7 Innovative Women to Watch in 2016

It’s easy to fall for the idea that we have to follow a set career trajectory — that we must do our best to succeed within the limitations society has set for us. But if we’d taken that sentiment to heart, then we never would’ve made any progress: Women wouldn’t have the vote, #BlackLivesMatter wouldn’t have gotten traction, and electricity or penicillin wouldn’t even exist.

The women featured here are fundamentally changing their industries for the better by tearing down the confines that hold many of us back. They work in sports, entertainment, science, tech, and even death — but they all have one thing in common. These women are here to make the world a better place.

Forget What You Know

Forget What You Know

It’s easy to fall for the idea that we have to follow a set career trajectory — that we must do our best to succeed within the limitations society has set for us. But if we’d taken that sentiment to heart, then we never would’ve made any progress: Women wouldn’t have the vote, #BlackLivesMatter wouldn’t have gotten traction, and electricity or penicillin wouldn’t even exist.

The women featured here are fundamentally changing their industries for the better by tearing down the confines that hold many of us back. They work in sportsentertainment, science, tech, and even death — but they all have one thing in common. These women are here to make the world a better place.

Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland made headlines last year when she was named the first African American female principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, but that was just the beginning. Copeland is using her visibility to widen the concept of who can be a ballerina — she even appears in Harper’s Bazaar this month re-creating the famous Edgar Degas paintings that have informed our collective idea of what ballerinas look like. Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, told Harper’s Bazaar that Misty “has knocked aside a long-standing music-box stereotype of the ballerina and replaced it with a thoroughly modern, multicultural image of presence and power.”

Copeland is also committed to bringing dance to people who might ordinarily be left out — specifically the impoverished. In 2015, she worked with the nonprofit MindLeaps to launch the MindLeaps Girls Program in Rwanda, and she awarded a star student the Misty Copeland Scholarship, which paid for her to go to boarding school.

In addition to being an artist of many talents (she appeared on Broadway in On the Town), Copeland’s business dealings model those of a professional athlete, not a typical ballerina. She’s signed big-name endorsement deals, including ones with Seiko, American Express, Coach, and Diet Dr. Pepper. And her ongoing deal with Under Armour has challenged perceptions of what an athlete looks like.

Cynthia Breazeal

Cynthia Breazeal

Robotics pioneer Dr. Cynthia Breazeal is widening our understanding of how robots can interact with humans. She is the founder and director of the Personal Robots Group at the Media Lab at MIT, as well as the founder and chief scientist of Jibo, Inc., a consumer electronics company.

Virtual assistants such as Siri and Alexa can look up facts and add events to your calendar, but Breazeal’s work takes it a step further with personal robots that are “socially intelligent, interact and communicate with people in human-centric terms, work with humans as peers, and learn from people as an apprentice.” Enter: Jibo.

As explained in Jibo’s wildly successful Indiegogo campaign, which raised more than $3.7 million, Jibo is like the personal-assistant robots we’ve seen in movies (think C3PO in Star Wars). He learns about you and your family and tries to help you without being asked, as opposed to the response-only functionality of Siri et al. Jibo is fitted with a likable personality and combines artificial intelligence, face recognition, voice recognition, and touch command to go far beyond the connected devices we’re used to, like smartphones and tablets. You can visit the Jibo site and join the waitlist to get your very own robot — the first orders are expected to ship in April or May of this year.

Kathryn Finney

Kathryn Finney

The state of tech entrepreneurship for black women is somewhat dire, according to a report released this month by DigitalUndivided, an organization that promotes diversity in technology and innovation. But this won’t always be the case if Kathryn Finney, DigitalUndivided’s founder and managing director, has anything to say about it.

Making tech more inclusive is an uphill battle, as a recent DigitalUndivided’s report shows: Black women’s startups are frequently undercapitalized, despite the fact that black women are the fastest-growing cohort of entrepreneurs, with growth of 322 percent since 1997. Of the 88 companies founded by black women featured in the report, more than half of them raised an average $36,000 in funding, far below the $1.6 million industry average for startups that eventually fail, according to the report. What’s more, only 11 companies with black female founders have raised more than $1 million since 2012.

