Sometimes heroes go unnoticed. They work hard, focus on their goals, and don’t expect recognition or reverence because they are simply deeply passionate about pursuing their dreams and challenging the status quo. There are many women to celebrate in the world right now who are facing the hardest challenges of all: securing a safe place to spend the night; finding food, water, and shelter for their children and elders; or getting access to basic hygiene and medical care. McKinsey research shows women have felt the greatest impact from the global pandemic. Many, including displaced refugees, still face even tougher times.
We started profiling women innovators in early 2021 on International Women’s Day to celebrate and recognize unsung pioneers, because every list we could find of leading innovators was largely dominated by men. Our objective was not to create a ranking system but to document a set of profiles, similar to the Getty Images Lean In Collection, that could inspire us with examples. The original article generated a groundswell of excitement and support from our McKinsey colleagues, friends, clients, and other readers, who were inspired to send us more examples for future lists. This edition of Top Women Innovators, largely sourced from those responses, is dedicated to the heroic women currently facing extreme conditions. In the spirit of perseverance, we’re highlighting corporate, academic, and entrepreneurial women from different parts of the globe who are creating breakthroughs across the world’s most challenging topics. These women leaders are pioneering new frontiers and building legacies in agriculture, banking, beauty, education, fashion, healthcare, and high tech.
The success of many of the women highlighted below could have been jeopardized by gender, cultural, structural, or societal obstacles. Instead, they used their unique insights, passion, and perseverance to bring new ideas to life, disrupt business models, break industry norms, and coach the next generation of innovators. Their impact has elevated them to the top of academic, industry, cultural, and nonprofit circles.
Annabelle Huang has gone from the top student in high school STEM classes in China, to high honors in mathematics at Carnegie Mellon University, to a leading female figure in blockchain. Throughout, she’s gracefully navigated otherwise male-dominated fields to effect real change. Before transitioning into digital assets, Huang worked on Wall Street advising private-equity funds, US corporations, and hedge funds on structured solutions. In 2018, she took a leap of faith into the cryptocurrency world, with a vision to transform traditional finance with blockchain technology.
After being the Asia lead at AirSwap, a decentralized trading platform enabling peer-to-peer trading on the Ethereum blockchain, Huang is now a managing partner at Amber Group, overseeing global expansion of institutional and retail product offerings. Founded in 2017, Amber Group is a leading global digital-asset platform, operating 24/7 with 12 offices on six continents. Amber Group has more than $5 billion in assets under management and to date has cumulatively traded more than $1 trillion. In 2021, it raised $100 million in Series B funding and became the latest fintech unicorn valued at more than $1 billion.
An active voice on issues concerning blockchain development and crypto adoption, Huang has been a speaker at events such as Dubai World Blockchain Summit, TOKEN2049 London, and LA Blockchain Summit, as well as featured in publications such as Bloomberg, Business Insider, Yahoo Finance, CoinDesk, and Cointegraph. “Females have an advantage in the crypto finance world,” she said. “We lack female thought leadership here, thus presenting great opportunities.” Huang is committed to supporting people who just tiptoed into the crypto industry and encouraging more women to be part of the conversation. She is a mentor of the Female Entrepreneurs Worldwide (FEW) Incubator, Asia DeFi Network, and Brinc Accelerator.
Cristina Junqueira, cofounder of Nubank, is an entrepreneur in the fintech space. With a background in engineering, Junqueira made her way through management consulting and landed a job supervising a credit card portfolio at one of Brazil’s largest banks. Hoping to create change in the industry, Junqueira in 2013 cofounded Nubank, a user-friendly app providing digital financial services to more than 53 million customers across Latin America.
Today, Nubank is one of the largest digital-banking platforms in the world. During its inception and growth, Junqueira gave birth to three daughters and has been a fearless supporter of gender inclusion in the workplace. Her contribution to the fintech industry and female empowerment in entrepreneurship has been recognized by Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list, and she’s also been featured in numerous fintech magazines as one of the most prominent start-up founders in Latin America. Citing Wonder Woman and Margaret Thatcher as inspirations, Cristina Junqueira is clear: “I want my daughters to grow up in a world where they can dream of being whoever they want to be—and you can’t dream of what you can’t see.”
I want my daughters to grow up in a world where they can dream of being whoever they want to be—and you can’t dream of what you can’t see.
Diane von Furstenburg
Diane von Furstenburg is a fashion designer, philanthropist, and founder and chairwoman of the company that bears her name. In 1974, von Furstenburg created the iconic wrap dress, which became a symbol of power and independence for women and grew into a global brand. She’s been a champion of women her entire life, supporting and empowering emerging women leaders across the globe.
