8 Trailblazers Who Are Creating Game-Changing Opportunities for All Women

Photo credit: Drew smith
Photo credit: Drew smith

From Oprah Magazine

Remember the old boys’ club—schmoozing on the golf course, doing deals over scotch and steak, ladies need not apply? Well, it’s still in business, and in some ways more exclusive than ever: 60 percent of male managers in the U.S. now say they’re “uncomfortable mentoring, working alone, or socializing” with a female colleague—a 32 percent increase since the rise of the #MeToo movement. Thanks, guys. But here’s the work-around: Sisters are doin’ it for themselves. Get ready to meet eight trailblazers, rule-breakers, and progress-makers finding potent new ways to help other women get ahead. We’re calling it the new girls’ network.

The Social Climber

Shelma Jun, Rock Climber, Founder of Flash Foxy Crew and The Women's Climbing Festival

The Identity Crisis: Growing up in Southern California, Shelma Jun says, “I surfed, I skateboarded, I mountain biked, I was cocaptain of my high school’s first women’s water polo team.” In short, says Jun, “I was a self-proclaimed tomboy—which is a really problematic term. Why do we need the word boy to describe being outdoorsy?”

More problematic was the way Jun came to view other women. “In those male-dominated sports, there can be a toxic energy where there’s room for only one ‘cool girl,’ and other women are competition,” she says. “I had complicated relationships with women for a long time.”

Finding Her Squad: Having earned a master’s in urban planning, Jun got a job as a community planner and relocated to New York City. There, while honing her newest skill—rock-climbing—she met some women at her climbing gym who practiced in an area two hours north of the city. “That’s where I got to understand what it feels like when you’re trying something hard with just women,” says Jun. “When the pressure to act a certain way is removed—because no men are around—you suddenly discover all kinds of ways to challenge and inspire one another.”

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We’re in this together and we are feeling the support. This post is about sharing the love! 💕 It’s been stressful to start to work through all the steps involved with canceling a massive event, but we are so grateful to be doing it in this community. We wanted to thank all our participants for being so understanding during this tough and difficult time. Thank you to those who are donating part or all of the ticket fees, and thank you to those who are taking the full refund because we all need support from each other to get through this together. We’re proud and thankful to be a part of this community.⁠ .⁠ Huge thank you for our amazing title sponsor, @blackdiamond for their complete support of the event through the good and the bad. We absolutely could not do it without you and are so thankful for our partnership since the very beginning. Thank you to our featured sponsors @adidasterrex, @outdoorresearch, @patagonia, @rei for also having our back during this hard time. And thank you to all our contributing, gear and media sponsors for their longstanding support.⁠ .⁠ Thanks to all our athletes, presenters, panelists, instructors, guides, photographers and volunteers for agreeing to be a part of the festival – it’s what makes this festival so special – and we can’t wait to bring your energy to a future event.⁠ .⁠ Finally, thank you to all our amazing local partners. We’re humbled to get to work with so many amazing organizations and businesses in this beautiful place. You’ve always welcomed us here and I’ll never forget that. Thank you for supporting our decision and we are also here for you during this hard time. We will get through this together.⁠ .⁠ #womensclimbingfestival #flashfoxy #blackdiamond #patagonia #rei #adiddasterrex #outdoorresearch

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A Flash of Brilliance: In 2014, as a “casual way to celebrate the climbing we were doing,” Jun started an Instagram account @heyflashfoxy. (In rock-climbing speak, a flash is the feat of scaling something without falling the first time you try, and “foxy,” says Jun, means “doing it with your own swagger.”) With female climbers all over the country searching for others like them, Flash Foxy quickly gained hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of followers, and an online women’s climbing community was born. “A lot of women felt like they were the only female climbers—not because there were so few of us, but because we were far apart, and the media mostly showcased men,” says Jun. “Social media allowed us to discover that actually, there are a lot of us. And we’re stoked to be together.”

Mountain Highs: In 2016, Jun put her community-organizing background to work to create the Women’s Climbing Festival. “I had this vision of 30 or 40 women in the desert,” she says. “We announced it online, and 300 women said they wanted to come.” Eight festivals later, every single one of the twice-yearly gatherings has sold out—some in just one minute.

