Celebrate International Women’s Day 2021 with these inspiring accounts of female leadership
It’s been an extraordinary year, during which time countless women around the world have gone that extra mile to inspire and support each other, to help one another rise, often in incredibly difficult circumstances. From Michelle Obama to a best friend, inspiring words from women of influence can challenge us, empower us and leave us feeling confident and ready to take the next step to level up in our lives.
In celebration of International Women's Day 2021, I’ve invited fourteen women in leadership from across the globe to share their personal stories about a female leader who has had a big influence on their ability to start or grow in their business and personal lives.
Each contributor, an inspirational woman in their own right, shares an account of a memorable moment of leadership they personally benefited from – from how an outstanding boss led by example to a woman then in her teens, to how a friend encouraged a then teacher to take the leap to start her own business, to an article from a high-profile businesswoman that touched someone just at the right moment – each entrepreneur has been profoundly inspired by a woman to create the next chapter of their lives.
Whether you’re hatching a plan to start your own business, are already up-and-running or are at the helm of an International brand, each of these inspiring accounts will lift you even higher.
Like many of my fellow contributors to this article, I've found it hard to choose just one woman who has had a positive impact on my life and inspired me to become more than I think I can be. I am enormously grateful for that.
This year the theme for International Women's Day is #ChoosetoChallenge, and so I've chosen to celebrate a woman who challenged what I thought I could become and challenged me to excel at a very young age.
Amanda (Mandy) Boxer was the first female boss I looked up to. She was the daughter of some friends of my parents, and manager of a branch of a women's clothes retail chain store. She gave me a shot at a job as a sales assistant when I was in my teens.
Several physical and character traits stood out about Mandy, everyone noticed her walk into a room, she was tall, elegant and beautiful, and just the right mix of kind, funny, fair, down-to-earth, intelligent, professional and ambitious, which made quite a mark on my 16 year old self.
Mandy had standards for her shop, sales targets to achieve and ambitions for her career. And she needed every one on her team to be at their best at work. She needed us to look smart, stay focused, delight customers, keep the shop tidy in between serving customers and achieve our share of the weekly sales target - and she gave us the necessary culture at work, training, encouragement and pointers to achieve that for her.
Mandy climbed the career ladder from managing that shop in St. Albans, to Reginal Controller, to Head of Multi Channel Operations and Retail for a top PLC.
Most of all, as a young working-class girl from a very similar background to Mandy, she showed me that if I worked at it, I could become more than I thought I was destined for. She made me believe that I could choose to challenge people's ideas and expectations, play to my strengths, carve out the life I wanted for myself and be the very best version of myself. And this is the torch I pass on to you.
My inspiration came from my daughter. When I became a mum, feeling a profound love for my own baby daughter, I realised that children on the street could have been my daughter, and I felt compelled to do something. I wanted to help other children who didn’t have parents to protect and nurture them.
My food business was five years old when I realised that I was still too busy to be making a difference in the way I wanted. Then, a very simple idea hit me. “What if we simply gave a meal for every meal we sold?”
I discovered that we could give a meal to an underprivileged child for just 25 cents through an experienced NGO in India. It was even less than the cost of the packaging we were using. That was the start of the ‘buy one give one’ idea.
Several months later, I had another epiphany. I realised that this idea shouldn’t be just for our own business. I wanted to help many other businesses to become giving businesses. I imagined a world that was full of giving. And our family decided to move to Singapore to start a global giving.
Today, B1G1 (Buy1GIVE1) works with more than 2,800 businesses and these businesses have created over 225 million giving impacts to date. Impacts include 36,730 trees planted, 98,786,751 days of access to life-saving clean water, 16,037 books given to children, 23,039 income-generation tools provided and many, many more things. We describe these magic numbers as ‘smiles being created’. Yes, 225 million smiles and counting.
My female leader's inspiration is Karen Brady. Throughout my employed career, I’d been increasingly aware of her – her drive, her success and her ability to stand tall in very male-dominated environments. As I became a mother and started to consider a different direction, I read a magazine article about how she managed family life, the doubts she sometimes faced and how she managed everything, and it really made me feel “I can do that too!”. I now run Spark! Consulting, a boutique business consultancy working with startups, scaleups and established businesses on investor readiness, strategy and corporate governance.
My female leader of inspiration is Hannah Power. My daughter. Before you think this is an adoring mum who has no reason, please read on.
