Magazine

16 Black Women Leaders, Founders, and Fighters

By Ellevest Team

We probably don’t have to tell you just how rough the pandemic has been, particularly on Black women. The pay gap was already closing at a glacial pace long before that, of course; the past few years have just made it … worse. A lot worse.

Yet despite such a dark forecast, the ship is still turning around, slowly, but surely — as long as everyone else keeps doing their part. With the economy continuing to post unprecedented gains, the Harvard Business Review recently found that more Black women (17%) are using this time to start small businesses than white men (10%). It also reported that a mere 3% of Black women currently run mature businesses — which means that it’s really on the rest of the market to invest harder than ever, to commit long-term and ensure these gains can continue building for generations to come.

A group of Black women with various skin tones and hairstyles in a group, looking in different directions. Illustration.

And we all have so much to gain from Black women’s success. Janelle Jones, the former chief economist at the Department of Labor, describes this as “Black women best”: When we “reorient our thinking to put Black women first” — be it in policymaking or business investing or pretty much any sort of planning for the future — we end up “lifting everyone up in the process.”

At Ellevest, we’re celebrating Black History Month (as we do every year) by recognizing the Black women+ in finance, business, government, and beyond have fought ferociously — and won— for themselves, their communities, and for a brighter future. Their successes make this a better world for all of us — and hopefully will pave the way for a lot more women+ like them to come.

1. Miko Branch 

Co-founder and CEO, Miss Jessie’s

Miko Branch opened her first salon with her sister Titi in Brooklyn in 1997. There were few natural hair products available back then, so they created their own based on the “concoctions” their grandmother, Jessie Mae, whipped up when they were kids. In 2004, they started marketing Miss Jessie’s Curly Pudding. It became a hit and launched the Branch sisters’ empire. Today, you can find the Miss Jessie’s line of products for curly, kinky, and wavy hair across the US in stores like Target. When Titi died unexpectedly in 2014, Miko continued on as a leader through her grief, fighting to keep her company going, and for the increasing acceptance of natural hair. 

For me, my hair is about so much more than looks. It’s symbolic of those who came before me and fought for my right to feel unapologetically beautiful.”

2. Rosalind Brewer

Incoming CEO, Walgreens Boots Alliance

When she started her new job at Walgreens last year, Roz Brewer became one of two existing Black women CEOs of a Fortune 500 company (alongside then-Chase executive Thasunda Duckett), and the fourth ever to hold that slot, after Ursula Burns and Mary Winston. But firsts in leadership are nothing new to Brewer, who was Starbucks’ first woman and first Black COO, and the first woman CEO of Sam’s Club before that. When she was at Starbucks, “gave the company its buzz back” by bringing structure and focus to the company. A longtime advocate for racial equity, she also responded to a racist event at a Starbucks in 2018 by personally apologizing to the people affected and shutting down every store for a day to hold anti-racist training

When you’re a Black woman, you get mistaken a lot. You get mistaken as someone who could actually not have that top job. Sometimes you’re mistaken for kitchen help. Sometimes people assume you’re in the wrong place, and all I can think in the back of my head is, ‘No, you’re in the wrong place.’”

3. Cori Bush

US Representative, Missouri’s First District

In 2014, politics were the furthest thing from Cori Bush’s mind. Her father is an alderman and former mayor in the St. Louis area, but Bush had a nursing degree, and her days were full with her work as a nurse, pastor, and community leader advocating for the unhoused. But then came the murder of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, and the protests that followed. Congresswoman Bush spent over a year protesting on the “Ferguson Frontline” and providing her services as a nurse and pastor to the community. Initially, when asked if she would run for office, she said no. But then she realized that to get “that heart, that community love” that she saw on the frontline into federal office, she had to run. In 2020, she became the first Black woman to represent Missouri in the House of Representatives, and she arrived to her orientation wearing a mask with Breonna Taylor’s name on it. Last summer, she led a protest by sleeping on the Capitol steps for four days to urge her colleagues (and boss!) to keep the pandemic eviction moratorium in effect.

“I’m going to fight to make sure every single person has access to health care, housing, and education. We’re talking about whether or not somebody can live. This is about life or death.”

4. Glynda C. Carr

President and CEO, Higher Heights for America

In 2011, Glynda C. Carr launched Higher Heights for America with Kimberly Peeler-Allen to build the political strength and leadership of Black women. Through it, you can learn about how to run for office or host a conversation about the political leadership gap for Black women. The associated Higher Heights PAC is the only political action committee dedicated to electing progressive Black women; it’s helped to get the largest number of Black women to ever serve in Congress and to get Black women elected mayors of the 100 largest cities across the country. Most recently, she’s been at the forefront of the campaign to get President Biden to commit to nominating a Black woman to take the retiring Justice Breyer’s seat on the Supreme Court.

Black women know that the only way to rid the country of its vile history is by voting, and not only on a national level, but also on local levels. Black women know that we possess a political power like no other.”

5. Lisa Cook

Economist and nominee for the Federal Reserve Board of Governors

A professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State University, Dr. Cook has spent her 20+ year career studying high-level policy and systems from the vantage point of those most vulnerable to them. Best known (and loved) for her work demonstrating how institutional racism and sexism block overall economic growth, she served on President Obama’s White House Council of Economic Advisers and, most recently, reviewed the Fed’s policies on the Biden transition team. The coverage of her nomination by President Biden earlier this year to serve on the Fed’s Board of Governors makes it pretty clear that she has all the right people nervous. If confirmed, she’ll be the first-ever (!) Black woman on the Fed’s board.

