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Groundbreakers 2021: 50 Women Changing the World

Despite enduring a pandemic that has disproportionately affected women and minorities, many women used last year to make real strides creating impact and accelerating progress toward building a more equitable society for the benefit of all. 

Lauren Gardner Codirector, Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering

Lauren Gardner

The COVID-19 pandemic hit everyone hard when it spread across the world last year. Luckily, people like Gardner stepped up to the plate to help. Named by TIME as one of the 100 most influential people in the world, Gardner, an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University and codirector of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins, led the building of the COVID-19 dashboard, a free website that tracks data on the pandemic and has become the top source of reliable and centralized epidemiological data for COVID. Even more impressive, she and one of her graduate students built the tracker in one night, launching it on January 22, 2020. According to Fast Company, as of June, it was one of the world’s most popular sites.

Jordan Gaspar Managing Partner, AF Ventures

Jordan Gaspar

As a result of COVID-19, people are prioritizing health and wellness more than ever starting with what they eat and drink, and most recently even expanding to what they put on their bodies as well. Well ahead of this better-for-you movement was Jordan Gaspar, president and managing partner of consumer packaged goods VC firm, AF Ventures, a 100 percent woman-owned VC firm. 

In 2014, Gaspar had the foresight to do something no one thought to do—enter the male dominated VC space and invest in a nontraditional category, early-stage food and beverage brands that appeal to the modern, health-conscious and discerning consumer. Most recently, Jordan predicted key themes within the industry again and, pre-pandemic, AF expanded their investment thesis beyond food and beverage to include healthy living-directed verticals of personal care, beauty, wellness and pet—all within the better-for-you space. In 2020, the firm grew to $105 million AUM. 

“All you can do is be the best version of yourself, and to continue to execute on your own values and drive forward, not let people dissuade you from what you’re building,” Gaspar told Forbes last year. “We did everything we could to stay out of the politics, always followed through and delivered on what we said we would, and not just be a taker in our ecosystem but also to always be mindful of giving back.”

Melinda Gates Cochair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Melinda Gates

Photo by Noam Galai/WireImage

One woman who is no stranger to this list is Melinda Gates. Gates has been an active advocate for women, and in the face of COVID, this has remained true. As cochair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, she and her husband Bill Gates have been working to help bring the pandemic to an end. At the Coronavirus Global Response Summit in May 2020, they contributed $300 million towards fighting COVID, then in December, the Gates Foundation gave $250 million more, in part to help deliver the vaccine to low-income communities. With this end-of-year contribution, the Gates Foundation is now responsible for donating $1.75 billion toward efforts to fight COVID. Melinda herself has been quite vocal about how the pandemic has disproportionately affected women. But, in a recent article she wrote for TIME, she seems to have a positive outlook on how the pandemic could lift all women in the long-term.

“I once hoped that 2020 would launch a new era for women and girls. Now, even in these darkest days, I see signs that it already has,” she wrote.

Sarah Gilbert Professor of Vaccinology, University of Oxford; and Cofounder, Vaccitech

Sarah Gilbert

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, scientists and researchers rushed to study the virus and develop a vaccine. And leading the pack was British vaccinologist Sarah Gilbert. A professor of vaccinology at the University of Oxford, Gilbert, who specializes in the development of vaccines against influenza and emerging viral pathogens, codeveloped the COVID-19 vaccine being produced by AstraZeneca; the vaccine was approved for use in the United Kingdom on December 30, 2020. 

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Supreme Court Justice
Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Talk about the ultimate groundbreaking woman. For the first time ever, we’re including an in memoriam entry on our Groundbreakers list to honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late Supreme Court justice and feminist icon who passed away last year at 87. As the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993, Ginsburg was known for her pointed and powerful dissenting opinions and her commitment to ensuring that marginalized groups received justice. 

However, her influence extends way beyond her 27 years on the Supreme Court bench; from the very beginning of her legal career, Ginsburg was a staunch supporter of equal rights for all, fighting to end the gender discrimination that she had experienced in law school and as a young, female litigator. From 1973 to 1978, Ginsburg presented six cases to the Supreme Court, winning five, to persuade the court that the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection applied not only to racial discrimination but to sex discrimination as well. Because of RGB’s tireless work, employers cannot legally discriminate against employees based on gender or reproductive choices; state schools must admit women; women have the right to financial independence and equal benefits under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act; men are entitled to the same caregiving and Social Security rights as women; and juries must include women. 

