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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.

Kathryn Sargent Owner, Kathryn Sargent Bespoke Tailoring

Photo by Jack Taylor / AFP via Getty Images

On London’s famed Savile Row, where the tailors—and clients—are typically male, Kathryn Sargent is one of just a few female faces. She started as an apprentice at Savile Row mainstay Gieves & Hawkes in 1996, gradually ascending the ranks to become head cutter—the first woman to hold that role—in 2009. In 2012 she left to open her own shop in London’s Mayfair, Kathryn Sargent Bespoke Tailoring. When she opened a store on Savile Row in 2016, she became the first female master tailor to do so. “Women have been present in the back rooms of the tailoring profession as finishers and assistant tailors for centuries, so I am proud to be leading the way front of house,” Sargent has said. Since then, a wave of young women has been breaking into this traditionally male-dominated industry. “There are more women working on Savile Row now than ever before,” Sargent told Luxury London last year. “In time, it won’t be a notable subject anymore.”

Sapna Shah Head of Corporate Responsibility, Pimco

Sapna Shah is the first to hold the new position of head of corporate responsibility at Pimco, one of the world’s premier fixed income investment managers, with $1.8 trillion under management.

The role, which has a focus on gender equality, is an important one for Pimco, which has recently faced two high-profile gender discrimination lawsuits, the latest filed in October by Andrea Martin Inokon, a black woman who is senior counsel at the firm. Inokon charged that Pimco failed to promote her after she got pregnant, and that executives at the firm encouraged employees to socialize at strip clubs and on golf outings. (Pimco has denied the allegations.)

Shah’s responsibility is to drive the development and implementation of Pimco’s corporate responsibility platform, leading a range of initiatives that support the firm’s corporate and social goals, including gender equality. One of her moves has been to forge a partnership with Girls Who Invest, an organization devoted to increasing opportunities in finance for young women.

Shah joined Pimco in 2007 and was previously the firm’s inclusion, diversity and culture officer. Before joining Pimco, she was with the equity research group of JPMorgan Asset Management. She has an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago.

Melanie Stricklan Cofounder and Chief Strategy Officer, Slingshot Aerospace

Melanie Stricklan, a 20-year Air Force vet who was a technician on surveillance aircraft, cofounded Slingshot Aerospace in 2016. The Austin, Texas-based startup utilizes AI to exploit data for defense and commercial applications, such as responding to natural disasters. When Hurricane Michael hit the Florida coast in 2018, Slingshot helped determine the best places to assemble triages and find the safest routes to hospitals, delivering that information to FEMA and other disaster response agencies. The company’s clients now include the Department of Homeland Security, NASA and the Air Force.

Stricklan received a BS in Aeronautical Science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and an MS in space systems operations management from Webster University. From 1996 to 2017, she was in the Air Force, involved in what’s known as “space control and battle management,” a program to protect American space capabilities from new threats. Logging some 1500 hours on the E-8CJSTARS, a surveillance aircraft, she led the development and deployment of experimental spacecraft, electronic warfare and cyber technologies. She’s also advocates for underprivileged youth and young women to get involved in STEM.

Dhivya Suryadevara Chief Financial Officer, General Motors

Dhivya Suryadevara. Photo by John F. Martin for General Motors

When Dhivya Suryadevara was named CFO of General Motors in June 2018, she joined CEO Mary Barra as another woman in the GM C-Suite, making GM one of only two Fortune 500 companies to have a female CEO and CFO. The then-39-year-old Suryadevara is the first female CFO in the automaker’s 110-year history.

The Indian-born financier came to the U.S. to attend Harvard Business School after receiving her undergraduate degree at the University of Madras in India. In 2002, she interned at the World Bank and joined UBS as an investment banker; she left for General Motors in 2004.

Her rise through the ranks at the automaker was swift. By 2013, she had been appointed CEO and chief investment officer of GM Asset Management and in 2015 was also working as the vice president of finance and treasurer for General Motors. In 2017, she became vice president of corporate finance at GM.

Suryadevara represents a still small but significant trend:  There are now 64 female CFOs in the Fortune 500, nearly double the amount of a decade ago, according to Fortune.

Lauren Taylor Wolfe Founder, Impactive Capital

Lauren Taylor Wolfe left the hedge fund she had worked at for 10 years to launch the first female- and minority-owned activist fund, Impactive Capital.

It’s rare for a woman to start a hedge fund—less than 5 percent of hedge funds have female founders. But the shareholder activism arena is even more exclusively male-dominated. What’s particularly unusual about Impactive Capital is that its activist targets have an ESG twist, a strategy that other activist hedge funds have now started to embrace.

The firm got off the ground in 2019 with a six-year, $250 million capital commitment from the California State Teachers’ Retirement System. Wolfe and Impactive cofounder Christian Alejandro Asmar are veterans of the $3 billion Blue Harbour Group, where they were both managing directors and investing partners.

