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The Badass 50

Meet the women who are leading the way toward a better world.
Jul 10, 2019 @ 8:00 am

InStyle's third Badass Women issue is here! And the cherry on top is always the bi-annual Badass 50 feature which spotlights dedicated women from the spheres of science, social justice, law, entertainment, politics, and other industries. Their poignant contributions to this issue are both enlightening and inspiring. We even have a handful of nominees in conversation with each other. You won’t want to miss what they have to say.

1. MINDY KALING: At 24 she became the first woman and person of color to join the writers’ room on NBC’s cult comedy The Office. Since then her career has taken off, with TV shows, big-budget films, and two best-selling memoirs. Her latest project, Late Night, which marked the first time she has written, produced, and starred in a feature film, is centered on a writer who challenges the role of women at work. Up next? An Indian wedding comedy with Priyanka Chopra Jonas. Think of it as the subcontinent’s answer to Crazy Rich Asians.

2. ABIGAIL DISNEY: Despite the long shadow of her family name, she has carved out her own space as a philanthropist, an activist, and an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker. She considers herself a peace builder, hell-bent on seeking justice — even when that means taking the family company to task for the huge pay gap between CEO Robert Iger and other employees. “From time to time I’m going to enrage people on my own side, and that’s hard,” she says. “But there’s incredible strength in stepping into danger, trouble, or conflict on behalf of others. It’s the right thing to do.”

3. BRIGADIER GENERAL JEANNIE LEAVITT: In 1993, after graduating first in her class, she asked to fly a fighter jet, knowing that the U.S. Air Force wouldn’t yet allow it. Months later, when officials changed their minds, she became the Air Force’s first female fighter pilot. Now the brigadier general (and muse for Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel) heads up Air Force recruitment, a role in which she hopes to inspire more women to take the lead. “We all think of movie stars as superheroes, but the Marvel team saw our airmen as the superheroes,” Leavitt says. “That was really neat.”

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4. NORAH O’DONNELL: In May the award-winning journalist became the third woman ever to solo-host a network evening news broadcast. As anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News she has already earned respect and acclaim for her hard-hitting coverage of modern politics and hot-button issues. “If you want to become a badass, outwork the competition and don’t take no for an answer,” she says.

5. HANNAH BEACHLER: The Black Panther “world creator” and first female production designer for Marvel became the first African American to win a production design Academy Award earlier this year for her work on the hit. “It has to be successful for the barriers to actually come down, and that’s what happened,” she says. “I want to leave a ripple in the culture.” With previous projects like designing the set for Beyoncé’s Grammy-winning visual album Lemonade and setting the scene for acclaimed drama Moonlight, she’s already accomplished that goal.

6. CARLY YOOST: Through her Child Rescue Coalition nonprofit, Yoost provides law enforcement in 91 countries with technology to identify child pornography traders, which has put thousands of predators behind bars and prevented the abuse of more than 500,000 kids. She’s been named a L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth National Honoree for her work. “This technology is saving children’s lives,” she says. “That’s something we should all be fighting for.”

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7. GRETA THUNBERG: The 16-year-old activist started protesting alone on the steps of the Swedish parliament last August, but in March about 1.6 million people in more than 120 countries participated in a climate-change-awareness strike inspired by her efforts. At the recent U.N. Climate Change conference she said, “We have not come here to beg the world leaders to care for our future. We have come here to let them know that change is coming whether they like it or not.” She has since been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

8. RUTH PORAT: The CFO of Google and its parent company, Alphabet, makes an impact that goes beyond the numbers. Porat was one of the few top female executives to participate in the Google Walkout for Real Change, protesting the firm’s internal handling of sexual-harassment allegations. And she is no stranger to fighting for equality. “Early in my career, men regularly challenged me as to whether I would stick around long enough to succeed,” she recalls. “The best payback was surpassing those guys.”

9. SHILPA YARLAGADDA: Since she launched sustainable-jewelry brand Shiffon Co. in 2017 with a pinkie ring that serves as a symbolic reminder to pay it forward, the Harvard student has been giving away 50 percent of each purchase to fund other female-centric start-ups across the globe. Yarlagadda’s mission has caught the attention of the likes of Nicole Kidman, Michelle Obama, and Serena Williams. “A badass woman is able to execute her vision,” she says. “But she also should be able to lift up other women in the process.”

