20 Inspiring women making the world a better place for us all

Jan 12, 2016 at 8:00 a.m. ET
Inspiring women

SheKnows combed through hundreds of nominations to select our group of 20 Inspiring Women Making a Social Impact (well, 23, technically!). Here are the women who inspire us all to do more to make the world a better place.

1 /20: Jessica Sutherland, Homeless to Higher Ed

Inspiring women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

1/20 :Jessica Sutherland, Homeless to Higher Ed

A formerly homeless college athlete, Jessica Sutherland knows what it means to struggle, but the most important lesson she's learned along the way she had tattooed on her own wrist: "KEEP GOING." She formed Homeless to Higher Ed to help others do just that by redefining educational opportunities in the U.S.

The volunteer-run organization — which began as a simple online campaign to raise funds for one homeless student — provides help across the country with college for homeless youth and those who have aged out of the foster system in the form of everything from scholarships, to care packages, to assistance with navigating financial aid.

"Many people still believe that the bootstrap fallacy is a real thing — that poverty isn't inherited in the same way that wealth is," she told SheKnows. "H2H is dedicated to helping kids who were given so little at the start of life, so they can thrive, rather than survive."

She says while financial support is important, it's the mentoring and support that really helps students. "It's harder to give up on yourself when someone's rooting for you, and even harder to give up when you take an inventory of all the times you didn't quit... the 'keep going' mindset forces you to catalogue your own strength, so you can feed on it," she said.

2 /20: Tamar Manasseh, Mothers Against Senseless Killings (MASK)

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

2/20 :Tamar Manasseh, Mothers Against Senseless Killings (MASK)

Tamar Manasseh was fed up with seeing people killed all too frequently in her Englewood, Chicago, neighborhood, which is known as being one of the country's most dangerous. Instead of fleeing or hiding in fear, however, she formed MASK, an organization through which moms band together and patrol the crime-ridden streets in pink shirts, providing food and compassion. They see themselves as a supplemental force to law enforcement and fight for stricter gun control laws.

Manasseh looks to her tough ancestors and her Jewish faith with inspiration, citing the phrase "Tikkun Olam," which means, "repair the world."

"The ability to 'repair the world' is within each of us," she told SheKnows. "We just have to be ready to pitch in any and everywhere we may see cracks."

3 /20: Gloria Feldt, Take the Lead

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

3/20 :Gloria Feldt, Take the Lead

Gloria Feldt is co-founder and president of Take the Lead, an organization dedicated to ensuring that women are in an equal number of leadership opportunities across all sectors by 2025." Sound impossible, especially since that number has sat at about 18 percent for the past decade? That's just what inspires Feldt to keep going.

The former teen mom and former president and CEO of Planned Parenthood who has built her reputation as a feminist icon over the years says, "I really believe that if you can dream it you can do it." Her dream is to help women embrace their power, and anyone who knows her doesn't doubt that she can help make this happen.

The most important piece of advice she's ever been given came from a man she hardly knew: Ask for it by name.

"Men tend to ask for what they want in simple declarative sentences," Feldt told SheKnows. "Women often speak in indirect and more complex language, and we expect that our good work will inherently be recognized and rewarded. Nothing could be further from the truth. The world is not a meritocracy. If we are not clear about our intentions and able to advocate for ourselves, we can’t expect things to turn out the way we want them."

4 /20: Luvvie Ajayi, The Red Pump Project

Inspiring women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

4/20 :Luvvie Ajayi, The Red Pump Project

Change starts through small steps, and in this case those steps are being taken by feet sporting bright red shoes. Luvvie Ajayi co-founded The Red Pump Project in 2009 along with Karyn Watkins to bring more awareness to the impact HIV/AIDS has on women and girls. It grew out of an online campaign to get 100 bloggers to post a Red Pump widget as a symbol of empowerment. Today they work online and on the ground to raise awareness and empower women with knowledge about the potentially deadly diseases, and they have gained national attention. 

Beyond her work, Ajayi, who lives in Chicago by way of Nigeria, is a blogger, author and digital strategist. She says "people who live life loudly" inspire her.

"Speaking your truth is incredibly difficult, but it is what propels you forward," she told SheKnows.