I told my children that on my first date with their father, I said to him “I don’t expect anyone to make me happy, this is my job, I won’t delegate that to anyone”. I have always believed that happiness comes from within and is our own responsibility.
Aged 24, Hannah, working in her new role for a Management Consulting Firm having graduated the year before, went on holiday to Morzine to go skiing. Now living independently in London, she came to us the night before and I dropped her at Heathrow Airport. 3 days later at 5.30 am, I got that dreaded call that no mother wants to hear. “This is Geneva Hospital, we have your daughter, she was brought in by ambulance and police. She has been raped.”
The fact is, 3 men had taken her off in a car and put Hannah through a terrible time, thankfully, she put up a fight and only one of them succeeded. That statement alone shows the positivity we all held onto. You can listen to her story here.
In the interest of brevity for this article, Hannah was brave, courageous and positive from the outset and 18 months later when she decided to travel to Bali alone to find her future self and build her own company. As we parted at the same airport, Hannah turned to me and said “Mum, that story of what you told Dad on your first date… well, let’s add some words to this, “I don’t expect anyone to make me happy, this is my job, I won’t delegate that to anyone,”…” but you have to fight for it”.
So, my hero is my daughter, she never became a victim and she fought for it and returned us all to happiness.
When I think of outstanding female leaders that have significantly impacted my life, the one lady that comes to mind is Christine Middlemiss, who is now in the Cabinet Office and is Chief Veterinary Officer for the UK. I worked for Christine in 2010 in the DEFRA Animal Health Agency.
Christine asked me to work in her department in a project role, to implement change in the business. The leadership qualities that Christine had, meant I learnt to communicate the effects of change at an outstanding level to stakeholders in the organisation. A complex project could involve multi stakeholders across UK government, so it was never simple.
I often hear Christine’s voice when I’m writing. She helped me learn how to influence change through my proposals, teaching me to write in a way that conveyed the intentions with certainty and clarity. She also taught me to lead in my communication in meetings, and she always had time to listen.
I now help people increase their income with recurring products, especially online courses, run a property portfolio and property software company too. As an employer, I’m inspired by the women that work for me. Clever, articulate and professional, they are experts in their roles. I lead them based on my experience with Christine; fair, compassionate, real and with flexibility. I know they have multiple roles in their lives, as mothers, wives, carers and daughters, and while work isn’t their highest priority, they want to succeed in the workplace. They all have strengths that I champion, and am extremely grateful for. And rather than critique or micromanage any weaknesses, I ensure we align their work to their strengths.
I’m passionate that everyone should lead a fulfilled, abundant and free life, and have as much fun as possible! If you’re interested in what I can do to help you and your business, reach out to me directly or read my book ‘More Money More Fun’.
My female leader inspiration is one of my best friends, Yosra El-Essawy.
We both studied Physiology at University College London (UCL) and upon graduation, followed different paths; I went on to a corporate career and she pivoted to what she genuinely loved - art, photography and travel.
Whilst I climbed the corporate ladder, got married, had the kids, and followed the traditional trajectory of life, Yosra travelled, explored and embraced the world.
By April 2013, she had found the icing on her cake. She became Beyonce's Official Photographer for The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour. She was ecstatic!
Within weeks, Yosra was diagnosed with cancer and 16 months later, she was gone.
Even before her illness, I had always been in awe of Yosra's zeal for life and adventure, unrestrained by the world's expectations of women.
Throughout her illness, she continued to embrace life with gratitude; coining and spreading the message, "Never Forget to Say Thank You".
Yosra's experiences and attitude taught me that "Life is not a dress rehearsal". She inspired me to quit my corporate career to build a business that reflects my true values of fun, service, integrity, fairness and justice. That same legacy led me to end an unfulfilling marriage and build a life that is an authentic expression of who I am.
Nowadays, I am happily divorced and run a successful consultancy committed to creating inclusive cultures of shared leadership and positive relationships, where every individual can thrive.
That autumn afternoon you had trusted me to run a workshop alongside you to help people in a large advertising agency to present with impact. You, the successful founder of your business, TMP. Me a teacher. I loved teaching, having been raised in a family of teachers. But, after returning to the classroom part-time following the birth of my second child, I was becoming restless - with a growing desire to step away from life as a teacher and an employee.