Taking a Risk: Hanging from a rope over a 1,000-foot drop may be frightening, Jun says, “but being a mentor to somebody is really scary. You get some mad impostor syndrome, like Am I qualified or experienced enough to be imparting wisdom? That’s the thing we’re figuring out, because having women lead is vital.” —Eleni N. Gage

Photo credit: Mary Beth Koeth
Photo credit: Mary Beth Koeth

The Brew Mistress

Frances Antonio-Martineau, Founder of FemAle Brew Fest

What People Expect: “White. Bearded. Flannel shirts. That’s the stereotype of a craft brewer,” says Frances Antonio-Martineau, a godmother of South Florida’s craft brew scene.
In fact, she loves beer so much, she and her husband hosted their wedding reception at a local bar, made centerpieces from empty bottles they had saved for the occasion, and gave custom pint glasses as favors.

The Beer Lover’s Dilemma: How do you get past feeling like an outsider? “I’m not your average beer geek, and before I learned about craft beer, I used to be a bit intimidated when I walked into a bar, a brewery, or a bottle shop,” says Antonio-Martineau, a visual merchandising consultant who is Filipina, female, and a full 5'1" tall (but has been known to rock a flannel shirt).

The Solution: Invite more women to the craft beer party—by throwing a party for women to drink craft beer! Having already founded the Fem Collective, a local network of women entrepreneurs, Antonio-Martineau started the FemAle Brew Fest in Fort Lauderdale in 2017 to combine two passions: female empowerment and craft beer. In four years, the festival has grown from a 15-brewery, 700-person gathering to a celebration with more than 30 breweries and 1,500 attendees—not to mention women-fronted bands, female DJs and speakers, beer and yoga experiences, and the beer equivalent of wine tastings. Most important, says Antonio-Martineau, “all the breweries are female-owned or have women brewers”—no small feat since, according to a 2019 Brewers Association survey, 96 percent of breweries owned by one gender are in
the hands of men.

Reasons to Say Cheers: You don’t need to be in Fort Lauderdale to raise a stein alongside other craft beer–loving ladies. Across the country, members of the Pink Boots Society, an organization for female beer industry professionals that offers scholarships and seminars, meet to share job listings and discuss all things beer. (Fun fact: Barley beer was first brewed in ancient Mesopotamia—mostly by women.) Naturally, Antonio-Martineau leads her local chapter of the Pink Boots Society and of Girls Pint Out, which hosts get-togethers nationwide for women to learn about craft brews free of mansplaining beer bros. —E.N.G.

Photo credit: anya chibis
Photo credit: anya chibis

The Erector Set

Sherry Larjani and Taya Cook, Developers of Reina Condominiums

Poetic Justice: It sounds like the start of a feminist fable. Two female real estate developers walk onto the site of a notorious former strip club in Toronto—and assemble an all-woman team of architects, engineers, planners, construction managers, and lawyers to build
a nine-story, 200-unit condo named Reina, the Spanish word for queen, on that distinctly unhallowed ground. “The club was associated with violence and all sorts of unsavory activities,” says Taya Cook, cofounder of Reina. “People in the neighborhood are excited to
have something in its place that’s empowering women and bringing good energy.”

The BackStory: Less than two years ago, Cook opened an issue of Toronto Life magazine to read “Condo Kings,” an article highlighting the mag’s picks for the top real estate execs: 20 men and not a single woman. “I came into the office that morning and said, ‘We have to do something about this industry.’ ”

The Sad Stats: While about 67 percent of certified Realtors are women, the more lucrative arena of commercial real estate tends to be testosterone fueled: Women make up roughly 35 percent of the workforce and hold 11 percent of C-suite positions. “After 15 years in the industry, I’ve become accustomed to being the only woman in meetings,” says Cook.

Haters Gonna Hate: The project had naysayers at first. “One person dared to send my assistant a photo of a collapsed bridge that had supposedly been designed by women, which wasn’t even true!” recalls Sherry Larjani, cofounder of Reina. Now the real estate queens are having the last laugh. “People asked, ‘How are you going to find women civil engineers?’ ” says Larjani. “Funnily enough, we found qualified women, from engineers to architects, for every role.” —Amy Maclin

The House Keepers

Matriarch Political Action Committee

The Mission: To support politically progressive, working-class women running for Congress. “There’s an appetite for new leadership,” says Nomiki Konst, board director of the political action committee Matriarch, which she helped establish last year. “But statistically, it takes women three times to run before they win. We’re here to help them succeed whether it’s sooner or later, because every campaign is a chance to shift the conversation.”

