From the Archives: Six Trailblazing Women You Should Know!
From legendary political rights activists, to Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, to postdocs at MIT, we’ve interviewed some pretty amazing women over the years. So this month—as a Galentine’s Day treat!—we wanted to take the time to highlight a few of the pioneering, butt-kicking heroines whose inspirational stories are an integral part of our archive:
Effie Brown: Producer, “Real Women Have Curves” & “Dear White People”
Effie Brown always wanted to save the world through storytelling. But as she was growing up, the traditional mediums weren’t exactly signaling that she’d ever be able to do it herself; no matter where she looked, be it film or television, she didn’t see women that looked like her.
“The only person doing anything at that time was Oprah, and she was just coming on the scene at the time…There was no ‘Black Panther,’ there was no anything!”
Luckily, that lack of representation didn’t stop Effie from pursuing a degree in film and video production—even if she did feel like she was fighting back imposter syndrome every step of the way.
What helped her finally find her self-confidence? Her mentor, Laurie Parker, who taught Effie that she could make it in the world of production, and showed her how women could best support other women in the industry.
We think Effie’s made her mentor proud—her breakout film “Real Women Have Curves” was deemed “culturally significant” by the Library of Congress for its portrayal of a Mexican-American woman in L.A., and (more informally) her legendary schooling of Matt Damon on “Project Greenlight” ignited a firestorm of internet conversation on representation in TV and film.
Since finding success, she’s made it her life’s work to amplify the stories of others from underrepresented groups—and she’s succeeded at that, too. She was recently named the CEO of Gamechanger, the first film financing fund by and for women.
“You have to lean back and help somebody else make their way up…Because the biggest lie that they tell us is that there is room for only one of us. And when you get to the top, you’re going to look to the left of you and the right of you, and you will see that there is room for more of us!”
Margaret Cho: Stand-up Comedian & Actress
We’ve interviewed tons of women that disprove that pesky stereotype that women aren’t funny (by the way, HOW is this still a thing?!?!), from improv legend Charna Halpern, to Garfunkel and Oates’ Kate Micucci. But when we revisit all of the hilarious ladies in our archive, one of our favorites is always the fiercely tenacious Margaret Cho.
Resisting surmounting pressure from her parents to get straight-A’s in school, 16-year-old Margaret ran away to San Francisco to instead pursue her dream of becoming a stand-up comedian.
But once there, she realized not only was the stand-up world incredibly competitive, but agents were hesitant to represent an Asian-American woman. At one point, an agent even told her to her face, “Asian people will never be successful in comedy. You have your life ahead of you — you should quit.”
Luckily, she didn’t listen to that agent. Instead, she went on to one of the most famous comedians in the world — male or female — and even became one of the first Asian-American women to hold a starring role on a network television show.
Now her parents are proud of her accomplishments, but they still can’t believe she was able to make it so far on her own. Margaret, on the other hand, knows exactly how she was able to succeed:
“For me, I could not compromise my dream. It was always comedy, and that, to me, was just much bigger than anything else. I loved it. I’ve had such a blast pursuing my dream.”
Cindy Eckert: CEO, Sprout Pharmaceuticals
The first thing you notice when you walk into Cindy Eckert’s office is a pair of bright pink boxing gloves. And chances are, they match at least one piece of clothing Cindy’s wearing that day.
For Cindy, being a woman CEO isn’t just about standing out in a male-dominated crowd; it’s about doing things so differently, in such a uniquely Cindy way, that her mere presence in the boardroom completely shatters any preconceived notions about women in the world of business.
“If you feel like you don’t fit in the system, the way to ultimately make your way into it is to surprise people and continue to show up. Never let that underestimation shake your confidence in what you set out to do.”
And she’s doing a pretty good job of shifting those perspectives—she built two healthcare businesses from scratch, both of which sold for over 1.5 billion dollars.
One of these businesses, Sprout Pharmaceuticals, successfully brought to market the first ever FDA-approved drug for low sexual desire in women, a medical problem that had long been addressed in men (by 26 different drugs, in fact!), but was often completely dismissed in women. Again, Cindy shifted the narrative.
Now that she’s built a name for herself, Cindy’s “on a mission to make women rich,” through her new endeavor, The Pink Ceiling, an investment fund that specifically supports businesses by and for women (now taking pitches!).
Mariette DiChristina: Editor in Chief, “Scientific American”
You wouldn’t be crazy to assume that over the 164-year-long history of a publication like “Scientific American,” there would have at some point been a female EIC serving at the helm…after all, the female workforce actually dominates most social and medical sciences. Unfortunately, for 164 years, you would’ve been wrong.
Yup, in the storied history of “Scientific American,” no woman had ever served as editor in chief of the magazine — until 2001, when Mariette DiChristina took the reins.
Mariette grew up in an era when young women were told that their career options were: teacher, nurse…and not much else. Working in biology? Or journalism? Or a combination of both?! “I was told ‘women just weren’t doing these things,’” she says of her childhood interests.
But young Mariette was the kid who scored 100% on science tests, and got excited by Bunsen burners — and her supportive father refused to let her extinguish her flame. He encouraged her to go after her passions, and her passions led her to pursue science journalism, a combination of her two favorite things.
She worked her way up from line editing articles in “Popular Science,” to running one of the most renowned science magazines in the world. In the 15 years that she’s been serving as editor in chief, she’s made it her mission — and the mission of the magazine — to increase access to STEM education, especially for young women.
“Why not you? Why not YOU to succeed? You can do it.”
Alana Ward Robinson: President and CEO of Robinson Group Consulting, Inc.
Alana grew up in Louisiana and attended segregated schools until she was a junior in high school. That year, the state passed a freedom of education law that allowed her to attend the all-white school across town—and she and her friends decided to take the leap.
Despite some early challenges with bullying, her choice paid off: her new school offered programming classes, where she was exposed to what would become a lifelong love of computer science.
Years later, when she called her father to tell him she’d got a job at IBM, he couldn’t believe she’d actually aced her interview while wearing her hair in an “Angela Davis afro.” But she had, and in 1972, she became the first woman of color in a programming position at the Shreveport IBM office.
Not that there weren’t hurdles to overcome after that: Alana spent years dealing with clients that refused to work with her, and fighting for wages that were equal to her male peers. But eventually she realized that with all of her experience, her best bet was to remove herself from the fight and start her own consulting company.
Since then, she’s been named one of the “50 Most Important African-Americans in Technology,” and has taken up mentoring other young black women in her community.
Veronica Belmont: Host, “Sword and Laser” Podcast
It feels like it would be doing Veronica Belmont a disservice to say that she “broke into” an industry that had traditionally been a boys club: gaming.
The real story goes more like, Sword and Laser host Veronica Belmont broke into what had been the boys’ top secret clubhouse for years, befriended all of them, whooped their butts at every video game they owned, then promptly left to form her own, cooler club.
As someone who was way ahead of the game on current trends like YouTube, podcasting, game streaming, and even customer service chatbots, it’s no wonder that her day job also involves consulting for a network of tech startups — yet another male-dominated industry!
The theme throughout all of her work? A glass-half-full attitude and a ton of positive vibes. She feels equally optimistic about the female future of tech:
“There are a lot more women getting involved in the startup space right now, and I’m so happy that more young women feel like they can be into this stuff and not feel like it’s a weird thing — they feel like it’s cool!”
Basically, if you needed proof that if you relentlessly pursue your interests, a cool job will follow — no matter who you are or what industry you’re trying to break into! — look no further than Veronica.