In 2010, with the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, she established the DVF Awards to honor and provide grants to women who have displayed leadership, strength, and courage in their commitment to their causes. She chaired the Council of Fashion Designers of America from 2006 to 2019, which awarded her with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 and the Swarovski Award for Positive Change in 2016.
Von Furstenburg currently serves on the boards of Vital Voices, the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, and the Statue of Liberty–Ellis Island Foundation. She has written several books, including Diane: A Signature Life; The Woman I Wanted to Be, which was translated into eight languages; and the recently released Own It: The Secret to Life.
Jennifer Doudna is a pioneer in biochemistry. She has solved some of the most complex biological structures via X-ray crystallography and harnessed the power of gene editing with CRISPR technology.
Together with Emmanuelle Charpentier, Doudna was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020—making them only the sixth and seventh women Nobel Laureates in their field, and the first all-woman team to receive a Nobel science prize. Doudna and Charpentier developed technology for targeted genome editing using CRISPR, genetic scissors that forever altered the field of biochemistry by enabling scientists to change DNA with high precision. She is the cofounder of multiple companies, including Caribou Biosciences, which uses CRISPR gene-editing technology to develop transformative therapies for patients with devastating diseases such as cancer; and Mammoth Biosciences, which focuses on improving access to diagnostic tests that address challenges across healthcare (including COVID-19), agriculture, environmental monitoring, and biodefense. She is also a U.C. Berkeley professor, a Howard Hughes and Gladstone investigator, president of the Innovative Genomics Institute, and a thought leader on the ethics of gene editing.
Doudna grew up on Hawaii’s Big Island, where the abundance of nature surrounding her sparked her curiosity and eventually led her to build a career as a top molecular biologist. A few decades later, Doudna was selected by Time magazine as one of the “100 most influential people” in the world.
Laura Boccanfuso started her PhD in computer science after being a stay-at-home mother for eight years to her three kids. She’s been building AI-enabled classroom tutors ever since. As the founder and CEO of Van Robotics, Boccanfuso wrote the original code in her home workshop while undertaking postdoctoral studies at Yale University, far from her home base in South Carolina. Her mission? To find ways to support children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other special needs, in their classroom learning time.
Like all entrepreneurs, Boccanfuso faced pushback when she initially approached venture capitalists (VCs) to fund her business. Yet her hurdles were different: one VC wouldn’t support her because her husband wasn’t part of the business or leading it with her, and another because she held too much equity, even though it was her first round of funding. “There was this perception that women don’t have technical capabilities,” Boccanfuso said, adding VCs would address technical questions to men even though she wrote the code herself. VCs also pushed her to design a retail model of her robot, named “ABii,” even though its purpose was to support classroom learning—not double as a babysitter or tutor. Boccanfuso ignored them and found talent and resources from her academic circles in child development and robotics, and ABii by Van Robotics is now being used in schools and homes in 38 US states and seven countries. More than 100,000 students and teachers have already benefited from robotic reinforcement in the classroom—as well as from Boccanfuso’s experience as a stay-at-home mother, which helped her build a learner-centric, school-based solution. “I think moms are phenomenal problem solvers,” she said.
Mariana Costa Checa
Mariana Costa Checa is a Peruvian businesswoman and the founder of the education nonprofit Laboratoria, which is addressing one of the toughest challenges facing the modern workforce: providing training and upskilling needed to elevate the playing field for underemployed women. By focusing on high-demand digital skills such as web development and user experience design, Costa’s social enterprise is preparing women who have been out of the workforce, or employed in low-paying jobs, to launch and grow promising careers in technology.
After graduating from the London School of Economics and Columbia University, Costa returned to her native Peru. She started a web development company but was inspired to create Laboratoria when she noticed very few women working in the field. The start-up began in Peru in 2014 as a six-month intensive bootcamp with 15 students. It’s now in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and soon the rest of Latin America, and has graduated more than 2,400 women, with an employment placement rate of more than 85 percent since 2019. Its graduates have worked in more than 950 companies across industries, increasing their incomes by an average of 2.7 times and contributing to closing the talent and gender gap in tech.
Costa has received countless corporate and media awards for her disruptive way of tackling one of society’s greatest problems, and even had a Mattel Barbie doll made in her likeness. “Our work at Laboratoria is a bet on the talent of Latin American women,” she said. “With the digital economy transforming our region, we want to make sure women can benefit from its opportunities and be part of building our future as technology creators.