10-11. ANNE HATHAWAY & LAUREN SINGER: The Oscar-winning actress has had a “major girl crush” on the Trash Is for Tossers founder, who made headlines for fitting four years’ worth of waste into a single mason jar. Now they are teaming up to tackle film-industry pollution. "While working on The Hustle, I noticed disposable coffee cups, plastic water bottles, idling trucks, and food waste," says Hathaway. "When I finished the film, my family and I went zero waste. I’m actually putting together an environmental rider too."

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12. LISA NISHIMURA: “When you’re doing something with no blueprint or historical precedence, it can be anxiety-provoking or thrilling,” says Netflix’s VP of independent film and documentary features. The executive has changed the face of TV entertainment and become an Oscar, Emmy, BAFTA, and Peabody Award-generating machine by acquiring documentary and comedy programs such as Making a Murderer and Hannah Gadsby: Nanette. “Being a small part of people genuinely connecting to a well-told, infinitely powerful story on a global scale is an honor beyond what I imagined.”

13. U.S. REPS KAY GRANGER (R) & NITA LOWEY (D): As the first women to run a House committee since 1977, House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Lowey and Ranking Member Granger are making history by joining forces across the aisle. “The last time two women led a committee, it was the Select Committee on the House Beauty Shop. Now Kay and I lead one of the most powerful committees in Congress,” says Lowey. “Women aren’t knocking on the door asking for a chance to speak anymore; we’re leading the conversations.”

14. BRUNA PAPANDREA: The Australian producer rose up from an impoverished childhood to become an Emmy winner (for Big Little Lies) and the founder of her own production company, Made Up Stories, focused on groundbreaking female-centric stories, like the upcoming Nine Perfect Strangers. “What the world and you might perceive as a deficit, let it be your superpower,” she says.

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

15. LIZZO: Since appearing naked on the cover of her major-label début album, Cuz I Love You, in April, the rapper, singer, and classically trained flutist has become a beacon of self-love, continually inspiring fans to be more confident in themselves.

16. KATRINA LAKE: The CEO of the digital personal-styling company Stitch Fix has changed the way women shop online. Recently the company has grown exponentially, generating over $1 billion in sales while serving more than three million clients. “A badass is someone with grit, perseverance, and a lot of doubters in her wake,” she says. “Stitch Fix is a business few people believed in and many venture capitalists passed on — but now, take note, this is what the future looks like.”

17. SARAH BERGBREITER: Inspired by Star Wars, the professor of mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon made her first foray into robotics at age 7 or 8. “I tried to build a robot to clean my room,” she recalls, laughing. Now she has loftier goals. Her robots, which can be smaller than an ant and up to the size of a Tic Tac, may eventually be used for microsurgery, search and rescue, and safety inspections for hard-to-reach spaces, like inside jet engines. She doesn’t envision a dystopian world where robots replace humans, however: “You want robots to complement humans.”

18. GRACE STRATTON: In March the 20-year-old New Zealand native launched All Is for All, a specialty e-commerce site featuring clothing and accessories presented in an accessible way for people with disabilities. It provides detailed alt-text descriptions for the visually impaired and information about closures for those who have dexterity issues. She also established an agency for models with access needs. “Once you feel strength in who you are, you’ll know your power,” says Stratton, who has used a wheelchair since she was 1 year old. “I believe that’s the first step to becoming a badass.”

Heidi Gutman

19-20. ROBIN ROBERTS & AMY ROBACH: The co-anchors of Good Morning America and 20/20, respectively, have learned a lot about life, success, and survival during their time at ABC. When asked what makes her a standout journalist, Roberts says, "Asking the tough questions and not inching or apologizing when you do. Male journalists do it all the time. They don’t have to make excuses; no one looks at them sideways. A woman does it and it’s like, 'Who do you think you are?' I’m a badass, that’s who I am, and I’m going to ask a question and make sure it gets answered."