"I do what I do because I love it," she said. "And I am incredibly fortunate to make a living doing what I'm passionate about.

5 /20: Elisa Kreisinger, Pop Culture Pirate

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

5/20 :Elisa Kreisinger, Pop Culture Pirate

As a video artist, Kreisinger hacks pop culture to make it more thoughtful, inclusive and representative of all people. She has remixed characters in shows like Mad Men into feminists and turned Real Housewives into lesbians on her site Pop Culture Pirate

Her most recent #TweetsGirlsGet project uses a Twitter bot to respond to misogynistic hate messages with strong feminist song lyrics.

Kreisinger says one of the most important lessons she's learned is to ask forgiveness, not permission. "Identifying what you want and need is hard enough, especially at work," she told SheKnows. "Go and get it and apologize later."

She also encourages women to become experts at something. "An expert is just someone with an opinion, and having an opinion is a skill and a service people pay for and value. Just make sure those are strong opinions, loosely held. No one has productive meetings or conversations with zealots."

6 /20: Molly Barker, Girls on the Run

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

6/20 :Molly Barker, Girls on the Run

Molly Barker started Girls on the Run in 1996 in Charlotte, North Carolina, to help young girls embrace their strengths and build confidence through running. What started with 13 girls has grown into a program that serves more than 168,000 girls in cities across the country.

Barker has since retired from Girls on the Run, and is charting new territory by launching a new nonprofit, The Red Boot Coalition, to address the current levels of our highly-polarized culture by creating safe places for people to listen, share and connect. "My bills come from charting new territory," Baker says. "I'm an innovator. I'm a change maker."

What inspires her most? People who are vulnerable. "There is nothing more inspiring to me than THAT moment when someone lets you into their brokenness... their humanness... that space we all share but are oftentimes afraid to show," she told SheKnows. "I've had the honor of being witness to that with thousands and thousands of people."

7 /20: Meredith Walker, Smart Girls

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

7/20 :Meredith Walker, Smart Girls

Meredith Walker founded Amy Poehler's Smart Girls with funny girl Amy Poehler to help young people "cultivate their authentic selves" through an online community. Serving as executive director of the organization, which is headquartered in Austin, Texas, the former head of the Talent Department at Saturday Night Live, Walker, she says the hardest thing in the world is just being yourself.

"Authenticity of person is what makes the difference, because the world seems to always have other ideas about who you should be," she told SheKnows. "Learning to be yourself takes time. You have to put in the effort to get to know yourself."

The best piece of advice she's been given? "It’s really OK to NOT know exactly what you are going to do or be with your life," she told SheKnows. "It may feel kind of unsettling that way, but unsettled isn’t the worst thing to feel. GET YOUR HAIR WET! And by that, I mean, get all the way in and try things."

8 /20: Erin Merryn, Erin's Law

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

8/20 :Erin Merryn, Erin's Law

A childhood sexual abuse survivor turned child advocate and activist, Erin wrote her first book, Stolen Innocence: Triumphing Over a Childhood Broken by Abuse: A Memoirin 2005, detailing her own experiences with rape (by a family friend from age 6-8) and incest (by a cousin from age 11-13), which caught the attention of a state senator. "Erin's Law," which requires that all public schools in each state implement a prevention-oriented child sexual abuse program, was first passed in her home state of Illinois. She has worked tirelessly since to see it passed in 25 more states and it's pending in many others.

In her book Living for Today, she writes, "I could not go into the past and use White-Out to erase any events; instead, I had to find a way to use my pain to help me heal and grow. I had to stare darkness in the face and accept that I could not change the past, but I could build a better future."

She firmly believes that persistence pays off. After both her high school algebra teacher and guidance counselor told her she wouldn't make it in college and that she should consider waitressing instead, she proved them wrong… and then some. 

"I was so hurt but didn't let their doubts of me stop me in pursuing my dreams. My senior year of high school I published my first book, five years after graduating high school I had my masters degree in social work and by the age of 30 I have published three books and passed a law, "Erin's Law," in over half the country. This is the woman that was told she would never get into college. As long as you believe in yourself you can achieve anything you put your mind to. I am living proof."

