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7 Innovative Women Changing the Industries We Work In

Julia Sonenshein  |  November 20, 2019

These women are changing the way we think about entertainment, sports, arts, tech and even death. See how they’re leading the way for future generations.

Women have been making the world a better place in every way. While there have been limitations and setbacks for women in the workplace, we have managed to rise above and not fall for the idea that we have to follow a set career trajectory.

Here are seven women who are changing their industries for the better. Their innovative efforts, business deals and community work are breaking barriers. From sports and entertainment to science and tech, these women have carved out a spot for themselves in their industry – and in history.

Misty Copeland

Misty Copeland’s life story will soon be coming to the big screen in the biopic, “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina.” Though Copeland didn’t start dancing until age 13, she worked hard and made headlines in 2015 when she was named the first African American female principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. Copeland has since continued to use her visibility to bring dance to everyone and expand the concept of who can be a ballerina. 

Even before being named principal dancer at ABT, Copeland has been committed to giving back to the community. She’s been honored with an induction into the Boys & Girls Club National Hall of Fame, and in 2012 she received the “Breakthrough Award” from the Council of Urban Professionals. In 2014, President Barack Obama appointed Copeland to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition.

Unlike professional ballerinas before her, Copeland stood out for being business savvy. She’s signed big-name endorsement deals, including ones with Seiko, Oikos, Estee Lauder and Under Armour.

Dr. Cynthia Breazeal

Dr. Cynthia Breazeal is a robotics pioneer, MIT lab leader and a mom. She is the founder and director of the Personal Robots Group at the Media Lab at MIT. Her work is focused on developing technologies that allow robots to interact and communicate with humans. In 2008, she was the recipient of TIME magazine’s Best Inventions of 2008. 

Her most recent work is as the founder and chief scientist of Jibo Inc., a consumer electronics company. Founded in 2012, Jibo was introduced as the first family robot — before Alexa and Siri.

Kathryn Finney

The state of tech entrepreneurship for black women is somewhat dire. But not for long if Kathryn Finney, DigitalUndivided’s founder and managing director, has anything to say about it.

A recent DigitalUndivided’s report shows that black women’s startups are frequently undercapitalized. While the average seed round for all startups is $1.14 million, the average raised by black women is a mere $42,000.

Finney says that black women don’t always get the opportunities afforded to other tech entrepreneurs 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 the system, Finney trains and supports black and Latina female tech entrepreneurs. Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed, either. She was honored her as a Champion of Change in 2013 by The Obama administration.

Ava DuVernay

In 2012, Ava DuVernay was the first African American woman to win the directing award in the U.S. dramatic competition at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. If you didn’t hear of DuVernay then, you might recognize her as director of the critically acclaimed 2014 film “Selma,” which famously did not earn her an Oscar nomination for Best Director. And most recently, she created, co-wrote and directed the Netflix series “When They See Us.” 

Since her arrival in Hollywood, DuVernay has been an outspoken voice for inclusion in the film industry — not “diversity,” a word she says has “no emotional resonance” for the people left out. DuVernay is staunch in her mission to move the film industry forward by looking outside the mainstream for new talent and voices that need to be heard.

Kathryn Smith

Of all the arenas where women advancements have been slow to come, professional sports might be at the top of the list. Though a billion-dollar industry, female presence is still low. Many female athletes have to go abroad for professional opportunities, and coaching is almost exclusively male. Even in the WNBA, more than half of the head coaches are male. 

So when Kathryn Smith was hired as a special teams quality-control coach for the Buffalo Bills in 2016, it was history-making. She was the NFL’s first female full-time coach.

Smith previously worked as the administrative assistant to Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan, and before that working 12 years for the New York Jets. As part of a small group of women changing the face of professional sports, Smith 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

Death is big business. The U.S. funeral market is estimated to be a $20.7 billion a year business. Working to shed new light on the funeral industry are Caitlin Doughty and Amber Carvaly.

Doughty is a funeral director, author, star of the YouTube series “Ask a Mortician,” and she has made a career out of making the subject of death more approachable. She teamed up with fellow funeral director Carvaly and together founded Undertaking LA, a funeral service that aims to change how we think about death. 

Instead of a stodgy funeral home, embalming chemicals, expensive caskets, and detachment from the actual life lived, Doughty and Carvaly want to give clients a more intimate and natural experience with death. 

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