21. CARLA GUGINO: The actress pens an essay about some of the most trying moments in her career to make the case for finding success in failure. "To be an actor is to have a Ph.D. in the fine art of rejection," Gugino writes. "But, in my experience at least, something better always comes along." 

22. NICOLLE GONZALES: With Changing Woman Initiative, the nurse-midwife created a health collective for Native American women. She is working to establish the first standalone Native American birthing center, but until then you’ll find her making house calls, as she did recently, traveling seven hours to deliver a baby on a reservation. “Bringing awareness to the challenges Native American families face around birth, motherhood, and personal autonomy when it comes to health care feels like success to me,” she says.

23. SANDRA CAPPONI: In 2016 she left a cushy corporate job to co-found the Emma Watson-approved app Good on You, which rates thousands of fashion brands based on their impact on people and the planet. “I got sick of following rules and playing nice with the big guys,” Capponi says. “I wanted to shake up the system and use people’s choices to change business for the better.” She projects that her audience will reach about five million people by the end of next year.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

24. LORI LIGHTFOOT: As Chicago’s first openly gay and first black female mayor, the former lawyer promises to take on widespread corruption and ring in a new era of equity and inclusion for the city. “You did more than make history; you created a movement for change,” she said to supporters in her victory speech.

25. MARTHA HOLMES: “I prefer wilderness over accommodations and people, if I’m being honest,” says Holmes, whose wildlife-storytelling projects often bring her face-to-face with animals like cheetahs. “I'm always humbled by nature,” she says. Holmes has produced several award-winning BBC Natural History Unit programs, like Blue Planet, and was the only female executive producer on National Geographic’s Hostile Planet.

26. H.E.R.: This year the 22-year-old singer-songwriter beat out industry icons like Leon Bridges to win two Grammys for her EP compilation album. The R&B star goes by H.E.R. (Having Everything Revealed) to divert attention from her personal life to her sound. “A badass is an ‘I don’t need anyone to tell me who I am’ kind of woman,” she says. “I could have become a gimmick. But I stayed true to my sound and my story.”

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27. ALEX MORGAN: The star co-captain of the U.S. women’s national soccer team is leading the fight for pay parity and better working conditions after the team filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation in March. “It takes a lot of courage to ask for what you deserve,” says the Nike athlete. “Now we’re using the microphone to create a better environment for ourselves and for the next generation of female athletes.”

28. DR. MACRENE ALEXIADES: With three Harvard degrees and a skin-care line, Macrene Actives, the cosmetic dermatologic surgeon and Yale professor is working to make in-office aesthetic procedures obsolete. Dr. Alexiades, who cultivates plants on her farm and runs a dermatology and laser-surgery center in New York City, literally wrote the book on modern-day dermatology. Her textbook for aesthetic-therapy curricula will be available later this year. “It was always my dream to grow organic crops and manufacture products in my own lab,” she says. “I see myself as the modern version of Estée Lauder.”

29. MARYLAND NATIONAL GUARD COMMAND STAFF: For the first time, a state National Guard command staff is entirely composed of women. “I wasn’t necessarily seeking an all-female leadership team. I simply wanted the most qualified candidates available,” says Maj. Gen. Linda L. Singh, who appointed the team and is also the first African American and first female adjutant general for the Maryland National Guard. “It just so happened that these talented ones started rising to the top.”

30. THE WOMEN OF STAND UP TO CANCER: In 2008 nine determined executives — two of whom, Noreen Fraser and Laura Ziskin, were sadly lost to the disease — came together to create SU2C, which has saved countless lives, raised over $600 million for cancer research and funded more than 1,600 scientists from 180 institutions in the past decade. "In philanthropy you can hear no so many times, but that is an opportunity for a yes. It’s really about having the courage and the ability to deliver," says Sung Poblete in an interview between the SU2C CEO and Co-founder and journalist Katie Couric. "I think it’s been the most gratifying work I’ve done in my career and my life in general," adds Couric. 

