Bold, inspirational, compassionate and collaborative: these are just a few words to describe the 13 women highlighted on this list — all movers and shakers in their respective fields. And not only are these women at the top of their career game, they support and inspire the women on the rise around them. From growing a career to growing a social media following to drive change, from saving money to saving the planet, these 13 women trailblazers share inspirational words of wisdom that can be applied to any career field or life challenge. And the advice doesn’t stop with this list — read on then click through after each person to read about even more incredible women.
Don’t just look for a new job when the going gets tough.
Nykia Wright, CEO of the Chicago Sun-Times
Nykia Wright is the CEO of the Chicago Sun-Times, the oldest, continuously published news publication in Illinois. As a mover and shaker in the journalism industry, she is responsible for implementing the company’s digital transformation.
Wright believes young people can sometimes create a positive change simply by staying the course.
“I believe that the next generation’s workforce switches jobs too often,” she said. “Leadership muscle is strengthened when one experiences success and disappointment and true wisdom is born from disappointment. I would encourage people to see more of the organization’s shortcomings and try to help overcome them before leaving a post so quickly.”
Better named Wright one of Chicago’s 2021 Most Powerful Women. See the full list.
Find that one thing that really sets you apart, and tell the world your story.
Cheryl Berman, Founder and CEO of Unbundled Creative
“The future is FEMALE,” says Cheryl Berman, a creative branding guru and the Chief Creative Officer for the Make it Better Media Group. “Not only do women drive 90 percent of all purchases, they are also driving the trend toward cause-related purchases.”
Berman uses these facts to drive home the point that companies need to pay close and careful attention to their female audiences, and make sure their brands are relevant, authentic and differentiated — as well as communicated in truthful and human ways, something she refers to as “digital humanity.”
She urges women on the rise to “find your differentiator, whether it’s within your own business or just for yourself. Find that one thing that really sets you apart, and tell the world your story.”
Berman shared this advice during a panel discussion along with Erin Clifford, Zoe Elton, Nurit Raphael, Kathy Roeser and Megan Gailey. Read the advice from the other panelists.
Never be afraid to ask for help and guidance in your career.
Susan Abrams, CEO of Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center
Susan Abrams was appointed CEO of Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in April 2014, with more than 25 years of nonprofit and business management experience. Under her leadership, the museum is leading globally in Holocaust and museum education. Abrams previously served as the COO for JCC Chicago. She has held leadership positions at Northwestern University and Chicago Children’s Museum, where she was instrumental in the planning and execution of the museum’s move to Navy Pier. She also has worked as a consultant at McKinsey & Company and an analyst at Goldman Sachs. Abrams is also the author of “The New Success Rules for Women: 10 Surefire Strategies for Reaching Your Career Goals” (Random House, 2000) and regularly speaks to students, alumni, and professional women’s groups on related topics.
During a 2019 celebration of women on the rise, Abrams joined a panel of influential CEOs, founders, and directors, including Nooshin Behroyan, Founder/CEO of Paxon Energy and Infrastructure Services and Silvia Orizaba, Founder of Sacred CBD, all of whom shared their inspiring stories and career wisdom.
“If you let people know what you want to do, they will want to help you,” Abrams said.
Don’t be afraid to mess up — just be yourself.
Dorri McWhorter, President of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago
During a virtual Founder’s Fireside Chat moderated by Susan B. Noyes, founder of Make It Better Media Group, Dorri McWhorter, president of the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago joined Michelle T. Boone, president of the Poetry Foundation, shared insightful career advice and discussed what it means to be an effective leader in 2022.
Before transitioning to the nonprofit sector, McWhorter had a very linear path as a CPA, ultimately serving as partner at the accounting firm Crowe Horwath. Prior to her current role at the YMCA, McWhorter served as the CEO of YWCA, where she grew the annual operating budget to $10.5 million to $38 million.
“For me it was how do I work in the business of making the world a better place?” McWhorter recalled when reflecting on her career shift.
When asked how she’s built confidence over the course of her career, McWhorter was refreshingly honest.
“It’s not actually that I have confidence, I’m just not afraid to mess up more than the next guy,” McWhorter said with a chuckle. “Show up in your authenticity because everyone is struggling to figure it out so you might as well be yourself.”
People from diverse groups need to work together to create meaningful solutions.
Ellen Alberding, President and Board Member of the Joyce Foundation
Ellen Alberding is the president and a board member of the Joyce Foundation, which funds the development and advancement of policy reforms to address racial equity and economic mobility for the next generation. She is also one of the founders of the Partnership for Safe and Peaceful Communities, investing in strategies to reduce gun violence in Chicago.