Naomi Kelman is a business leader with a track record of driving successful product and commercial-model innovation across the consumer and healthcare sectors. She’s always been inspired by learning new things, from studying a wide range of disciplines in college (including astronomy with Carl Sagan) to living in France (learning the language along the way) and becoming an entrepreneur creating a life-changing product for moms.
After business school, Kelman worked briefly in finance at American Express before joining Bristol Myers Squibb’s Clairol division, where she fell in love with consumer marketing and rose to launch and lead iconic brands such as Matrix Hair Care and the expansion of Herbal Essences throughout Europe. She spent many years at the helm of market-leading healthcare companies within the Johnson & Johnson family, headed Novartis’s $3.5 billion over-the-counter business, and was the first woman member of the Novartis executive committee. Kelman’s yearning for innovation then led her to the start-up world, where she successfully developed and launched the world’s first “in your bra” quiet breast pump, revolutionizing the industry as CEO of Willow.
An instrument-rated pilot, Kelman is also on the board of multiple leading organizations, including National Vision, binx health, Brilliant smart-home controls, Mirvie, and Blue River PetCare. “Creating a safe environment for innovation is really what you need to do to get the greatness out of the people who work with you, which is ultimately what drives growth,” she said.
Creating a safe environment for innovation is really what you need to do to get the greatness out of the people who work with you.
Sara Menker is an entrepreneur, CEO, trustee of the Mandela Institute for Development Studies, and was elected one of the World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders. She was born and raised in Ethiopia, but it was while working as a commodities trader on Wall Street that she saw firsthand how new methods of using data could completely transform the way energy markets function, allowing longer-term thinking, innovative approaches to managing risk, and new investments.
Menker also saw how data could be applied to a problem of existential importance: ensuring global food security in an unstable world dealing with the twin challenges of population growth and climate change. The global agricultural supply chain is both hugely interconnected and incredibly fragmented from a data perspective. This lack of information has resulted in market failures that allow large caloric surpluses to exist in some places, while other regions (and humanity as a whole) face the potential of massive deficits and commensurate human suffering.
To help solve this problem, Menker founded Gro Intelligence, an AI-powered analytics company that illuminates the interrelationships between Earth’s ecology and our human economy. By organizing the world’s vast amounts of agricultural and climate data and building innovative predictive analytics, Gro allows corporations, financial institutions, and governments to “see around the corner” and make better decisions about how to feed the world. Gro Intelligence has offices in Nairobi, New York, and Singapore, and has raised more than $125 million in funding with an expanding platform of agricultural and climate analytics that aims, in Menker’s words, to track “the real-time supply and demand of every agricultural product on Earth.”
Sue Siegel has dedicated her life to improving human lives and livelihoods. Her career spans multiple S-curves of innovation, from the era of genomics to the forefront of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and digitization across industries. Born in the Philippines and raised in Puerto Rico, Siegel did graduate work in molecular biology and biochemistry in Boston and began her corporate career with roles at Bio-Rad, DuPont, and Amersham. She then became president and board member of Affymetrix, where she drove the company’s transformation from a prerevenue startup to a global genomics leader with a multibillion-dollar market value.
Siegel then became a general partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures in Silicon Valley, spearheading investments in personalized medicine, digital health, and life sciences. Based on her record of predicting and pursuing industry-shaping innovation, she was recruited to GE to lead its Healthymagination business and to create GE Ventures, serving as its CEO before expanding her responsibilities to become GE’s chief innovation officer. Siegel has served on more than 20 public, private corporate, and nonprofit boards, and chairs MIT’s The Engine, an accelerator and venture firm that invests in early-stage, groundbreaking “Tough Tech” companies.
If you personally know someone who should be highlighted in future editions of our Women Innovators series, please send a short profile and introduction to TopInnovators@mckinsey.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Laura Furstenthal is a senior partner in McKinsey’s San Francisco office, where Tiffany Qiang and Paige Xu are consultants. Dinah Hanson is a consultant in the London office, and Risha Kaushal is a consultant in the New York office. Katie Lelarge is a practice manager in the Stamford office.
These are some of the women whose devotion to innovation is inspiring.
By Laura Furstenthal, Katie Lelarge, Tiffany Qiang, and Mateusz Trzaska
Back in 2015, the New York Times startled us with the headline, “Fewer women run big companies than men named John.” Four years later, a ranking of the 100 most-innovative leaders in the United States contained just one woman. In response to criticism of the profound lack of diversity showcased by the list, the publication’s editor acknowledged that women never stood a chance, given the first filter in their data-driven methodology was possession of the CEO title.