As Dahlia Lithwick wrote in a 2019 article for The Atlantic: “Today, more than ever, women starved for models of female influence, authenticity, dignity and voice hold up an octogenarian justice as the embodiment of hope for an empowered future.”

Nadine Hachach-Haram Founder and CEO, Proximie

Nadine Hachach-Haram

In 2016, Dr. Nadine Hachach-Haram launched her health technology business Proximie, implementing the use of augmented reality to allow the world’s top surgeons to virtually transport themselves into any operating room. With 6,000 live surgeries performed last year and the platform being deployed in nearly 200 hospitals, the demand for Proximie has only grown; Hachach-Haram saw a 430 percent increase in user growth in the first quarter of 2020 as a result of COVID-19 making it virtually impossible for top surgeons to travel internationally. In addition, Proximie completed a successful Series A fundraising round last year, which included backing from international venture capital firm, Global Ventures.

“I really believe that the future of surgery is about digitizing the operating room, making sure that we grab at such a rich experience in an operating room, from multiple data sets that are going to be valuable to the end user, to the surgeon and to the hospital,” Hachach-Haram told Worth. “I’m hopeful, because I’m already seeing it with Proximie…that we’re improving access. There are so many stories where, because of Proximie, we were able to deliver a life-saving operation to someone…I’m hopeful that we continue to drive quality in surgery and make sure that no one ever feels that they don’t get access to the best care the first time, every time.”

“We’re combining the best of human expertise with technology,” she concluded, “but we’re ultimately changing lives.”

Kathrin Hamm Founder and CEO, Bearaby

Kathrin Hamm

Hamm is founder and CEO of Bearaby, which she launched in 2018, and the blanket brand quickly became a bestseller in its category. Bearaby is known and designed to help its customers get better sleep. Due to the stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic, Bearaby’s success has only continued to grow, which has led Hamm to revisit her marketing strategies for the company.

“The pandemic has made me rethink the so-called DTC playbook and go back to fundamental business practices in some aspects,” she told Modern Retail in 2020. “Branding can be easily copied by someone with more money and putting out a beautiful Instagram feed. But putting out a thoughtful and relevant product with a specific price point requires a supply chain.”

Mellody Hobson President and Co-CEO, Ariel Investments; and Chairwoman, Starbucks

Photo by Michael Cohen / Getty Images for The New York Times

Hobson is no stranger to our Groundbreakers list. She was named to 2020’s list for becoming co-CEO of Ariel Investments, the largest African American-owned investment firm with $12.8 billion in AUM. In 2021, she makes our list again after being named chairwoman of Starbucks, a company whose board she has sat on since 2005. This achievement is exciting in its own right, but it is even more monumental due to the fact that she will be the first Black woman to chair an S&P 500 company. When discussing Hobson with Vanity Fair back in 2015, Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg said: “[Hobson] said she wanted to be unapologetically Black and unapologetically a woman.”

Ella Jones Mayor, Ferguson, Missouri
Ella Jones

Christian Gooden/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Six years after Ferguson, Mo. erupted in protests after a white police officer shot and killed Black teenager Michael Brown, propelling Ferguson into the national spotlight and galvanizing the Black Lives Matter movement, Ella Jones was elected as the first Black and first woman mayor of the town. 

In 2015, Jones became the first Black woman elected to the city council member in Ferguson, but she lost her first bid for mayor in 2017. Last year, however, the numbers were finally in her favor; she prevailed with 53 percent of the vote.

“My election gives people hope,” she told The New York Times in an interview. “Everybody is looking for a change, everybody wants to have a better way of life. You don’t want to go four blocks and worry about getting shot, nobody wants that. It is starting to get better. We are making changes.”

Related How Ellevest Is Making Sure Your Investments Benefit All Women

Sabine Keller-Busse President, UBS Switzerland

Sabine Keller-Busse

The current group COO and president of EMEA, Keller-Busse began her time with UBS back in 2010 as the COO of UBS Switzerland. But in December, it was announced that she would succeed Axel P. Lehmann as president of personal and corporate banking and president of UBS Switzerland. She took over in February of this year, marking the first time a woman has ever held this position.

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