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Groundbreakers 2020: 50 Women Changing the World

For all the social and economic progress women have made in recent years, the battle for professional equality is far from over. But in fields ranging from finance to aeronautics to art history, they are pushing forward in exciting and important ways.

Marsha Askins Chief of Staff, UBS Global Wealth Management and UBS Americas

As the newly appointed chief of staff for UBS Global Wealth Management and UBS Americas, Marsha Askins is living proof that chairman Axel Weber is making good not only on his pledge to put more women in the private bank’s executive ranks, but to appoint them to roles where they will influence UBS’ push to further gender equality. Following a number of recent appointments, 40 percent of the UBS executive suite is now comprised of women. That’s a significant step in an industry where boys’ clubs have long prevailed, often alienating potential clients, especially women, who felt that they’d have a better relationship with a female wealth advisor.

But Askin’s appointment was hardly just a means of checking the diversity box; she’s had a distinguished career in finance, a formidable climb within UBS and demonstrated a commitment to fostering the growth of women in business. On her Twitter account, Askins frequently promotes female founders, and the importance of networking conferences and cultivating girls’ financial acumen and ambition.

Appointed chief of staff in 2019, Askins has spent the last 13 years at UBS, starting as head of product and segment marketing and rising to chief communications officer. In that role, Askins launched the firm’s first-ever Billionaires Report, exploring the role of women in building lasting financial legacies, and codeveloped UBS’s Project Entrepreneur, which provides women access to training and networks needed to build scalable, economically impactful companies.

Prior to her UBS tenure, Askins spent 20 years working at Wachovia, Atlantic Trust Private Wealth and U.S. Trust. She holds a BS from Clemson University.

Lina Sergie Attar Founder, the Karam Foundation

The Syrian civil war began in 2011 and has turned approximately 6.7 million Syrians into refugees. Nine years on, the conflict continues. “We never expected to live this kind of endless nightmare of loss,” Lina Sergie Attar said in a TEDx Talk in 2017. “No Syrian did.”

Originally from Aleppo, Sergie Attar started the Karam Foundation back in 2007 by organizing a food drive in Chicago. She’s since used her foundation to respond to the crisis and help the most vulnerable refugees—kids. At Karam House, which has two locations in Turkey, Syrian kids can learn everything from entrepreneurship and graphic design to journalism and technology, skills which prepare them to attend college. The goal for Attar and her team for 2020: building Karam Houses in Jordan and Lebanon.

Regina Barzilay Professor, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
Regina Barzilay

Photo by Lillie Paquette, MIT School of Engineering

Regina Barzilay, a professor in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and a 2017 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, is working on using artificial intelligence to fight cancer, improve access to medicines and address social problems. Barzilay, who was herself diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, is developing algorithms using AI to detect small cancerous areas that mammograms sometimes miss with potentially deadly results. “Rather than taking a one-size-fits-all approach, we can personalize screening around a woman’s risk of developing cancer,” she told MIT News. Barzilay also works on MIT’s Machine Learning for Pharmaceutical Discovery and Synthesis Consortium, which aims to maximize efficiency in creating new pharmaceuticals and works in the university’s natural language processing group, solving social problems through innovative information processing. Barzilay is a lead organizer of the AI Powered Drug Discovery and Manufacturing conference at MIT, to be held this February, where she will join other biotech leaders using AI in drug discovery and manufacturing.

Nadine Burke Harris Surgeon General of California

Photo © Michael Winokur.

Pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris, who is known for her work on the adverse health effects of childhood trauma, became the first surgeon general of California in February 2019.

Burke Harris gave a TED talk on the subject of childhood trauma in 2015, then followed that with the enormously influential book The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity, which was published in 2018. She is also the founder of the San Francisco-based Center for Youth Wellness, a clinic dedicated to treating children who are exposed to toxic stress. For the past six years, she served as its CEO, until newly elected California governor Gavin Newsom named her the state’s surgeon general.

Related Toxic Stress: Effects and Prevention

Burke Harris based her work on a 1997 landmark study by the Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente that first pinpointed the health risks in later life for people who’d experienced childhood trauma. Burke Harris created a screening tool to help pediatricians to detect these traumas, so that children can receive better care. One of her first acts as surgeon general: pushing for the successful passage of Assembly Bill No. 340, a law that requires trauma screenings for low-income children and adults.

Rachel Carlson CEO and Cofounder, Guild Education

Guild Education, which started as a graduate school project at Stanford in 2015, has created a new way for working Americans to think about college education. It has also become the latest female-founded company to reach a $1 billion valuation. With student debt skyrocketing, Rachel Carlson and cofounder Brittany Stich launched Guild to offer an alternative to traditional four-year colleges for the estimated 70 percent of U.S. adults who don’t have a degree. Or as Carlson puts it, Guild teams up with companies to offer employees education benefits and tuition reimbursement incentives that they’ll actually use, while providing its educational partners—for-profit and not-for-profit online schools—with a way to recruit and retain new students. “The economy’s moving so fast,” Carlson told Forbes last year. “We can’t let higher education dictate the skills and competencies that we need five to 10 years from now.” Guild signed Chipotle as its first major partner in 2016, and companies including Walmart and Disney followed. Investors including Bessemer Venture Partners and Aileen Lee’s Cowboy Ventures have poured $228 million into helping Guild join forces with new education and employer partners.