“Mass shootings are horrifying and rightly get a lot of media attention but account for just a fraction of gun homicides in the U.S.,” Alberding told the Chicago Tribune. “They are far outpaced by the daily scourge of urban gun violence, which is fueled by the easy availability of firearms and has a devastating impact on communities of color. Police shootings are another factor creating justified outrage. It’s time to bring together police, clergy, ex-offenders, elected leaders, young people, policy advocates and others for a broader conversation about solutions to reduce gun violence.”
Better named Alberding one of Chicago’s top philanthropists in 2021. See the full list.
Don’t question whether your hard work is worth it — it is.
Kimbra Bell Balark, Medical Director at the Bronzeville Advanced Outpatient Care Center
During the Covid-19 crisis and every day, Kimbra Bell Balark makes a difference in the health and lives of her fellow Chicagoans. She is an accomplished internal medicine physician and clinical assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. In 2021, she was named medical director at the Bronzeville Advanced Outpatient Care Center.
Providing care for patients and teaching medical students and residents are passions for Balark. During the Covid-19 crisis, she frequently volunteered with Northwestern’s Covid-19 hotline and was a virtual speaker at seminars to help minimize the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable populations. She advises Black young professional women to persevere. “Sometimes you find yourself thinking, ‘Is this really worth it?’ she says. “The answer is ‘Yes. It is.’ Keep your eye on the prize and persevere and be sure to surround yourself with a strong support network.”
Be thoughtful about how your actions impact the earth and those around you.
Sibylle Szaggars Redford, Multimedia Environmental Artist
The monsoon rains that sweep across the high deserts of the Southwest every year have long held deep significance for Sibylle Szaggars Redford, the multimedia environmental artist and wife of Robert Redford. Drawing from this inspiration, Sibylle collaborated with musicians, dancers, and other artists in works staged across the globe to conceive an interactive, interdisciplinary performance piece called “The Way of the Rain,” which raises awareness of climate change and invites the audience to remember their physical and spiritual connection to our planet’s beauty and plight. In 2015, the Sundance Film Festival presented “The Way of the Rain” as an official selection — and later that year, inspired by its impact and success, Sibylle established a New Mexico-based nonprofit, The Way of the Rain Inc.
Szaggars Redford believes art has the power to inspire us to be more thoughtful about our actions.
“Art has the ability to reach each of us on a deep level,” she says. “To inspire us to ask ourselves, ‘How will I take part in this world?’ ‘How do my actions impact the earth?’ And, ‘How can I be more conscious?'”
If the solution you’re seeking doesn’t exist, innovate.
Ming Zhao, Co-Founder and CEO, Proven
According to cofounder Ming Zhao, Proven skincare is a “brand for people who simply didn’t have the time for constantly looking for and trying skincare products in the hope that something would work.” This tech-enhanced line offers personalized skincare products derived through the use of artificial intelligence (AI). Zhao, who emigrated with her family from China to Southern Florida at age 12, earned an MBA from Harvard Business School and had established a successful career in finance before she decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and become an entrepreneur.
At the time, Zhao was using guesswork to determine which products were right for her skin issues, and did not find solutions until she went to a specialist. It was then that she realized that while personalized medicine is the de facto form of medicine, we do not take a similar approach with our skin. Proven’s Skin Genome Project is a skincare database that analyzes the effectiveness of skincare ingredients and factors such as the water hardness, humidity level and UV index of where a person lives. The process is well-suited to technology: consumers take a quiz that analyzes more than 47 factors about their heritage, lifestyle and environment in order to determine the right products. Zhao notes that she founded the company when she was pregnant, so her two “babies” are the same age.
Zhao is in good company among other inspiring Bay Area tech leaders reinventing our approach to health, wellness and beauty. Read about more of them in Marin Magazine.
Don’t be afraid to speak up — change starts with your voice.
Kate Maehr, CEO of Greater Chicago Food Depository
The need for food across Chicagoland has stunned Greater Chicago Food Depository (GCFD) Executive Director and CEO Kate Maehr, but it has never disheartened her.
“Every time I go out to a distribution, I’m just struck that every single person standing in line is a person with a life, with a family, with a story—and those lines just go on for blocks and blocks,” Maehr said.
Maehr has held her current title since 2006, but her career with GCFD began in 1996 as part of its external affairs team. She also serves as a board member for Feeding America and was appointed co-chair of the recently rebooted Illinois Commission to End Hunger, among other affiliations.