In our work, our innovation practice sees women leading important corporate innovations all the time. As women’s history month came and went this year along with World Innovation and Creativity Day, we thought again about those past news items and about how we would like to see women innovators celebrated for their accomplishments and drive more often. So, in a quest to highlight (and foster) a more diverse reality, we embarked on an effort to compile our own list of female innovators—individuals willing to take bold risks to push boundaries in their fields.
To our dismay, our initial online research brought forth more historical figures than today’s female innovators (women such as radiochemist Marie Curie and actress Hedy Lamarr, who co-invented a precursor to GPS and Wi-Fi known as frequency hopping, appeared often in our searches). This motivated us in two ways: it made us want to identify and celebrate innovative women of our time even more, and we recognized that no existing data set would generate a quantifiably defensible list of such women. We simply want to identify and share stories of women innovators that we can discuss with our mothers, daughters, and friends. In that spirit, we seek here to start a repository of profiles, similar to Getty Images’ photo collection of Women in STEM, that will contribute to efforts to recast the innovation story we hear today.
This initial list of women innovators started with an email to our “Innonet,” the core innovation community at McKinsey that spans more than 2,500 innovators, designers, and business builders across the globe. And when we highlighted three female guests in our Committed Innovator podcast series (Beth Comstock, Anjali Sud, and Ireena Vittal), we asked listeners to name other female innovators they’d like to hear from.
A tsunami of nominations flooded our inboxes, complete with anecdotes and enthusiastic comments. Our colleagues responded with favorable feedback like, “This thread you started has given me such a boost. I love it. Thank you!!!” and “What an inspiring set of messages to wake up to this morning!” To date, we have received more than 150 stories about innovative women around the world, from which we compiled this initial list of women innovators who demonstrate the kind of innovative thinking and leadership we find admirable.
This initial group of profiles showcases just some of the female innovators who inspire us. It is not exhaustive, and it is not an official McKinsey list, or crowning of a single winner, or ranking of achievements. Rather, it is one step toward building a community that can help set aspirations for us all. Innovation is not a winner-take-all topic; it is an iterative, collaborative undertaking. We will continue to crowdsource more candidates and share their stories to inspire ourselves and others, break down orthodoxies, and combat traditional biases.
María Paula Arregui: Arregui is the senior vice president of Brazil’s MercadoPago, the financial arm of MercadoLibre’s e-commerce platform that is one of Latin America’s largest tech companies. Under Arregui’s leadership, the fledgling company has surpassed the parent business’s volume by pursuing payment digitization on and off the e-commerce platform. By forging an innovation ecosystem, the company is also fostering financial inclusion on a continent with low individual-banking and credit-card penetration.
Natalie Madeira Cofield: Founder of Walker’s Legacy, a digital platform that empowers women through entrepreneurship, Cofield was featured in Entrepreneur magazine’s “100 Powerful Women” list in 2020. She recently joined the US government as assistant administrator for the Office of Women’s Business Ownership in the Small Business Administration.
Stephanie Cohen: As the global co-head of consumer and wealth management at Goldman Sachs, Cohen brings an innovative approach to traditional consumer banking, where she is building a leading digital-banking platform through the company’s online bank, Marcus, and embedding those capabilities into partner ecosystems. Based in New York, Cohen is also a member of Goldman Sachs’ management committee. In her previous role as chief strategy officer, she led efforts to make the firm a more inclusive workplace through programs such as Launch with GS, a $1 billion commitment to invest in companies and asset managers with diverse leadership. In 2018, she also launched GS Accelerate, the firm’s in-house innovation incubator that helps employees bring their start-up ideas to life.
Samantha Du: Du has been instrumental in placing China on the global biotech map. She’s the founder, chair, and CEO of Zai Lab, one of the first China-headquartered biotech companies focused on developing and delivering transformative medicines for cancer and for autoimmune and infectious diseases to patients in China and around the world. Her leadership of Zai Lab has resulted in the company commercially launching innovative drugs in Greater China and advancing clinical-stage products in record time. Du began her research career with Pfizer in the United States, where she became the global head of metabolics licensing on the scientific side.
Regina E. Dugan: The 19th director of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Dugan was the first woman to lead the agency. Some of her earliest work included developing portable systems to detect the explosive content of landmines. She also led projects ranging from hypersonics to RNA-based vaccines. After DARPA, she went on to take senior innovation roles at leading technology companies, including Facebook and Google, where she worked on advanced authentication technology, mobile and consumer electronics, and new media. As an executive producer, she has been nominated for an Emmy and an Academy Award. She is currently CEO at Wellcome Leap, an organization dedicated to creating breakthroughs in human health.
