight for equality. For me, she embodies the power of creating safe and open spaces for all, and the importance of striving for equality in all areas of life.

Harriet Baka

Chosen by: Sini Heikkila, Senior Advocacy Advisor

Harriet Baka is a Provincial Coordinator at the Mothers’ Union in South Sudan, the largest women’s ministry in the country. She is an extraordinary woman who works closely with church and community leaders across the war-torn country to promote peace and economic development, especially for women. In South Sudan, 1.6 million people remain internally displaced and 2.2. million are refugees in the region due to the devastating conflict which started in 2013. Harriet has helped to coordinate refugee care in remote locations for those fleeing violence and war and has established income-generating programmes for women. She is also a fantastic advocate and has engaged in the Commission on the Status of Women in New York.

Kate Sheppard (1848–1934)

Chosen by: Ashleigh Pike, Senior Governance and Operations Manager

Kate Sheppard (1848–1934) has a lasting legacy in New Zealand as the country’s most recognisable and prominent suffragette, and is the woman I’d like to recognise. As a young woman in her early twenties she tirelessly campaigned for equal rights to men, and as she got older she became the editor of The White Ribbon, the first woman-operated newspaper in New Zealand. As a powerful and persuasive writer and a strong and eloquent public speaker, Kate began to make inroads with politicians and members of the press. Her work culminated in a petition with 30,000 signatures and the New Zealand Parliament being the first country in the world to extend the right to vote to women in 1893.

Leymah Roberta Gbowee

Chosen by: Bella Hailemariam, Director of Finance and Corporate Services

I’d like to nominate Leymah Roberta Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist responsible for leading a women’s nonviolent peace movement bringing Christian and Muslim women together which helped bring an end to the Liberian 14-year civil war. She won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 and paved the way for the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. I am inspired by this woman bringing peace in Liberia and paving the way for the democratic election of a women president by organising women like her, and by her Foundation for peace.

Bibian Mentel

Chosen by: Jetske van Dijk, Programme Manager

The incredible woman I’ve chosen is Bibian Mentel, a Dutch athlete who started out her sports career as an able-bodied snowboarder. After being diagnosed with bone cancer, she had her leg amputated. She continued her sports career, winning three Paralympic gold medals and five para-snowboarding world championships. She set up her own Mentelity Foundation to stimulate, motivate, and inspire young people with a physical disability to engage in sports. Despite having had to battle cancer for the last 20 years, Bibian is a motivational speaker and continues to inspire and encourage people to never give up in the face of adversity and always find the silver lining to any bad situation.