The Barrier to Entry:
Cash money. Running a congressional campaign is expensive. More than half the lawmakers in Congress are millionaires. On top of that, fewer than 24 percent of them are women, and fewer than 9 percent are women of color. (Further proof that men have so far made the rules: It was only in 2018 that the Federal Election Commission approved candidates using campaign money for childcare during an election—and only after a mother of two running for Congress on Long Island petitioned for it.)

The Method: Matriarch combs through nominations to select candidates to support. Once a woman is officially endorsed, she receives funding and access to what Konst calls “a 40-plus-person brain trust, a mix of women who have won—and lost—elections, union leaders, activists, organizers, and media experts.” Along with twice-monthly conference calls to discuss the ins and outs of specific challenges (such as FEC filing or creating a campaign budget), the women can ask for support on any situation that comes up, from seeking a field manager to requesting funding for an election lawyer when a deep-pocketed opponent tries to push her off the ballot on a technicality.

#They’reWithHer: With a rolling schedule of elections across the country, Matriarch will have endorsed ten candidates by the end of April. They include Samelys López, a Puerto Rican community organizer who grew up in family shelters in the South Bronx and
is running in New York on a platform focused on affordable housing; Morgan Harper, a former foster child who became a labor lawyer in Ohio dedicated to ending economic segregation; and Nabilah Islam, a Georgia activist who was inspired to fight for reform after watching her mother, an immigrant from Bangladesh, sue the insurance company that denied her care after she’d injured herself working in a warehouse.

The Impact: For candidates, simply receiving Matriarch’s endorsement is a victory. As Islam, the activist running for office in Georgia, says, “The support systems in place
for wealthier or more centrist candidates aren’t there for working-class, progressive ones. The existence of Matriarch means we’re finally being seen. When you come from a background like mine, where you’re never seen or heard, it means so much.” —E.N.G.

The Tech Tonic

Anna-Katrina Shedletsky, Founder of Women in STEM Mentorship Program

The Numbers Game: Sixty-eight men and one other woman. Those were the coworkers Anna-Katrina Shedletsky found when she was hired to work in Apple’s iPod group right out of college. And she thought that was pretty cool. “At first I was proud that I was one of only
two women on the team,” she says. “I thought that reflected well on me.”

The Aha Moment: At a women’s executive leadership program, Shedletsky says, “I had an epiphany: It’s not like there are only two spaces for women and I won one. Why aren’t there more? And what can I do about it?”

The “Leaky Pipe”: Shedletsky did what engineers are trained to do—study and try to fix the problem. After some research, she realized that while more women earn
master’s degrees and PhDs than men in certain STEM fields, the transition from school to employment is, she says, “a leaky pipe—a spot where qualified women fall out of the pipeline.” That happens for a variety of reasons, ranging from the fact that women are less likely to apply for jobs they’re not 100 percent qualified for to the reality that in such a male-dominated field, “women tend to have less access to a network that can get their résumé to the top of the pile,” says Shedletsky. To patch the leak, she partnered with Stanford, her alma mater, and founded what eventually became the Women in STEM Mentorship Program. That first year, a team of female engineers mentored 15 STEM students, helping them build a network of contacts, reach out to women in the field, and seek out and apply for jobs.

Flash Forward: Today Shedletsky runs her own firm, Instrumental, which spots problems in companies’ development and production, enabling them to improve their manufacturing process. Outside the office, she continues to run the Women in STEM Mentorship Program, which now serves 70 to 100 university students each year—some from as far as Abu Dhabi (most of the mentoring is done remotely). Through one-on-one conversations and at an annual summit in the Bay Area, says Shedletsky, “we offer tactical advice. It’s like, here’s how to do stuff that feels weird and awkward, like emailing someone at a company where you might want to work to ask questions or, once you’re offered a job, negotiating your salary.”

