5 inspirational women with important lessons for success in business

  • For International Women's Day, we asked World Economic Forum Managing Director Sarita Nayyar to share the lessons she learned from some of the women who have inspired her throughout her career.
  • The list includes Maya Angelou, Indra Nooyi and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala.

Each year, International Women's Day is a reminder of how far we still have to go to closing the gender gap and achieving gender parity.

At the same time, it's an opportunity to pay tribute to the inspirational women who are playing vital roles in our economies and societies. This year, in particular, the world is recognizing the crucial role women are playing in the ongoing recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

These women can offer important lessons for us all in furthering equality and making an impact in our work.

With that in mind, we asked Sarita Nayyar, Managing Director of the World Economic Forum, to tell us about some of the women who have had a positive influence on her throughout her career. Here are five of the women who inspire her, in her words.

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 27JAN08 - Indra K. Nooyi, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, PepsiCo, USA; Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2008, captured during the session 'Message from Davos: Believing in the Future' at the Annual Meeting 2008 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2008. Copyright by World Economic Forum    swiss-image.ch/Photo by Remy Steinegger+++No resale, no archive+++
Image: REUTERS/Gary Hershorn

Maya Angelou, poet and author

Maya Angelou has inspired me to think differently. She overcame challenges and was still able to focus on the future and stay optimistic. She encouraged everyone to be part of the solution - that's what I find most motivational.

I keep coming back to her book Letter to My Daughter. It speaks to my experiences growing up as one of three girls with a mother who encouraged us to never let gender inequality deter us from excelling and following our passions. Her words resonate with me on a personal and professional level.

Indra Nooyi, former chairman and CEO, PepsiCo.

DAVOS/SWITZERLAND, 27JAN08 - Indra K. Nooyi, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, PepsiCo, USA; Co-Chair of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2008, captured during the session 'Message from Davos: Believing in the Future' at the Annual Meeting 2008 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 27, 2008. Copyright by World Economic Forum    swiss-image.ch/Photo by Remy Steinegger+++No resale, no archive+++
Image: World Economic Forum

I had the privilege of working with Indra Nooyi when she was chairman and CEO of PepsiCo. The corporate world is an extremely competitive environment - one where typically CEOs may only last a few years - and here you have an Asian woman not only served in the role for over a decade but made her mark.

She introduced the concept of "performance with a purpose," of delivering business results but doing so in way that served broader social and environmental goals. She had challenge after challenge thrown her way from activist investors, and she persevered, with the support of her board, with commitment and poise.

Bridgette Heller, former executive at Danone, Merck, Johnson & Johnson and Kraft Food

I worked with Bridgette Heller when we were both at Kraft Foods. She was my contemporary, my peer, and I learned a lot from her example.

Bridgette was always looking to engage the organization better towards gender and racial equality and diversity. All of us in our careers will come to a moment where we have an opportunity to make a decision about who we bring to a team or who we promote. We have to bring diversity into that decision-making.

She excelled at that work in an environment that was largely filled with men. She inspired me to always strive to speak up for diversity and inclusion in my own work.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General, World Trade Organization

Incoming World Trade Organization President (WTO) Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala speaks during an interview with Reuters in Potomac, Maryland, U.S., February 15, 2021.      REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - RC27TL9AZNUH
Image: REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is incredibly accomplished and brilliant. She rose through the ranks at the World Bank over two decades to become the 2nd most senior person. She navigated the international landscape engaging stakeholders across multiple organizations to drive impact. As a two-time Finance Minister under two different Presidents. She brought innovation to her role as Nigerian finance minister, launching many programs to bring transparency and reduce corruption.

What's more, she's someone who is highly regarded by everyone. Everyone speaks about her with a level of admiration that is constant, which is saying something. Now, as head of the WTO, we can be sure she will continue to strive for impact and do things differently.

Dr. Kamal Malik

No list of inspirational women in my life would be complete without mentioning my mom.

She was always dedicated to education, becoming a doctor and then continuing to practice medicine even while married to a military officer who was positioned in various locations. It wasn't easy. Her commitment to her career instilled in me that drive and that focus to achieve my goals.

Dr. Malik and her three daughters.
Dr. Malik and her three daughters.
Image: Courtesy of Sarita Nayyar

She instilled in her three daughters a love for exploration, curiosity and education. We grew up in an environment in which women did not have the same opportunities as men and where she was expected to have a son. She never let that affect us, encouraging us to excel in our professional choices

Thanks to my mother's example, I can be the only women in a room full of men executives, and it doesn't bother me. She taught me not to rely on external recognition or acknowledgement but to be self-driven. Who I am, and where I am today in my career, is thanks to her. She was way ahead of her times. Thank you Mom!