You offered me this opportunity, and you unknowingly sowed a ‘See-what-else-is-possible’ seed. What you said to me that afternoon, in the car outside my flat, dear friend, took root. As I shared my doubts about a serial teacher stepping into the world of Business, you reminded me of my skills and my value when you said, ‘Have the confidence to see in you, what others see.’
Tessa Morton, thank you. You probably don’t even remember your words that afternoon, but you lifted me up to see the possibilities beyond my view. Such small comments of faith, from one friend to another – from one woman to another – can unknowingly encourage the courage we all need to achieve more than we think. To be more than we think.
5 years later I did what no one in my family had ever done before and founded my own business, working with leaders all over the world, Coaching Impact.
Thank you, Tess, for that moment in the car outside my flat.
The model of fearless humanity It’s a sad truth that when I was starting out in my career, the strong women, the women who made it closest to the top - close enough to at least touch the glass ceiling - weren’t very likeable. They had to fight too hard to be heard, compete with their male colleagues on their terms, and step on other females to stand out. It was tough for women in the corporate world back then and I learned more about how I didn’t want to behave, than how I did.
My female role models today are way younger than me - strong, bright resilient young women who work hard, who have strong values, and who behave in line with those values in the face of often horrendous personal abuse. I watch young women like Malala Yousafzai, Emma Watson and Taylor Swift and I am in awe of their mental fortitude and morale fibre; their energy in overcoming adversity; the courage and conviction they show in support of their fellow women - standing up and speaking out, with fearless humanity - putting the heart and soul of who they are, into everything they do.
This is a lesson for us all in business and in life. It’s certainly something I aim to live by every day and encourage my clients to do the same - to build their business on love - to focus on hiring people who share their values - to give their team the systems and the tools that allow them to do their best work and to take ownership for it. The systems and the team that will free my clients from the day-to-day of their operations.
If you’re an established entrepreneur and this is the way you want to build a scalable business, get in touch.
The female leader that has inspired me the most is someone that has been quietly but consistently in my background. Penny Osborne has not led a famous life but is nevertheless remarkable. She lost her mother while at university and became a pillar for her brothers. I met her as a lost 15 year old, a ‘looked after child’ in an abusive foster care situation. Penny was my youth group leader. At the time she was training to be a doctor, preparing to get married the following year and quietly managing her own grief. In her life, she has raised two beautiful and inspiring children, one training to be a GP the other diagnosed with ASD now a Cambridge graduate.
I watched Penny battle for the rights of her child, hold down a demanding GP job and eventually become a Partner, support her family when her husband was made redundant, stand up to authority on a number of issues that she was unwilling to accept, consistently be part of local community situations and solutions, open her home to many others that needed shelter and a listening ear. For me, she is wisdom personified.
Penny has consistently been ‘there’ for me for the last 30 years. Housed me when I’ve been homeless, supported me through early 20s burnout and the loss of my birth parents, visited every home that I have lived in. For a person with my background, self-belief and identity can be a challenge. I have excelled way beyond the statistics, and I’ve not even started on my main event of transforming the cleaning industry for the better. Without the steadfast consistency of Penny, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
My name’s Antoinette, Founder of Just Helpers, the ethical cleaning agency in London.
At the risk of being highly controversial; Margaret Thatcher! I grew up with a strong interest in Politics, which manifested itself in heated family dinner-table 'discussions'. I then studied Politics at university. As a child, she was a strong presence through the media and made me believe that women could achieve, if they wanted to. Whatever your political stance; it cannot be denied that she was a woman who made decisions, stuck to her beliefs and knew how to use her skills to secure power through her presence. It instilled in me a belief in female ambition. At one stage, I even wanted to be Prime Minister! I learnt that you must know when to step aside and move on. I also understood at a young age that you can respect and admire someone, without necessarily agreeing with everything that they say and do. If I reflect now, I believe that having a female Prime Minister for most of my childhood, meant that I never really saw gender as something of concern in terms of career development; it is about who you are and what you say and do. I am now an executive coach, after having run a marketing agency for eighteen years. My interest is in people and business and how people interact and behave. My childhood interest in Politics, was no doubt where this originated from.
I would have been lucky to have been influenced by an Inspiring Female Leader during my career. Instead, I feel lucky, grateful, and blessed to have had three amazing women share their gifts with me.