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31. RIHANNA: After the success of her shade-inclusive makeup line, Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, she set her sights on fashion with Fenty, a luxury ready-to-wear label that débuted to major fanfare in May as the first new brand under the LVMH umbrella since Christian Lacroix in 1987. RiRi is the first woman to create an original clothing line for LVMH and the first woman of color to helm any of its maisons. Work, work, work, indeed.

32. KATELYN OHASHI: “It’s as if I’ve been working for 19 years to reach this level of stardom, bring gymnastics out of the dark, and show a brighter side to the sport,” says the UCLA gymnast, whose final floor routine in January scored a perfect 10 and went viral. She now intends to inspire women through poetry in a book about mental health, self-love, and female empowerment.

33. KOMAL AHMAD: Since her app, Copia, launched in 2016, she has fed three million people across 11 U.S. cities with 2 million pounds of excess food recovered from restaurants and businesses like Lyft and Intel. “Hunger isn’t a scarcity problem; it’s a logistics problem,” she says. “Food waste is also a logistics problem, one I went on to solve.”

34. MARTHA HOOVER: The former sex-crimes prosecutor left law to pioneer the farm-to-table movement. By opening Café Patachou in her home state of Indiana, she revolutionized how people think about fresh food and sustainability. “So many restaurants stop at what the food looks and tastes like. That’s not more important than how you treat your customers, staff, community, and the planet.” Fourteen restaurants and 30 years later, she says she’s just getting started.

35. SARA NELSON: The international president of the Association of Flight Attendants became a labor-movement icon when she spoke out about the dangers of furloughing airport workers during the 35-day partial shutdown of the U.S. government (the longest in the nation’s history). “Our lives were on the line, and we were the ones who saw the path to end the shutdown,” she says. “When we focus on our goals and move forward with absolute conviction, we win every time. After all, a badass gets things done that nobody thought possible.”

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36. DENISE SCOTT BROWN: The accomplished professor and globally influential planner and architect was consistently snubbed for accolades, including the 1991 Pritzker Architecture Prize awarded to her architect husband, Robert Venturi. Despite an online petition that had more than 20,000 signatures, officials refused to add her name to the prize. Now in her 80s, she is finally getting her due after being recognized officially for her work with the 2018 Soane Medal, awarded to architects who have made major contributions.

37. NAI PALM: After announcing her breast-cancer diagnosis in October, the two-time Grammy-nominated Hiatus Kaiyote frontwoman and former fire performer hasn’t skipped a beat. She’s finished several solo-tour appearances and has continued to update fans on social media post-mastectomy “to comfort people who feel alone in their battles and to not feel so alone in my own.” Nai Palm, whose music has been sampled by Kendrick Lamar and Drake, is currently planning her next album with the band. “There is power in deeply experiencing gratitude for the privilege of life,” she says. “My strength comes from the wound. There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

38. ARIEL ECKBLAD: “From a young age I was acutely aware that some people were living in conditions of immense privilege and others were not,” says the legislative director for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Eckblad’s mom lived through the Nigerian civil war, and her stories inspired Eckblad to effect change by pursuing a career in foreign policy. Yet the 2016 U.S. presidential election motivated her to focus on inequity at home. “I felt like [AOC] was a force for justice, and I wanted to figure out how I could help.” Eckblad admits it’s easy to feel despondent in today’s political climate but says, “There’s a power in being hopeful about the state of humanity and the possibility of progress.”

39-40. ALICE PAUL TAPPER & KHERIS ROGERS: Tapper, the 12-year-old author of Raise Your Hand, aimed at getting girls to speak up in class, and Rogers, the 13-year-old founder of anti-bullying fashion line Flexin’ in My Complexion, have quickly established themselves as two of the strongest — and most impressive — voices of their generation. Now they’re encouraging other girls to dream big.

41. MARIE KONDO: With her KonMari method of deciding to keep only items that “spark joy,” two bestselling books translated into 40-plus languages, a new children’s title, and a Netflix special, Kondo has launched a global phenomenon on the subject of decluttering (“Pretty badass!” she says). Has she ever met anyone more organized than she is? Not exactly. “I’ve met many people as organized as me — especially in Japan, where tidiness is implicit in the culture.”