Each One, Teach One: For Shedletsky, feeling qualified enough to start the program was a revelation. “I wasn’t a manager, nobody reported to me, and I felt like I had no power,” she recalls. “But I realized I had more power than a student, and I could reach my hand down and pull the next woman up and help her through the process. Wherever you are, you’re always ahead of someone else you can pull up with you.” Here’s proof: Seven years into
the mentoring program, says Shedletsky, “we’ve been around long enough that some of our earliest students have come back to be mentors themselves.” —E.N.G.

Photo credit: Sam Comes
Photo credit: Sam Comes

The Action Hero

Christina Hodson, Screenwriter, Cofounder of Lucky Exports Pitch Program

The Game-changing Move: After working as a development executive in London and New York, Christina Hodson transitioned to writing screenplays. But as she quickly learned, “it’s very hard as a woman starting out in this industry not to get pigeonholed as a female writer rather than just a writer. I was continually sent YA fantasies, small erotic thrillers, or jobs about a girl who’s a half-witch or finds out she’s a princess of a dystopia. And I kept saying, ‘I want to write Terminator 2. I want to work on big action popcorn movies!’” So she wrote her own script, “an ambitious sci-fi action movie” about genetically augmented humans planning to take over the world, on spec. It sold in a bidding war in 2014, and although it has yet to be produced, it put her on the map as an action writer.

The Sci-Fi Sisterhood: After that success, Hodson was hired to work in the writers’ room of The Transformers, a team of 12 including two other women. “Many saw us as the diversity hires, the underdogs, and we took care of each other. We amplified each other’s voices,” she recalls. In late 2017, Hodson looked up the stats on women screenwriters in the 2016 Hollywood Writers Report and found them “staggeringly bad.” As in, out of 1,600 working feature film writers, women are outnumbered three to one. “It’s such an achievable goal to address that,” she realized. “Even increasing that by a small number would move the needle.”

Group Therapy: With that in mind, Hodson decided to start a writers’ room of her own—one in which participants would retain control of the work they created, which doesn’t happen in most studio-run writers’ programs. She approached actor Margot Robbie, a close friend since they began working together on this year’s Birds of Prey. “The wildly brilliant things that come out of Christina’s brain never cease to amaze me, but this is one of her greatest ideas yet,” says Robbie, who was “immediately on board because we have a responsibility to not simply talk about hiring more women, but put that into action and create opportunities.” The result is the Lucky Exports Pitch Program—the child of Robbie’s LuckyChap Entertainment company and Hodson’s own Hodson Exports—which had
its inaugural run at the end of 2019.

Writing the Future:
For the program, the founders and their teams selected six female screenwriters with original ideas for action-centric movies—an area in which women screenwriters are particularly underrepresented—to meet with the staff of LuckyChap and Hodson Exports in a writers’ room for a minimum of three days a week over four weeks. “The idea is that they come in with a notion or a one-liner and leave with a fully outlined movie and a pitch we can take out to the world,” says Hodson. “We would love it if all six movies come out and they’re fantastic, but we also just want to introduce these writers into the studio system, so they get hired again for other jobs.”

When they do, those women can write the change they want to see in the world. “So often onscreen, the doctor, engineer, or scientist—anyone in a lab coat doing something important—is a six-foot-tall straight white male,” says Hodson. “Make them all women!
Make them all women of color! If the writer just shifts the gender of the character who is in the background doing something clever, then we can start to shift the norm.” —E.N.G.

Photo credit: Winnie Au
Photo credit: Winnie Au

The Food Network

Joanna James, Producer, Writer, and Director, A Fine Line

A Woman’s Place: Traditionally, we’ve been expected to know our way around a kitchen—unless that kitchen is in a restaurant, in which case we have to step aside and yield the Viking range to a tattooed badass wielding a pepper mill. “Less than 7 percent of head chefs and restaurant owners are women,” says filmmaker and journalist Joanna James. “But most of these world-renowned chefs credit their mothers or grandmothers with inspiring them to cook.”