Finney says that black women don’t get the opportunities afforded to other tech entrepreneurs (predominantly white men) because they are “not given very many entry points to tech entrepreneurship.” She explains, “We often don’t go to the ‘right’ schools to have the ‘right’ networks to put us in position to work for the ‘right’ tech company and/or position us to the ‘right’ investors. And even when we do all of those things, we don’t have the ‘right’ cultural experiences to assimilate into the world of tech.”

To break open the system, Finney trains and supports black and Latina female tech entrepreneurs to gain funding through DigitalUndivided’s FOCUS Fellow 16-week incubator program, which has so far resulted in 48 companies built and $13 million raised. Her company also leads #ProjectDiane, an initiative to identify female black and Latina founders of tech companies, and START, a program that teaches entrepreneurship at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

Finney’s efforts have been recognized at the White House: The Obama administration honored her as a Champion of Change in 2013.

Ava Duvernay

Ava Duvernay

You’ve likely heard of Ava DuVernay and her critically acclaimed 2014 film Selma, which famously did not garner her an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Kathryn Bigelow is presently the only woman to have ever won an Oscar for Best Director, and a black person has never won that award. DuVernay has been an outspoken voice for inclusion in Hollywood — not “diversity,” a word she says has “no emotional resonance” for the people left out.

As conversations around a less homogeneous Hollywood increase, DuVernay is staunch in her mission to move the film industry forward. She’s doing that by producing a 13-episode series for the OWN network called Queen Sugar. The series will have an all-female directorial team — which is considered revolutionary, given that in 2014 only 15 percent of American movies were directed by women, according to San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film.

DuVernay is looking outside the mainstream for her talent. “We’re hiring … a lot of women that we know from the black independent film space,” she says. Bringing more voices forward can only benefit everyone.

Kathryn Smith

Kathryn Smith

Of all the glass ceilings keeping women from advancing, perhaps the one over the world of professional sports has been the strongest. While the male-focused sports industry earns billions, female athletes are often still seen as niche in the U.S. Many women have to go abroad for professional opportunities.

Full-time coaches on professional sports teams are almost exclusively male, even in women’s sports; more than half the head coaches in the WNBA are men. But football is making a change — one that’s perhaps indicative of the fact that women are the fastest-growing NFL fan demographic. Kathryn Smith made a huge stride forward for women in football in early 2016 when the Buffalo Bills announced they’d hired her as a special teams quality-control coach, making her the NFL’s first female full-time coach.

Smith worked as the administrative assistant to Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan this past season, after previously working 12 years for the New York Jets. As part of a small group of women changing the face of professional sports, she joins the ranks of Jen Welter, a former coaching intern in the NFL; Becky Hammon, the first full-time female assistant coach in the NBA; Nancy Lieberman, the second full-time female assistant coach in the NBA; and Sarah Thomas, the first female referee in the NFL.

Caitlin Doughty and Amber Carvaly

Caitlin Doughty and Amber Carvaly

Death is big business: The U.S. funeral market is estimated to bring in $20.7 billion a year. Still, most people seem to do whatever they can to avoid talking about the unavoidable end of life.

Caitlin Doughty is working to change that. The funeral director, author, and star of the Web series Ask a Mortician has made a career out of making the subject of death more approachable. She teamed up with fellow funeral director Amber Carvaly to found Undertaking LA, a funeral service that aims to change how we think about death.

Consider the experience we’ve become accustomed to around death: a stodgy funeral home, embalming, expensive caskets, and detachment from the actual life lived. Undertaking LA changes that paradigm by giving its clients the ability to keep death a more intimate and natural transition through at-home funerals and more involvement with the process.

Undertaking LA is also making end-of-life services more affordable. A typical funeral and burial for an adult cost $8,508 in 2014, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (this price includes a vault, which is required by most cemeteries). Some states and localities will offer burial services for the indigent, but it’s not guaranteed in every community. Undertaking LA’s services run just under $1,000 for a home funeral service (which doesn’t include a cremation, burial, or plot), and $1,470 gets you a “witness cremation,” where you actually take part in the process — this is in keeping with Doughty and Carvaly’s mission to make death less removed from life.

Even though their services are already less expensive than most, Doughty and Carvaly are in the process of filing for nonprofit status to make sure income isn’t a barrier to access to death rites.

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