“Here’s to strong women may we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.” Whoever said this was right on the nose. Growing up is a challenge, perhaps more so if you’re a girl, but resilience, persistence, confidence, and creativity can help anyone navigate through the headwinds of life. Don’t believe us? Here are 10 incredible real-life heroines who refused to settle for the status quo. Instead, they pushed through, forging new paths both for themselves and the women who would follow. The world is all the better because of them, and we hope their stories spark your own courage, strength, and imagination.
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Karlie Kloss proves that beauty can be more than skin deep. Discovered by talent scouts at the age of 13, Karlie has since risen to supermodel proportions. But she’s also an entrepreneur philanthropist, creating Karlie’s Kookies, a line of baked goods that benefits hungry children worldwide, and founding Kode with Klossy, a nonprofit initiative that encourages girls ages 13 to 18 to learn how to code.
For her next act, Karlie is stepping into Heidi Klum’s shoes as an executive producer and host of Project Runway, which she has called a platform for aspiring American designers “as they pursue their creative and entrepreneurial dreams.”
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Reshma Saujani is many things—a Yale-trained hedge-fund lawyer who handled asylum cases on a pro bono basis, the first South Asian American woman to run for Congress, a former New York City deputy public advocate, and the founder of Girls Who Code, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the number of women in the field of computer science. She’s also the author of two books: Women Who Don’t Wait in Line: Break the Mold, Lead the Way and Girls Who Code: Learn to Code and Change the World.
“Never give up,” Reshma said she tells herself during life’s tougher moments. “People will always discount you and you’ll always get rejected. But set your sights high. Be boldly ambitious. Be relentless and never give up.”
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An electrical engineer who worked in bioengineering, Kimberly Bryant founded Black Girls Code in 2011 after her daughter’s burgeoning interest in computer programming spurred her to do something about the underrepresentation of African American women in the technology industry. Today, the nonprofit group offers low-cost workshops in coding, robotics, web design and mobile app development for aspiring innovators 7 and up. Black Girls Code has already trained 3,000 girls across the United States and in Johannesburg, South Africa, but Kimberly says she wants to reach out to 1 million girls by 2040.
“We’re creating this new breed of techies who are going to be the ones starting the tech companies of the future,” she said.
Named by Forbes in 2014 as the 71st most powerful woman in the world, Padmasree Warrior is the CEO of the American arm of Nio, a company that specializes in designing and developing safe, electric autonomous vehicles. Previously, she was the chief technology officer of Cisco Systems, where she was responsible for more than two-thirds of the company’s revenues, which totaled $43 billion.
“One of the things I tell people these days is that there is no perfect fit when you’re looking for the next big thing to do,” she said. “You have to take opportunities and make an opportunity fit for you, rather than the other way around. The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.”
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Even as a highschooler, Pooja Chandrashekar aimed for the fences. By the time she was 17, she had developed a mobile app that uses speech patterns to predict if a person has Parkinson’s disease. She also founded ProjectCSGirls, a nonprofit that encourages middle-school girls to cultivate a love for computer science and technology. In 2015, Pooja made headlines for earning admission to all eight Ivy League schools, along with Stanford, MIT, Duke, the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan, and Georgia Tech. (She picked Harvard.) As a 2018-19 Fulbright-Nehru Scholar to India, Pooja will be conducting public health research in Goa to ascertain how autistic students with learning disabilities can surmount challenges in the education system through policy changes and assistive technologies.
“I hope to continue and expand my work on advocating for gender equality and diversity in tech, work on bringing assistive technology to those who need it the most, and continue to build on my research to use technology to improve healthcare outcomes,” she said.
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Regina Honu, who hails from Accra in Ghana, is the founder of Soronko Academy, the first coding and human-centered design school for children and young adults in West Africa. In addition, Regina started Tech Needs Girls Ghana, a movement and mentorship program that rallies girls to pursue tech-related studies, including coding. To date, the initiative has trained more than 3,500 girls in Ghana and Burkina Faso.
For her efforts, Regina has fielded numerous plaudits, including making it on CNN’s list of 12 inspirational women who rock STEM.
“I am using technology to leave a legacy and empower women and girls to reach their full potential,” she said.
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To help bridge the diversity gap in tech, Stephanie Castillo launched Latina Girls Code, an organization that supplies computers, provides mentorship, sets up internship opportunities, and organizes “hackathons” for Hispanic girls ages 7 to 17 in Chicago’s disadvantaged communities. Stephanie wanted to nurture an environment where girls could feel safe, supported and where “their identity is celebrated,” she said.
“It’s more than just a technological transformation for our communities that have been locked out of this resource,” Stephanie added. “What we’re seeing is our students are facing unique experiences, unique circumstances.”
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Natalya Brikner has degrees in aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, aeronautics, and astronautics. In short, she’s a rocket scientist. The co-founder and CEO of Accion Systems, a Boston-based startup that develops advanced electric propulsion systems for small satellites, Natalya is working to parlay her technology, known as TILE (tiled ionic liquid electrospray), to increase the lifespan and maneuverability of systems in low and medium Earth orbit and deep space.
Now in its fourth year, Accion Systems has received a $3 million Rapid Innovation Fund contract through the U.S. Department of Defense and has raised $7.5 million in a round of Series A funding led by Shasta Ventures.
Renee Watson wants to give every child the opportunity to become the next Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, or Ada Lovelace. She created the Curiosity Box, the U.K.’s first STEM-themed monthly subscription box for kids ages 7 to 11. Each box contains curated activities and collectibles designed “bring science to life for families” and spark children’s imaginations, Renee said.
“It doesn’t matter if they don’t want to be a scientist when they grow up because encouraging kids to be curious, creative and to increase their science literacy from an early age is a great way of improving their prospects at secondary and high school and beyond,” she added.
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You’re never too young to learn how to code, according to Samantha John, co-founder and chief technology officer of Hopscotch, a visual programming app that lets kids ages 8 and up develop simple projects by dragging and dropping blocks to create scripts. Launched in 2013, Hopscotch was downloaded 20,000 times in its first week and more than 2 million times since.
“We wanted to program something on the iPad that would get young women into programming. It’s not just for girls, but we try very hard to make it gender neutral and friendly to girls,” John said. Her favorite advice to anyone who wants to pursue a career in tech? “Get experience any way you can. Try and learn from as many smart people as you can and you’ll get better,” she said.