At Blue Harbour, Taylor Wolfe led many of the firm’s investments and advised CEOs and boards on capital allocation, strategic opportunities and ESG considerations. A native New Yorker, Taylor Wolfe is a graduate of Cornell University and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Sarah Thomas Sommelier, Le Bernardin and Cofounder and Chief Imaginator, Kalamata’s Kitchen

If you follow the wine world, you know that it’s not an easy place for women to build a career. “Working as a Woman Sommelier Seems as Bad as You Might Imagine,” said one recent story from New York’s Grub Street. “NYC Restaurant Wine Buyers Are a Fratty White Blur,” opined Eater. And the stats don’t lie: Just 16 percent of master sommeliers are women. But there are a few bright spots, like on the floor of Manhattan’s Le Bernardin, a three-Michelin-star seafood palace lauded as one of New York’s best restaurants. Its wine director, Aldo Sohm, has one of the most gender-balanced teams in the industry. “I’m a firm believer that women taste wine better than men do,” Sohm told the Daily Beast in 2019. Sarah Thomas is one of several women on his team, but she’s representative of a new type of somm—those who make a name in the food and wine world outside of the restaurants in which they work. Thomas, who was brought up in western Pennsylvania by Indian immigrant parents, appeared in Somm 3, a documentary about wine tastings inspired by the famous Judgment of Paris in 1976. In addition to her role at Le Bernardin, Thomas is the author of three children’s books and cofounder of Kalamata’s Kitchen, a company that aims to get children excited about food. At one of her readings, Thomas told Pittsburgh Magazine, “There was a little Indian girl in the class, and she said, ‘Wow, Kalamata looks like you.’ And I said, ‘Actually, she looks like you.’”

Sarah Thomas Official, National Football League

Sarah Thomas. Photo by Nick Cammett / Diamond Images via Getty Images

In 2015, the National Football League hired Sarah Thomas as its first full-time female official in the organization’s 95-year history. People who aren’t football fans may not find that watershed momentous, but anyone familiar with the hyper-male culture of America’s most popular sport—and the often tense relationship between physically imposing athletes and on-field officials—knows that having a woman in an official’s uniform is a very big deal. It’s an acknowledgement from the team owners and league executives, almost all of whom are men, that the culturally powerful league needs to start changing with the times. And for Sarah Thomas, it’s an enormous accomplishment—a woman holding power over the outcome of games in a sport that is very big business.

Thomas, who played basketball on scholarship at the University of Mobile in Alabama, began her career officiating in 1996, when she became involved with the Gulf Coast Football Officials Association. She worked her first high school game in 1999 and in 2007 became the first woman to officiate in a major college game—Memphis-Jackson State. After becoming the first woman to officiate in an NFL playoff game—the 2018 matchup between the San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots—Thomas was asked if she’d been able “to absorb” the import of the moment. “I think I’ve been able to absorb that we as a crew officiated this game and for the most part, we went unnoticed,” she said. “History was made because I was able to be a part of that crew, but absorbing it is just the fact that we did a professional job.”

Jenny Town Cofounder and Managing Editor, 38 North

Originally from South Korea, Jenny Town is the cofounder and managing editor of website 38 North. The idea behind the site, which is now run through the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan research organization, is to provide balanced coverage and factual analysis of North Korea, utilizing international experts to provide military, political, economic and social insights into the country. Town started the site in 2010 with former U.S. State Department official Joel Wit at the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies (Town, who has a master’s in international affairs from Columbia, was an assistant director there). Her concern: Media coverage of North Korea simply wasn’t very good, which was leading to uninformed analysis by policymakers—a risky shortfall given that country’s growth as a nuclear power. Through 38 North’s analysis, some of which it gleans through satellite imagery, the site has become a media watchdog, notably confirming that North Korea was dismantling one of its nuclear sites following the 2018 North Korea-United States Singapore Summit.

U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team

Helmed by co-captains Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe, the U.S. Women’s National Team made history last summer, winning its fourth Women’s World Cup and earning a ticker-tape victory parade in Manhattan. But the celebrations, team members say, ring hollow until they achieve pay equity with their male counterparts. Last March, the team filed a lawsuit against U.S. Soccer, arguing that it is in violation of the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Among the suit’s examples: Players for the women’s team, which has four Olympic gold medals and four Women’s World Cup titles, earn a maximum of $99,000 annually. Top salary for their counterparts on the men’s team—which did not qualify for the 2019 World Cup and had its best finish, in third place, in 1930—is $263,320. The issue extends far beyond sports. “It’s about women in all industries,” Morgan said last March. “Our hope is that we not only set up ourselves, we set up the next generation as well.”

Related The 21 Most Powerful Women in the Business of Sports

In November, a judge granted the team’s motion to be certified as a class-action suit, with a hearing set for May 2020. In the meantime, the team has brought crucial attention to the issue, inspiring rousing chants of “USA equal pay” at stadiums and prompting U.S. senators Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Jacky Rosen (D-NV) to request a Senate committee hearing on pay in men’s and women’s sports in the United States.

Mariana Vasconcelos Founder, Agrosmart

The daughter of Brazilian farmers, Mariana Vasconcelos founded Agrosmart, a phone app that helps farmers save water, in 2016, when she was 23 years old.

Agrosmart creates software that utilizes AI to make agricultural predictions based on weather conditions, soil data and the genetic properties of crops. Drones and satellites gather the information, and Agrosmart gives recommendations to farmers, helping them save water and energy and increase their yields. The company claims that users have reduced water consumption by 60 percent and energy consumption by 40 percent. Coca-Cola, a client for several years, uses Agrosmart to monitor fruit farms in Espírito Santo, in southeastern Brazil.

Vasconcelos studied business at the Federal University of Itajuba in Brazil, and also has degrees from the University of Sao Paolo’s agriculture college, UCLA and the executive leadership program at Singularity University. She is also the global ambassador of Thought for Food, which bills itself as “the world’s next-gen innovation engine for food and agriculture.”

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