9 /20: Nancy Lublin, Dress for Success & Crisis Text Line

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

9/20 :Nancy Lublin, Dress for Success & Crisis Text Line

Lublin's inspiration to do the work she does is simple: "The pure happiness that comes from doing the right thing… every damn day."

At the age of 23, with a $5,000 inheritance, she started Dress for Success, a now-global organization that empowers women to economic independence by providing work clothes and support. To date, they have helped more than 850,000 women around the world. After serving as CEO of DoSomething.org, she went on to found the Crisis Text Line, which provides free 24/7 online support for those in crisis. More than 11 million texts have been processed to date.

"I will never be rich, but it feels pretty f***ing good to wake up every day knowing that I'm part of something that saves lives," she told SheKnows.

The best piece of advice she's ever been given? "Have more sex."

10 /20: Anu Bhagwati, Service Women's Action Network & Yoga for Ve

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

10/20 :Anu Bhagwati, Service Women's Action Network & Yoga for Ve

A former Marine, writer, social entrepreneur and activist, Anu founded the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN), which is responsible for dozens of historic policy reforms in the military justice system, including those to help end military rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment, and to guarantee reproductive health care to service women. Another passion of hers — yoga — led her to establish Yoga for Vets in 2008, which provides classes for veterans, taught by veterans.

She says the biggest lesson she's learned throughout her career is to take care of herself first and foremost. "Don’t ever sacrifice your personal health, happiness or loved ones for work," she told SheKnows. "It will catch up with you, no matter what cause you are sacrificing yourself for."

She also advocates learning when it's the right time to express yourself.

"We love to talk and spout opinions in this society, particularly in the age of social media," she said. "But listening and waiting for the right time to say something is a much more helpful (and difficult) skill to cultivate. And sometimes it’s not necessary to speak at all, particularly when people are engaged in abusive banter back and forth. This is very different than lacking the confidence to express yourself when it is helpful and constructive, or not sticking up for yourself in a skillful way when you are being harmed." 

11 /20: Miki Agrawal, SheThinx

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

11/20 :Miki Agrawal, SheThinx

Miki Agrawal has a goal: to win the millennial-friendly vagina and butthole categories. Her company Thinx, which she co-founded with her twin sister, Radha, provides underwear that actually works for women during their periods, and was named one of Time's Best Inventions of 2015.

Inspired by a teen they met in Africa who couldn't attend school during her "week of shame," they set out to find solutions for girls and women around the world who don't have the right resources for their periods.

Other projects she has in the works include ICON underwear to combat urine leakage and Tushy, a bidet attachment for toilets that "fights the global sanitation crisis while elevating the way you clean your butt." Each of the products also gives back: For every pair of Thinx undies sold, the company provides seven reusable sanitary pads to a girl in a developing nation; for every Icon sold, they contribute to the Fistula Foundation, which fights the fistula crisis in Africa and other developing nations.

Agrawal says her biggest inspiration comes from the feminist movement.

"As I have the privilege of growing Thinx, I am being exposed more and more to the plight of girls and women around the world — and even what girls and women are facing right here in the United States," she told SheKnows. "There is very real gender inequality that I am excited to play my part in squashing."

The most important lesson she's learned? "The saying 'it takes a village' is only partly true," she said. "The saying should actually be: 'It takes the RIGHT village.'"

12 /20: Shannon Watts, Moms Demand Action

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

12/20 :Shannon Watts, Moms Demand Action

With five children and a 15-year career as a communications executive, stay-at-home mom Shannon Watts never considered herself an activist. Then the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School happened, and she knew she had to do something.

That something began as a Facebook page, titled Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and it has grown into a nationwide movement with chapters in all 50 states. The goal: to demand action at all levels for common sense gun reforms. They've joined with Everytown for Gun Safety and Mayors Against Illegal Guns to form the U.S.'s largest grassroots gun violence prevention organization.

In a recent article on CNN she detailed the wins they have seen from changing the political talk around guns to getting legislation passed. 