From my inspiring Mum, Margaret McNaughton MBE I learnt the gift of supporting the ‘choices’ of others without judgement.
From my Reiki Master Jan Fox, I learnt the gift of trusting my creative inspirations and knowing that I have all I need within me now.
From Annette Mieske, my Salon Business Coach, I learnt how to inspire myself and others to love to do the things we don’t want to but have to do. How to choose the actions that make success easier for sure.
It all added up to feeling empowered to do better and be better.
Today, choosing to challenge what holds us back as leaders, bosses, Mum’s, and the many other roles that as women we juggle, is I feel vital as we journey through 2021.
In my role as a Mum, and as the founder of Elaworld and elements lifestyle salon, harnessing AI is my purpose and passion. Now that’s not artificial intelligence, it’s where the real power for change lies, in the Autonomy and Influence that we can all choose to have.
Choosing to re-invent and pivot businesses to rebuild our economies and communities.
Choosing to harness our strengths to do better.
Choosing to challenge any beliefs that may limit us or our vision for what is possible.
Choosing to support and challenge each other to create a future better than the reality we left behind in 2020.
It’s not about getting back to normal, it’s about moving forward, paying it forward and together creating legacies that will inspire women for generations to come.
It's actually really difficult to choose one female aspirational leader, when I know so many - what a great problem to have! So many women I've met, especially since I've become an entrepreneur, have inspired me in so many ways. It's not necessarily anyone famous - I know women who have battled - and are still battling - cancer and looking after their families and still finding time to support and inspire others... I know women who have overcome discrimination, difficult or abusive relationships, crippling debt or even homelessness and who are now leading their own companies and making a real difference... I know women who have carried me through this last year with words of wisdom, ready support and wonderful friendship.... and oh I've known SO many women who have somehow continued to lead and inspire and change lives... all whilst running a home and home-schooling their children in the last 12 months. So I can't choose one leader from this network of wonderful women, a lot of whom have become friends and some, even clients too. I run a brand consultancy that helps ambitious, ethical and purpose-driven businesses get brand clarity, stand out in their industry and supercharge their business growth so they can make a bigger impact still. Read my award-winning book Let's Get Visible!
I never saw myself relating success to female figures. My life showed me that the road to success relates to the whole journey. That journey started with a female, my grandma.
She had a strong personality, with decisive decision-making across the whole family. I grew up observing her unique personality, she was very strong in the way she handled tough situations - with patience and wisdom. The way she creatively turned challenges into opportunities. Having identified the core talent of those around her, she was able to accomplish a lot with minimal resources available, leaving them feeling well-recognised.
This observation manifested into the mission I have today, and the type of people I help through spark back. They are especially talented leaders, great at what they do, and have a proven track record of success, yet they lack appreciation from significant people in their lives and the needed energy. Consequently, they lack creating a meaningful impact in their lives.
International Women’s day is a poignant reminder of how far we have come over the last century. The brave women who began a movement that championed women’s right to vote, join the workforce, and be socially and politically recognised have paved the way for us today. There is much to celebrate on what is a national holiday in over 25 countries around the world.
However, it is also important that we keep the momentum and keep moving forward to tackle the barriers that still exist today as no country has achieved gender equality yet. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5 highlights that gender equality ‘is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world.’ The UN found that:
• Legal restrictions have kept 2.7 billion women from accessing the same jobs as men
• Women earn 77 cents for every dollar that men get for the same work
• Less than 25 per cent of parliamentarians were women, as of 2019
By ensuring fair hiring practices, equal pay for equal work, and encouraging greater equality and diversity in the workplace, businesses can BECOME A FORCE FOR GOOD as they can:
• Put an End to Poverty: As women are more likely to live in scarcity than men, due to discriminatory practices, laws, and cultural norms that marginalise global women.
• Empower Women that will Boost Economies: Gender equality would boost global economies and lead to higher levels of innovation by +9-27%.
• Improve Health Systems: Women account for 70% of the global healthcare workforce. By investing further in medical resources, healthcare will improve for all.
• Advance Education: By providing easy access, 132 million girls can complete their education which will enable them to get out of poverty and improve their standard of living.
I look forward to seeing more women in senior leadership roles, having voices in the boardrooms and governments. My sincere hope is that one day we no longer feel the need to celebrate women on just one day of the year, but that gender equality will be part of everyday life.