Turning Up the Heat: James’s documentary, A Fine Line, which aired on PBS in March, explores issues women face in the culinary world: sexism, harassment, few mentoring opportunities, lack of capital, and punishing schedules—problems James was familiar with because her mother, Val, is proprietor of the beloved Val’s Restaurant & Lounge in Holden, Massachusetts. A Fine Line features Val alongside a number of heavy hitters, including Lidia Bastianich, co-owner of four restaurants (including Del Posto, pictured here), Cat Cora, and Dominique Crenn. All share their experiences, ranging from handsy managers cornering them in the walk-in freezer to rejection letters that read “We don’t hire women in our kitchen” to what Bastianich calls the “torment” of leaving behind a child for long stretches. “More than half of culinary school graduates are female, but when it comes to leadership roles, those numbers tank,” says James.

Just Desserts: Along with the film, James created the MAPP Impact campaign to increase the ranks of women in leadership positions in the field. (Fair warning, MAPP stands for a mouthful: Mentorships and Apprenticeships, Affordable and Accessible Child Care, Paid Family Leave Advocacy, and Power to Live Your Truth and Give Back.) She’s also hosting screenings and panel discussions around the country where women in the industry can apply for mentorships with their culinary “sheroes”—and receive funding for childcare and travel expenses so they can attend the training sessions.

Mama Knows Best: In a voice made gravelly from years of shouting orders for swordfish and spanakopita, Val—who was inducted into the prestigious culinary organization Les Amis d’Escoffier Society of New York in 2007—recalls her own struggles: traditional parents who thought running their family restaurant was a job better suited to her brother; working full-time as the single mom of two kids; being a self-proclaimed “little Greek girl desperate to get a bank loan.” “It makes me teary just thinking about it,” she admits. “Now it’s so nice to have these young women coming in and saying, ‘I can do this.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? Let’s go!’ ” —A.M.

The New Money

Vicki Saunders, Founder of SheEO

Tackling the To-Do List: Polluted oceans. World hunger. A healthcare crisis. “We’re at a moment when we should be rethinking almost everything,” says entrepreneur Vicki Saunders. “We need the full spectrum of humanity to bring their innovations forward to solve the problems they see.” Unfortunately, that hasn’t been happening, as the people who write the checks that turn ideas into realities are overwhelmingly male: Only about 3 percent of venture capital funding in the U.S. goes to female entrepreneurs; in the UK it’s a pitiful 1 percent. In order to give more women chances to save the world, in 2015 Saunders launched SheEO, an incubator for female entrepreneurs who are starting businesses aligned with what Saunders calls the world’s to-do list: the United Nations’ sustainable development goals, from spreading knowledge to fostering good health to helping clean up our polluted environment.

A Smart Investment: SheEO is funded by a network of approximately 500 female investors (called activators) per country in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the UK who practice what Saunders calls “radical generosity.” Each year every activator donates $1,100 they never expect to get back—but that will continue to grow and nurture necessary new ventures. The first $100 goes to SheEO’s operating costs; the rest is pooled and loaned at 0 percent interest to five women-led companies in each country, selected annually by the donors. Loans are paid back over five years and then returned to the pool to fund a new group. The activators range in age from 14 to 95, and each one, regardless of her age or level of expertise, votes on which businesses to fund. “There’s a ton of evidence that collective intelligence is more brilliant than a few experts,” says Saunders. “We’d trust the intuition of 500 women over five experts in a room any day.”

Show Her the Money! To date, the group has lent over $5 million to 63 entrepreneurs. Among the many successful ventures: the Alinker, a three-wheeled walking bike for people with mobility issues; Twenty One Toys, which creates games that teach empathy, collaboration, and other social-emotional skills; and Little Lotus, which uses NASA fabric to create temperature-regulating swaddles for babies.

Loan recipients are encouraged to ask activators for advice, dismantling the myth of the maverick genius. “Our culture tells entrepreneurs to fake it till you make it, but that’s nonsense,” says Toni Desrosiers, a former nutritionist and inventor of Abeego, a beeswax wrap that keeps food fresh and plastic wrap out of landfills. When Desrosiers received her SheEO loan, Abeego was in a rocky place. With the group’s help, she was able to rebrand and grow by 300 percent; now the product is sold in 40 countries. Along with her business, Desrosiers’s confidence grew, too: “The support of all those women made me feel ten feet tall.” —A.M.