Even during the tumultuousness of the pandemic, Maehr has been humbled and inspired by the countless volunteers who stood hand-in-hand with GCFD. For those volunteers as well as those on the receiving end, Maehr says she will continue to advocate, no matter what tomorrow brings.
“We do not have to live in a world where people struggle with something as basic as [access to nutritional] food,” Maehr said. “We do have the ability to change that, but it starts with our voice.”
Read more about Maehr and five other leaders bringing positive change to the Chicago area.
When women lift each other up, they unlock a new level of power and potential.
Brit Morin, Entrepreneur and Founder of Brit + Co and Selfmade
Brit Morin has already forged a path to success through her women’s lifestyle and education platform Brit + Co, her iHeartRadio Podcast, Teach Me Something New, and as cofounder of the $100 million VC fund Offline Ventures.
But the 35-year-old Mill Valley resident’s latest venture speaks to her values and passion: to help women reach their potential. That’s the inspiration for Selfmade, a 10-week business accelerator she founded for female entrepreneurs.
“The power and harmony that come when women help women believe in themselves, take a risk, and transform their lives is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” Morin says.
Harness the power of social media when demanding and fighting for change.
Christina Mittermeier, Marine Biologist, Conservationist and Wildlife Photographer
Cristina Mittermeier and her partner, Paul Nicklen, are two of the world’s leading ocean conservationists, two of the world’s most-acclaimed nature photographers, and co-founders of the nonprofit, SeaLegacy, which harnesses visual storytelling to inspire millions of people to fight for our oceans and other areas threatened by climate change. Through SeaLegacy, Nicklen and Mittermeier have created a global network of renowned photographers, filmmakers and storytellers whose powerful media sparks conversation, instills hope, and inspires action.
Mittermeier and Nicklen were joined by legendary news anchor Bill Kurtis and famed producer Donna LaPietra for a moving conversation about saving the planet. The discussion was part of a virtual fundraiser for the nonprofit SeaLegacy, which uses powerful visual storytelling to inspire millions of people to fight for our oceans and other areas threatened by climate change.
During the conversation, Mittermeier shared how significant the impact of petitions and strength in numbers to demand change — and the role of social media in shoring up those numbers.
“There’s real power in social media when people come together,” Mittermeier said. “We have built our platform so that every piece of content is linked to an action that we can take together.”
It’s not how much you earn, but how much you save that really matters.
Helen Abe, Sr. Vice President Financial Advisor
Women as a group face many financial challenges. We earn less on average during our careers compared to men, and we compound that shortcoming by investing less. One in five divorced women lives in poverty.
All of these shortfalls send us into retirement with significantly smaller nest eggs than men have — yet we live longer, meaning we actually need more savings to cover our living expenses and medical care in later years.
As grim as all this sounds, financial advisor Helen Abe knows women don’t have to accept being limited by circumstances. She knows this because of her mother, an immigrant who earned just pennies for every piece of cloth she sewed together in a Chinatown sweatshop.
“My mother taught me that it’s not how much you earn, but how much you save that really matters,” Abe says.
In fact, through frugality—no vacations, no toys—Abe’s mother and father were able to save enough from their meager incomes to buy a home for themselves and their five children.
Today, Abe teaches financial literacy for women—in her mother’s honor. Read her top tips for helping women achieve their financial goals.
No individual or organization can do everything, but together, we are making big waves.
Dr. Sylvia Earle, marine biologist, conservationist and author
At 86 years old, world-renowned marine biologist, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, conservationist and author Dr. Sylvia Earle continues to be one of our most inspiring advocates for the protection of the world’s oceans. Named the first-ever Time magazine “Hero for the Planet,” and called “Her Deepness” by the New York Times and the New Yorker, Earle is also former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, founder of SEAlliance, and president and chairman of Mission Blue.
Having spent more than 7,000 hours underwater, led more than 100 expeditions, and authored countless publications, she knows all too well the threats our oceans face — but, she believes there is still room for optimism, and she’s on a mission to spread the message that while time is running out to save our oceans, it hasn’t yet. Earle’s comprehensive new book, National Geographic Ocean: A Global Odyssey, explores this theme and takes readers on an underwater tour of the world’s oceans, helping to broaden our understanding of their mysterious depths. We spoke to Earle about her new book, her ongoing mission, and what each of us can do to help.
How to Help:
Every woman on this list is doing their part to inspire and make a difference, and each of them has a cause they fight passionately for. To find a cause that speaks to you and inspires you to give back, check out our Guide to Better Giving for a robust list of worthy nonprofits.