In almost every country and almost every business sector, women face additional barriers when pursuing a career. To reach the top they have to be tougher, smarter and braver than their male colleagues. What is perhaps even more challenging is believing in themselves in the first place. It’s difficult to imagine oneself in a position of authority if one doesn’t see anybody else like oneself in that position already. These six women have overcome the odds to achieve their dreams and build highly successful careers. Now they are visible role models for the next generation of ambitious women.
The undisputed most powerful woman in business anywhere in the world, General Motors CEO and chair Mary Barra first got into automobiles as a teenager, working as a mechanic to pay her way through college. Studying electrical engineering and business administration, she worked her way up to become vice president of Global Manufacturing Engineering, going on to hold equivalent positions in Global Human Resources and Global Product Development. In her current role she has focused heavily on technology and the advance of the driverless car. She also sits on the board of Disney and serves on the Business Council in Washington.
Janice Bryant Howroyd
The only black child in a North Carolina high school where her teacher told her she was only fit to be a slave, Janice Bryant Howroyd won a scholarship and earned a degree in English, going on to work for her brother-in-law at Billboard magazine. The skills, contacts and industry knowledge that she picked up within just a few months enabled her to launch her own business, the ACT-1 group, which delivers employment and HR solutions to leading businesses and now operates in 19 countries worldwide. Her success has led to senior roles with the Department of Labor, the Department of Commerce and the Trade Advisory Committee.
As a girl growing up in the remote community of Fort Chipewyan, Alta, Teara Fraser dreamed of becoming a pilot – but with limited access to funds, it seemed impossible. After a tough battle to get through training, she went on to fly for Hawkair and launch her own aerial survey business. Buying her own aircraft, she went on to set up Iskwew Air, based in Vancouver, connecting indigenous communities. By giving community members much easier access to international travel, she has opened up business opportunities in deprived areas. Her airline has also given a boost to tourism in the areas she serves, and she has big plans for expansion.
Former chair of the UK’s Institute of Directors Lady Barbara Judge, who also spent a period as head of the country’s Atomic Energy Authority, credits her mother for setting her on the right path by pointing out that there’s more to life than marriage and children. She studied Medieval history and law and worked as a corporate lawyer until 1980 when President Carter appointed her to the Securities and Exchange Commission, where she made an impression by improving foreign trade links. She has since worked in pension protection and fraud prevention, invested heavily in the tech sector and lent her expertise to health-related charities.
Despite its image as a hyper-modern society. Japan still presents barriers to women who want to move into senior business roles. Miki Itô, who was inspired by the film Independence Day when she saw it as a teenager, beat the odds through sheer hard work and determination, getting a degree in aerospace engineering from Nihon University, working as a satellite engineer and going on to become president of Astroscale Japan, a company dedicated to clearing up junk in near Earth orbit to make it a safer place for satellites and space stations. Not concerned with coming across as feminine, she focused instead on her passion.
Wonya Y Lucas
A graduate in industrial engineering, Wonya Y Lucas had a natural talent for marketing but never expected to do much with it until her husband encouraged her to pursue an opening at the Weather Channel, which wasn’t seen as an exciting prospect at the time. Realizing that his interest in the channel stemmed from the emotional impact of weather, and that this also applied to its wider audience, she turned its fortunes around, making it the giant it is today. She went on to serve as executive vice president there before moving on to take an equivalent role at Discovery and subsequently become president and CEO of PBS Atlanta.
These women’s stories show that you don’t have to come from a rich family, know the right people or, indeed, be a man in order to build a successful career in business. There are many routes through which to do so. Their hard work and ambition has carried them all the way to the top.
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