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International Women’s Day: Recognizing those who have overcome

By Karen O’Leonard | March 7, 2024

Our head of innovation, Karen O’Leonard, celebrates female pioneers and those who are empowering disadvantaged women today.
Work Transformation|Inclusion-and-Diversity|Employee Experience

In celebration of International Women’s Day, I wanted to recognize some of the courageous women over the years who have bucked the status quo and overcome a multitude of challenges in their pursuit of entrepreneurship. Particularly for the early female pioneers, their journeys were rarely documented and even less celebrated. Yet their contributions lay the foundation for many of the professional opportunities women have today and the growing ecosystem of women-owned businesses.

One of the earliest female CEOs

One early example is Rebecca Lukens, who became the first American female industrialist after taking over her husband's struggling ironworks company following his death in 1810. Through her leadership, strategic innovations and unwavering commitment, she transformed the company into a thriving enterprise.

While Lukens achieved remarkable success, her story was an exception rather than the norm. For most women in the 19th century, the path to economic independence remained largely inaccessible. However, the seeds of change were beginning to be sown, as the fight for women's suffrage gained momentum and movements promoting economic opportunities for women emerged.

Jeannette Rankins helped get women the vote

We have many women to thank for their efforts to win the right to vote. Among them was Jeannette Rankin, the first woman to hold federal office after being elected to Congress in 1916. I recently attended a performance by one of Rankin’s relatives and learned that while in Congress, Rankin introduced legislation that eventually became the 19th Amendment, granting unrestricted voting rights to women nationwide. That was in 1920. And it was about time!

First female millionaire

Opportunities for women expanded during World War I and World War II, when they assumed traditionally male roles while men went off to fight. Madam C.J. Walker, an African American woman, exemplifies this period. She developed and marketed hair care products specifically for Black women, establishing a thriving business empire that empowered other women and made her the first female American self-made millionaire.

Late 1990s opens new opportunities for women

Despite these advancements, significant challenges remained. Access to capital, societal biases and discriminatory laws continued to hinder women's entrepreneurial aspirations. But in the latter half of the 20th century, the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (1974) and Title IX of the Education Amendments (1972) began to level the playing field, granting women greater access to credit and educational opportunities. This, combined with the growing feminist movement, paved the way for a more significant presence of women at all levels of entrepreneurship.

I'm fortunate to have started my professional career after these women had already paved the way for many of the opportunities I enjoyed. And I was blessed with a father who told me, “You can do anything, Karen,” and encouraged me to pursue my dreams.

Supporting the next generation of female entrepreneurs

Today I feel an obligation to support the next generation of female entrepreneurs in my work as head of Innovation for a global corporation and in supporting non-profits whose mission is to enable women to realize their ambitions. One of these non-profits is Women’s Empowerment International (WE), which provides funding, training and education to women in under-served areas.

WE’s vision is “a world without poverty in which women are empowered, uplifted and equal partners in society.” This may seem like an ambitious goal, particularly in some of the areas they serve, such as Ghana, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico and Uganda. But they are working steadily to realize this ambition.

I attended a presentation from two of WE’s partners recently and was inspired and impressed by the impact they are having on women in extreme poverty. Among them is Isela, who fled her home in Cartagena, Colombia, due to government persecution for her activism defending Black communities.

She was resettled in the U.S. through one of WE’s partners, International Rescue Committee, as part of their Survivors of Torture program. Once settled, she received one-on-one business counseling services and a $15,000 business loan to buy a food truck. Isela sells at local farmers’ markets, supplies to local specialty grocers and caters for special events. The company is now investing in a food trailer to develop a restaurant chain specializing in Colombian food.

Another story is that of Corinne. When a devastating earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Corinne lost everything. Through another WE-funded program, Corinne joined a program offered by WE’s partner, Fonkoze, which enables her to sell over-the-counter health products and provide health services such as malnutrition screenings to her local community. This doesn’t just bring Corinne income – it brings her joy. She is now trying to help the women in her community start their own businesses so that they, too, can have an opportunity to prosper with dignity.

These are just two of many inspiring stories of how women in extreme poverty and duress have been helped not just to survive, but to thrive. So this month, in honor of women both past and present, I encourage you to think about how you can support women to find their dignity and purpose and achieve their full ambitions.


Head of Innovation
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