"If anyone tells you nothing can be done about gun violence, let them know how much has been achieved in just three years," she wrote. "Remind them that progress, especially on a tough issue, does not happen overnight. And tell them that after Sandy Hook, American mothers will never be silent again. Together, we can end gun violence."

13 /20: Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood Federation of America

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

13/20 :Cecile Richards, Planned Parenthood Federation of America

Since 2006, Cecile Richards has served as the presideent for Planned Parenthood in one of the most volatile times for women's rights. She says it's an honor to work for the organization where 1 in 5 women go for health care at some point in their lives, and she is inspired by and in awe of the courage and compassion by the staff at health centers across the country.

"We saw that in the tragic shooting in Colorado last month. The staff at our health center there literally saved their patients' lives, and the first thing they worried about the next day was where their patients would get good care while their health center is closed," she told SheKnows. "I also continue to be inspired by the enthusiasm and drive of our young supporters across the country. They are ensuring that this country is moving forward when it comes to affordable health care, access to birth control, comprehensive sex ed and safe and legal abortion. The present and future of this movement is in good hands and I feel incredibly hopeful."

Her advice for other women wanting to make a difference?

"My answer is always the same: vote, volunteer, learn public speaking skills and say yes! Too often, women worry that they don’t have the right skills, the right degree or the right background for things and say no to opportunities because of it. You never know until you try, so just take the chance and say yes to whatever new opportunity comes your way."

14 /20: Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

14/20 :Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media

Although she is best known for her work on screen, her most important work happens behind the scenes as a staunch women's rights activist. Seeing a stark need, she founded the Geena Davis Institute of Gender in Media in 2007 to help "dramatically improve, gender balance, reduce stereotyping and create diverse female characters in entertainment targeting children 11 and under."

From amassing a huge body of research on how women are portrayed in family entertainment to influencing entertainment industry executives to change the content of their projects, her work is making a difference.

As Nina Tassler, chairman at CBS Entertainment, testifies on the organization's website, "They have made great strides to change the landscape of media and programming to reflect a more accurate, gender balanced, diverse portrayal of society."

Earlier this year, she also co-founded the Bentonville Film Festival, which supports and promotes films with diverse casts and crews. She told Variety, "The goal of the festival is not just to showcase women and diversity — it’s to really have a proactive and powerful effect on the industry. We’re intent on being extremely proactive in showing the films that include women and that are very commercial. Our goal is to show that this is the direction in which things are heading and we should get there sooner.”


15 /20: Laverne Cox, Equality Activist

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

15/20 :Laverne Cox, Equality Activist

Actress, advocate and artist Laverne Cox is perhaps best recognized for playing Sophia Burset on Orange Is the New Black, which has helped her break down barriers and achieve a number of firsts in the LGBT community. From being the first openly transgender person nominated for an Emmy Award in the acting category, to being the first to appear on the cover of Time magazine, she's broken new ground and opened eyes and conversations along the way.

In 2013 she told Entertainment Monthly, "If the character is written like the way Sophia is written, as a multi-dimensional character who the audience can really empathize with, all of the sudden they’re empathizing with a real Trans person. And for Trans folks out there, who need to see representations of people who are like them and of their experiences, that’s when it becomes really important. I can’t tell you how many messages I’ve gotten from Trans folks on social media and through my website saying how validating it is for them to see themselves on television represented in ways that they can really relate to."

She consistently speaks out on the need for self-love and, above all, acceptance for all people. At Creating Change 2014, she said, “I believe when we love someone, we respect them, and we listen to them; we feel that their voice matters. And — and we let them dictate the terms of who they are and what their story is.”

16 /20: Isis Anchalee Wenger, #ILookLikeAnEngineer

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

16/20 :Isis Anchalee Wenger, #ILookLikeAnEngineer

When Isis Wenger appeared in an advertisement for her company, OneLogin, along with her title as a platform engineer, people didn't believe she was real because she was too pretty or too sexy. So Isis got real and started a campaign to call out the blatant sexism in the tech industry.

The 22-year-old started with a blog post and offered up the hashtag #ILookLikeAnEngineer, so that women around the world could show the real faces of women in technology.

"External appearances and the number of X chromosomes a person has is hardly a measure of engineering ability," Wenger told TechCrunch. "My goal is to help redefine 'what an engineer should look like' because I think that is a step towards eliminating subconscious bias towards diversity in tech."

