The year 2021 began with the hope for a better tomorrow, after a rather tumultuous 2020. While the early optimism was marred by deadly waves of the Covid-19 pandemic, the year saw some outstanding firsts and several inspiring moments that continue to build hopes for a better future.
With 2022 around the corner, let’s pause and reflect on those successes that defeated biases, broke stereotypes, braved uncomfortable conversations and paved the way for those yet to come with gentle nudges.
In this piece, we look at five women whose achievements in 2021 not only made headlines but also challenged the status quo.
Leena Nair - Global CEO-Designate, CHANEL
“It has been a great privilege to break some of the taboos and glass ceilings surrounding gender”
Leena Nair, the chief human resources officer (CHRO) of Unilever, was recently named as global CEO of French fashion group Chanel. Nair, 52, has the rare distinction of being the first female, first Asian, and the youngest-ever CHRO of London-based Unilever, which is a household name in beauty & personal care as well as foods & refreshment segments.
Leena’s history at Unilever, which spans three decades, is a testament to her passion and commitment to breaking stereotypes and paving the way for those yet to come. Featured on Fortune India’s Most Powerful Women 2021 list, Nair is admired for her people-centric approach to leadership. In 2007, she became the first woman in the Management Committee of Hindustan Unilever in 90 years to head the HR department. She was also the first woman to be on the Unilever South Asia Leadership Team a year later.
A strong believer of gender inclusion being a business issue, Nair believes that “to create a balance we need to change the men, the women and the culture.” Sharing why diversity is personal to her, she said in a LinkedIn post:
“All my life it has been a great privilege to break some of the taboos and glass ceilings surrounding gender. I feel especially honoured in steering Unilever to a more balanced future. As a woman who has experienced being in the minority, I have empathy for anyone who feels marginalised. I take it personally.”
Maria Ressa - 2021 Nobel Peace Prize winner
“We are standing on the rubble of the world that was, and we must have the foresight and courage to imagine what might happen if we don’t act now”
An author, co-founder and CEO of Philippine-based online news website, Rappler, Maria Ressa is the first Nobel laureate from the Philippines. While Maria is a veteran journalist, she made global headlines this year when she was honoured with the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, jointly with Dmitry Muratov, for "their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace."
A bestselling author with two books to her credit - Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda's Newest Center (2003), and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism (2013) - Ressa’s publishing work centres around the rise of terrorism around Southeast Asia. Prior to founding Rappler, Ressa spent close to two decades as a lead investigative reporter for CNN Southeast Asia.
Talking about the persistent threat to the lives of journalists, democracy being paralysed by technology giants, and the need for greater transparency and accountability across the global information ecosystem, Ressa said in her Nobel speech:
“We are standing on the rubble of the world that was, and we must have the foresight and courage to imagine what might happen if we don’t act now, and instead, create the world as it should be – more compassionate, more equal, more sustainable...The destruction has happened. Now it’s time to build – to create the world we want. Now, please, with me, close your eyes. And imagine the world as it should be. A world of peace, trust and empathy, bringing out the best that we can be. Now let’s go and make it happen. Let’s hold the line. Together.”
Falguni Nayar - Founder and CEO, Nykaa
"Women need to allow the spotlight of their lives to be on themselves"
Falguni Nayar is at the helm of Nykaa, the hugely popular online beauty retailer whose own brand name translates to "heroine" in Sanskrit, a fitting title for the founder herself. Over the years, her firm has come to lead this niche of the consumer market despite the presence of bigger players such as Amazon and Flipkart. Falguni herself embarked on that journey not simply as a business strategy. More importantly, her decision marked a new chapter in her life and career – that definitive moment of choosing to lead a business and to break down barriers for other women and entrepreneurs.
Falguni's success resonates with many, not merely because she has reached great heights but because she remains deeply rooted in her mission. Even before starting Nykaa, Falguni had helped countless other entrepreneurs go public with their ventures. With Nykaa's own IPO, which made the headlines in 2021, she carries with her success the message of empowering a greater number of women. Today, Falguni is worth almost $7bn, with her success self-made and borne out of sheer hard work. Her humility, however, is what draws the world's fascination.
"I hope more women like me dare to dream for themselves," said Falguni in a media interview. “Women need to allow the spotlight of their lives to be on themselves."
Simone Biles - Decorated Gymnast
“Don't be afraid to ask for help. I know it's not easy, but it really is helpful”
An active gymnast and mental health champion, Simone Biles shook the world of sports in 2021 by standing up for her mental health in the middle of the Tokyo Olympics. The seven-time Olympic medalist withdrew from four out of five event finals in Japan this year to reinforce — no matter the discipline — ‘the fitness required to compete is not only physical but also mental’.
A role model for many, Biles, 24, recognised the need to step back while being well aware of the potential backlash that might come her way. She chose her mental health and did what she needed, eventually garnering support - in addition to hurtful remarks. She reflected on her journey and spoke openly about the stress that was not only fueled by the expectation to be the best, but, the stress that being in the spotlight brought.
Given the sports industry thrives on competition, and is based on ranking players - with age remaining a key factor - performance plays a major role in determining one’s opportunity trajectory. While Biles risked people’s perception of her abilities as a sportsperson by stepping away from competition, her courage and grit overpowered any such perceptions and paved the way for several other peers to come forward and share their journey as well.
Emphasising the importance of seeking help, Biles told the media:
"Don't be afraid to ask for help. I know it's not easy, but it really is helpful. And I know most of the time you're scared, you might feel dumb. But as I have learned over the years, it's OK to ask for help," she said.
Harnaaz Sandhu - Miss Universe 2021
"Come out, speak for yourselves because you are the leader of your life’"
After 21 years, an Indian woman brought home the Miss Universe crown. Until now, only two Indian women had won the coveted crown - Sushmita Sen in 1994, and Lara Dutta in 2000.
Representing India on a global stage, Harnaaz reinforced the importance of believing in oneself and encouraged everyone to be their own leader.
After several rounds at the pageant, while responding to the question “What advice would you give to young women on how to deal with the pressures they face today?”, Harnaaz said:
“The biggest pressure the youth of today is facing is to believe in themselves, to know that you are unique and that’s what makes you beautiful. Stop comparing yourselves with others and let’s talk about more important things that’s happening worldwide. This is what you need to understand. Come out, speak for yourselves because you are the leader of your life, you are the voice of your own. I believed in myself and that’s why I am standing here today,”
The list above is certainly not exhaustive. However, their stories inspire many, across generations, across geographies, across communities. The spotlight that their individual stories puts on the impact of women having a voice, an ambition and an ecosystem to flourish - an ecosystem that these women built for themselves - that reinforces the self-belief and conviction that individuals, not only women, must nurture.
As the world continues to battle endless curveballs coming its way, the only way to thrive will be to come out of the shell, foster creativity, innovation and inclusion, and let each one - irrespective of social identities - access the resources and platforms to accelerate change.
Who are the top five trailblazers on your list? Share in the comments below.