Sonia Cheng CEO, Rosewood Hotel Group

It’s been about nine years since New World Hospitality, the Hong Kong-based company owned by Sonia Cheng’s family, bought Rosewood Hotels from Dallas-based hotelier Caroline Rose Hunt for $229.5 million. Cheng became CEO of New World and rebranded the enterprise as Rosewood Hotel Group. She was 30. “There was the element from competitors: ‘Well, here comes the daughter of a tycoon, playing hotel,’” Rosewood Hong Kong managing director Marc Brugger told CNBC last year. But Cheng quickly silenced the skeptics. Rosewood, a management company, operates but doesn’t own most of its properties, but under Cheng, the family purchased some of its prestige real estate, including the Carlyle in New York, and revamped them. She also expanded the brand into Asia, starting with Rosewood Beijing in 2014. But her crowning achievement came in 2019 with the opening of Rosewood Hong Kong. The new hotel, which occupies 43 stories of a 65-story tower on Victoria Harbour, has a special meaning to Cheng and her family: It sits on the site of what was once the New World Centre, a mixed-use development her grandfather built in the 1970s that housed Hong Kong’s Regent Hotel, which Cheng’s father managed early in his career and where Cheng grew up.

Related 14 Hotels That Tell Women’s Stories

The Curators Ashley James and Denise Murrell

Ashley James (left) and Denise Murrell (right). Murrell’s photo by Eileen Travell

Denise Murrell was once known as a successful businesswoman who’d spent 25 years working for financial institutions such as Citicorp and Institutional Investor. But all that changed when she went back to school to get her PhD in art history at Columbia University. By this spring, Ashley James will have her PhD, too, but in English literature.

Another similarity these two share? They’re both groundbreakers, African American women who are earning acclaim in the predominantly lily-white world of fine art. In November, both James  and Murrell took positions as curators at major New York art institutions. James is now the Guggenheim’s associate curator of contemporary art—the first full-time black curator to work for the museum. Murrell was named associate curator for 19th and 20th century art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The position is brand-new.

James’ and Murrell’s  appointments to these positions came on the heels of highly acclaimed exhibitions they’d each put on that have spotlighted the influence African Americans have had on art. Murrell’s was called “Posing Modernity: The Black Model from Manet and Matisse to Today,” while James’ was “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.”

Issues surrounding blackness in art history are central themes of both women’s work, which is what makes their appointments both individually and jointly so significant. They are helping to redefine the narratives of art in some of the world’s most powerful cultural institutions. It’s entirely possible that, in the end, the most important exhibitions they produce might be their own careers.

Shannon Eusey Cofounder, CEO and Partner, Beacon Pointe Advisors

Shannon Eusey wrote the business plan for Beacon Pointe Advisors while she was studying for her MBA at UCLA’s Anderson School of Business in 2001. Along with her father, financial advisor Garth Flint, Eusey started Newport Beach, Calif.-based Beacon Pointe the following year. It since has since become the country’s largest female-led registered investment advisory firm, with over $10 billion in assets, 14 offices nationwide and nearly 160 employees.

In April 2019, Beacon Pointe announced a partnership with Heller Wealth Advisors, the firm’s 12th merger deal to date. The merger expanded its reach into the lucrative metropolitan New York area, with clients in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. “As a firm, we’re really about education,” Eusey told Worth in an interview last fall. Beacon Pointe also has a Women’s Advisory Institute dedicated to “empowering the female investors of today and the young investors of tomorrow.”

Related The Nation’s Largest Female-Owned RIA Started as a Business School Class Project

Jane Fraser President, Citigroup

Photo by Rodrigo Capote / Bloomberg via Getty Images

There’s a very good chance that Jane Fraser will become the first female CEO of a major U.S. bank. In October, Citi CEO Michael Corbat named her president of Citigroup. At the time, Fraser was a candidate for the top job at several other banks looking to diversify their executive suites, including Wells Fargo and HSBC. Fraser also runs Citi’s global consumer banking unit, the latest in a series of roles that would seem to indicate she’s being positioned for advancement. Before that, Fraser, who is fluent in Spanish, oversaw the bank’s Latin America operations.

Fraser, who was born in Scotland, joined Citi in 2004 after a decade at McKinsey advising financial firms. She has degrees from Cambridge University and Harvard Business School. Three years after joining the bank, she was named global head of strategy, working with then-CEO Vikram Pandit to restructure the bank following the financial crisis. She took over the reins at Citigroup’s private bank in 2009 and by 2013 was named CEO of the troubled mortgage unit.

Melinda Gates Cochair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Photo: John Keatley/Redux

Melinda Gates has long been in the spotlight for the significant philanthropic work she shares with her husband. But in October, Gates took a big step on her own, committing $1 billion in a push toward gender equality.

The effort is being funded through her company, Pivotal Ventures, and will finance people who are taking innovative and diverse approaches to expanding women’s power and influence.

The money will go toward dismantling barriers to women’s professional advancement by tackling issues like sexual harassment and discrimination and alleviating the burden of caregiving responsibilities that fall on women. It will direct resources to women in influential fields such as technology, media and politics, while pushing shareholders, consumers and employees to pressure companies for change.

Gates, who has a degree in computer science from Duke University and an MBA from its Fuqua School of Business, joined Microsoft as a marketing manager and rose to become the general manager before marrying Bill Gates, whom she met on the job, and turning her focus to philanthropy.

Her experience working in Microsoft’s male-dominated environment led to her interest in gender issues, and in 2019, she turned these ideas into a book, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.

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