Since then she has organized community gatherings and is working to further spread awareness and create change.

17 /20: Bree Newsome, Activist

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

17/20 :Bree Newsome, Activist

Hers was one of the memorable acts of 2015 — scaling the 30-foot-tall South Carolina flagpole and taking down the Confederate flag herself. Though she was arrested, her message was heard far and wide. "You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God. This flag comes down today!" she said as she took it down.

A staunch advocate for human rights and social justice, Bree also wears hats as a writer, director, producer, singer and songwriter, among others. In 2012 she released a music video taking down Mitt Romney and Republicans titled "Shake It Like an Etch-A-Sketch," and she recently released the song "#StayStrong: A Love Song to the Freedom Fighters," which is inspired by her work in the civil rights movement.

18 /20: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, Black Lives

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

18/20 :Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, Black Lives

After George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, these three women bonded together to form Black Lives Matter.

"We were all in this kind of collective moment of grief and rage," Tometi said at BlogHer 15 this past summer. "I, too, was searching; I was searching for people who felt the same way — who wanted to do something about it. When I heard about this hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, I said, that’s it. It resonated really, really deeply with me."

What started as a hashtag has grown into an entire movement. According to the organization's website, it is "an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression." 

The women say the organization — which now has 26 chapters across the country and internationally in Ghana and Toronto — has grown bigger than they ever could have imagined.

"An organizer’s dream is for something to go viral. Did I imagine this? No. Did I imagine Essence would put us on the cover? But I’m grateful for it," Cullors said.

"We know that all lives matter — we're well aware of that... but reality is that anti-black violence is killing our people and it's undermining our lives at every corner, and we have to get very real and precise about what is taking place,” Tometi said.

19 /20: Wendy Davis, Politician

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

19/20 :Wendy Davis, Politician

Though she began serving in the Texas Senate in 2009, it was in 2013 that she entered the national political spotlight with an 11-hour filibuster to block a Senate bill including more restrictive abortion laws for the state. Her move was so powerful that NBC is developing a television series inspired by it. 

Currently Davis works delivering speeches with a goal to get more young women engaged in politics. While she hasn't served since her unsuccessful run for Texas Governor in 2004, she isn't ruling out a political future.

She recently told The Texas Tribune, “I’m trying every single day to have an impact on the things that I care about and that may one day lead to running for office again. But it might not. And I’m okay with that.” 

Her advice to others? "If you fail, fail big! Fail with flair!" she wrote in a post for Lenny. "Fail trying to do something real, something hard. And when you do, own the journey with pride. Look at each battle scar you've earned as a tiny crack that will heal and make you stronger than you were before. And, as we'd say in Texas, get back up on that horse and ride to see another day."

20 /20: Sofia Campos, United We Dream

Inspiring Women
Image: Tiffany Egbert/SheKnows

20/20 :Sofia Campos, United We Dream

Sofia Campos knows that dreams lead to big things. As the founder of United We Dream, the nation's largest immigrant, youth-led organization, she fights for the dignity and fair treatment of all immigrants and their families.

Born in Lima, Peru, and raised in Los Angeles as an undocumented immigrant (which she found out when she was 17), the fight is personal.

"That hateful language, you know, like 'illegal, alien, wetback, leech,'" she told NPR in 2012. "People were talking about my brother, my sister, my mom, my dad. How can these people, who don't know me at all, who don't know the love that exists within my family — how can you be just so hateful?"

The group has fought for access to higher education and legal status for undocumented immigrant youth as well as their family. This election cycle they have launched a public education campaign to combat what they call the "rise of hatred and violence in American politics."

In a recent press release they stated: “Immigrant youth have been physically harassed by supporters of both Trump and Marco Rubio for speaking out in peaceful protest. Trans people are being murdered at shocking rates and women wearing headscarves are being assaulted while American politicians call for closing the borders because of one’s religion or national origin.

“United We Dream is committed to combatting intolerance and bigotry wherever we find it, whether that means engaging in nonviolent direct action or engaging our own communities in conversations about islamophobia.”