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

42. LILLY SINGH: This fall the 30-year-old comedian and YouTube star will become the only female late-night host on a broadcast network when she takes over Carson Daly’s slot on NBC’s evening lineup. “An Indian-Canadian woman with her own late-night show? Now, that is a dream come true,” said Singh after her show, A Little Late with Lilly Singh, was announced in the spring.

43. KARA GOLDIN: The entrepreneur runs Hint, the largest independent nonalcoholic-beverage company in the country with over $100 million in sales as of this year. When she’s not expanding her brand into other areas, like sunscreen, she’s lobbying Congress to make sure clean drinking water is available at schools and in the military. “I love my job because I feel like it’s part entrepreneur and part advocate for the consumer,” she says. “When I hear that a $1.50 bottle of water is helping people recognize that they can create healthy change in their lives, that’s pretty powerful.”

44. SEYI OLUYOLE: After a dance video of her students was reposted by Naomi Campbell, Imaan Hammam, and Rihanna last spring, the founder of Dream Catchers Dance Academy in Nigeria became an Internet sensation. The scriptwriter and freelance film director, who started the free academy when she was just 14, now uses her own salary plus donations to house, care for, and educate nine students and teach about 150 kids total. “My wish is to tour the world and heal people with the joy these kids exude, irrespective of their pasts,” she says. “I believe the future holds great things for us. The world will know our name.”

45. FRANCES ARNOLD: When the Caltech professor was awarded a Nobel Prize for directing the evolution of enzymes, she became only the fifth woman in 117 years of Nobel history to win in chemistry. “I breed molecules like people breed cats or dogs — only I do it in the test tube with DNA and bacteria,” she explains. This method yields new enzymes and other biomolecules to use in practical yet earth-friendly applications, like a nontoxic alternative to pesticide praised by Jane Goodall, someone Arnold cites as an inspiration. “I am inspired by creative people who try to do something positive for the world,” she says. We can add Arnold to that list.

46. MARY C. DALY The president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco is a leading voice for addressing diversity in the male-dominated field of economics. The first openly gay female at the helm of a regional Fed branch also urges young women to pursue careers in business. “For economics to advance, for us to be relevant in the future, we need everybody at the table, all the groups,” Daly said in a St. Louis Fed podcast.

47. MOLLY HAYWARD: Since 2016 her subscription bladder- and period-care brand, Cora, has provided reproductive-health education and five million pads to girls in need and 100,000 more feminine products to women facing poverty or the aftermath of natural disasters. “I might not have all the answers, but I won’t let that stop me,” says the co-founder, who secured $7.5 million in funding earlier this year. “I have the potential to radically change the world.”

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48. MELATI & ISABEL WIJSEN: Frustrated with garbage littering the rice fields and beaches of their native Bali, the sisters launched Bye Bye Plastic Bags (BBPB) in their preteens. “Climate change is happening; we don’t have the luxury of time,” says Melati, 18. She and Isabel, 16, now have dozens of global chapters lobbying to outlaw plastic bags (single-use plastic bags are no longer allowed in Bali). BBPB also trains local women to make bags from recycled fabric; sales proceeds benefit health, education, and waste management in the Balinese village of Wanagiri Kauh.

49-50. SHEILA NEVINS & NINA L. DIAZ: With 28 Academy Awards, 44 Peabody Awards, and 34 personal Primetime Emmy Awards for her projects during nearly four decades leading documentary films at HBO, Nevins is one of the most influential people in the biz. Now, at 80, she’s got a new gig launching MTV’s documentary films division. "If I had confidence, I wouldn’t be wearing false eyelashes," the singular Nevins says with a laugh while in conversation with Diaz, president of entertainment for MTV, VH1, CMT, and Logo Group, who developed signature reality series like Cribs and My Super Sweet 16. "If people got in my way, I became aggressive. I became rude. I am impossible. Because I thought if the product was good enough, people could accept the impossibility." Diaz, who has helped bring unprecedented growth to the youth-centric platform, says she has always championed powerful women like Nevins in the workplace: "You have to have a strong voice to get a literal seat at the table and inspire a whole new generation of badasses out there to tell stories that matter, that change the world, and that have an impact," Diaz says.