Etleva Kadilli, Aurélia Nguyen, Kate O’Brien, and Melanie Saville: These four women are the workstream conveners of COVAX. They are the glue bringing together four different organizations (CEPI, Gavi, Unicef, and WHO) and the brain behind a long list of global-first innovations, including new financing, contracting and distribution mechanisms, or a no-fault compensation scheme. These are all mission-critical to procuring and delivering at least two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to all countries in the world. The first doses were delivered three months faster than were the vaccines for the H1N1 flu, and they reached 100 countries less than 50 days after the first international delivery.
Katalin Karikó: This Hungarian biochemistry pioneer has spent decades researching messenger RNA (mRNA), a molecule critical to protein synthesis. Despite multiple setbacks, Karikó stood by her conviction that mRNA could have important therapeutic applications. She was instrumental in developing BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine (licensed by Pfizer). She is now a likely contender for the Nobel Prize in medicine.
Fei-Fei Li: The inaugural Sequoia Professor in the computer science department at Stanford University and the co-director of Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered AI, Li is an elected member of the National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Medicine. She was vice president at Google, served as chief scientist of AI and machine learning at Google Cloud, and has been a Twitter board member since 2020. She is also cofounder and chair of the board of AI4ALL, a US-based educational nonprofit organization. Li is the lead inventor of ImageNet and the ImageNet Challenge, a critical large-scale data-set and benchmarking effort. She is a pioneer in AI, machine learning, and computer vision. Her current work includes vision and robotic learning, as well as research on how AI smart sensors and deep-learning algorithms can help older people lead healthier, more independent lives.
Maitê Lourenço: Lourenço is the CEO of São Paulo’s BlackRocks Startups, a business accelerator she founded in 2016 to give Black entrepreneurs better access to technologically innovative environments. In recent years, BlackRocks has attracted major corporate backers to aid Black-owned businesses. It has helped accelerate and scale start-ups like software-testing firm Inova QA and AI start-up Juntos Campus.
Mariana Mazzucato: As founding director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at University College London, Mariana is an Italian-born professor focused on reinventing capitalism to serve the common good. She is the author of three highly acclaimed books: The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs Private Sector Myths (Anthem Press, June 2013), The Value of Everything: Making and Taking in the Global Economy (Allen Lane, 2018), and the newly released, Mission Economy: A Moonshot Guide to Changing Capitalism (Allen Lane, January 2021). Pope Francis has spoken in support of Mariana’s research and invited her to join the Vatican’s Economic Taskforce within its COVID-19 commission, and her work helped the European Commission redesign its innovation policy toward being more mission oriented. She is chair of the World Health Organization’s Economic Council on Health for All and a member of the South African President’s Economic Advisory Council, the Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers, and the United Nations High-Level Advisory Board (HLAB) on Economic and Social Affairs.
Melanie Perkins: Perkins is CEO and cofounder of Canva, a Sydney-based visual-communications platform used across industries for social-media graphics, presentations, posters, documents, and other visual content. More than 55 million users in 190 countries use Canva to create visual content in more than 100 languages. Canva’s goal is to simplify the design process. Today, more than 85 percent of the Fortune 500 uses Canva, with more than 250 million presentations created to date.
Anne Wojcicki: Wojcicki is cofounder and CEO of 23andMe, a direct-to-consumer genetics and research company that allows people to test for ancestry and health risks. It was founded just three years after the first human genome was sequenced. The company’s personal genome test kit was named “invention of the year” by TIME magazine in 2008. Beginning in 2015, the FDA has given approval to 23andMe’s health-related tests, including risk from cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, certain cancers, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and celiac disease. The company is named for the 23 pairs of chromosomes in a normal human cell.
A list of this sort can never be complete. What we particularly like about this group is their diversity—geographical, cultural, and professional. We are excited by the wide range of impact they are making: creating great companies, radically advancing science, and laying foundations that others (including other women) can build on in the future.
We also find it important to note that these women are at different points in their career trajectories. Some already have created a lifetime of impact in the public sphere. Others have had to wait for their innovations, and their contributions to them, to be recognized. For others who are seeking to create societal changes, the work will take more time. While this is sometimes a challenge to overcome, it’s a reality that speaks to the experience of many women, whose participation in the workforce often has a nontraditional cadence and progression.
Given the growing number of candidates being suggested to us, we will share more stories in the coming months. Which women innovators or other unsung heroes inspire you? Whom should we all be celebrating in our dinner-table conversations and around the virtual campfire? If you have an inspiring story to share about a woman innovator, please briefly tell us their story: TopInnovators@mckinsey.com.
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