“If economics is hostile to women, it is especially antagonistic to Black women … The only way we’re going to remain a competitive, energetic, knowledge-creating profession is to incorporate as many and as different ideas as we can, and leverage those ideas.”

6. Kizzmekia Corbett

Immunologist

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett’s work on Dr. Anthony Fauci’s vaccine research and development team at the NIH, resulted in one of the first COVID vaccines. In collaboration with biotech firm Moderna, Corbett helped to design the vaccine, led the preclinical studies, and helped design the clinical trial testing. Her hometown of Hillsborough, NC, declared January 12, 2021 as Dr. Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett Day in recognition of her work to address vaccine hesitancy, particularly in the Black community. Last year, she took her public education from Zoom forums and Twitter all the way to Harvard, where she now teaches as an assistant professor in its public health school’s immunology department. 

“Vaccines have the potential to be the equalizer of health disparities, especially around infectious diseases. I could never sleep at night if I developed anything — if any product of my science came out — and it did not equally benefit the people that look like me. Period.”

7. Morgan DeBaun 

Entrepreneur and CEO / founder of Blavity

In 2014, Morgan DeBaun launched Blavity (a portmanteau of “Black” and “gravity”), a community for young multicultural creators to connect, express themselves, and be heard. She and her co-founders raised $1 million in venture capital funding — making her one of the very few venture-backed CEOs who is a young Black woman. Today, Blavity is a digital content, tech, and events company that reaches millions of people a month with a mission to “economically and creatively support Black millennials across the African diaspora, so they can pursue the work they love, and change the world in the process.” DeBaun has also proven prescient: Blavity has been hosting their annual AfroTech conference in the metaverse since 2020.

And Blavity’s not her only business — she’s also the founder of business advisory company WorkSmart, skincare company M. Roze Essentials, and Growth Notebook, a line of productivity and mindset planners.

It’s important to create spaces for those of us who are made to feel as though we don’t belong or that we’re not good enough — because the truth is, we do, and we are.”

8. Ceyenne Doroshow

Performer, speaker, and founder of G.L.I.T.S.

As a child growing up trans in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Ceyenne Doroshow was sent to therapists in an attempt to “cure” her, which only left her feeling more alone. She ran away many times as a teenager, but eventually found New York’s nightclub scene, where she thrived as a performer. Now founder and executive director of Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society, Doroshow is working to provide holistic care to LGBTQ+ sex workers and lift up Black trans voices. In June 2020, she crowdfunded more than a million dollars — practically overnight — to secure stable, long-term housing for Black trans people in New York. In 2021, she was a grand marshal at Pride in New York City. 

“Giving people opportunities is a wonderful thing. Not failing them is the bigger thing — not letting them fail themselves.”

9. Kathryn Finney 

Founder, digitalundivided and Project Diane

While growing her influential fashion blog, Kathryn Finney says, she realized that Black women make up just 3% of the tech industry, and Latinx women only 2%. So she sold her blog and launched digitalundivided to change that. Since 2013, her company has helped Black and Latinx women entrepreneurs raise more than $25 million in funding through incubator programs, research, and community. (No wonder Essence called her “the fairy godmother of tech start-ups.”) She leads Project Diane, a biennial report on the state of Black and Latinx women founders and their companies, that helps inform global and national policy, and in 2020, she launched a fund to support women entrepreneurs during the pandemic — giving help to more than 1,500 business owners in one year. Her book Build the Damn Thing is due out in June.

“It hit me that it was the first time, as an overachiever, that people had zero expectations of me. No one wanted to talk to this lone Black chick in the room. I had to push hard just to be seen, let alone to be heard.” 

10 and 11. Vanessa Garrison and T. Morgan Dixon

Co-founders, GirlTrek and Black History Bootcamp

T. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison became college friends in 1996 after bonding over their shared passion for radical self-care. In 2010, they challenged their friends and family to walk with them to heal their bodies, inspire their daughters, and reclaim the streets of their neighborhood. And so GirlTrek was born. Now, it’s the largest public health non-profit for Black women and girls in the US, with a mission to “pioneer a health movement for African American women and girls grounded in civil rights history and principles through walking campaigns, community leadership, and health advocacy.” Last summer, as the Black Lives Matter movement grew strong, they launched Black History Bootcamp, a series of walking meditations to honor Black women freedom fighters.

When women are walking and talking together, it’s transformative.” — T. Morgan Dixon

12. Nikole Hannah-Jones

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist and creator of the 1619 Project

Nikole Hannah-Jones isn’t just an investigative journalist — she’s the investigative journalist. A MacArthur Fellow and staff writer at the New York Times, she won the Pulitzer for commentary in 2020 for her contribution to the 1619 Project, the groundbreaking 2019 Times journalism package that recontextualized the legacy of slavery in America and proposed dramatic, long-overdue changes to how our country’s history is taught to schoolchildren. (The project’s inclusion in educational syllabi was what sparked the nationwide political debacle around “critical race theory” and various seminal works of literature.) 

On top of this, Hannah-Jones also made headlines in 2021 when the University of North Carolina hired her to serve as the Knight Chair in Race and Journalism … but denied her tenure after being pressured by her conservative critics. UNC eventually reversed the decision after a lot of outrage and protests on her behalf, but by then she’d taken her talents instead to Howard University, where the Knight Foundation followed and established an identical title for her there. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

“I think we have to ask ourselves … the narrators, the storytellers, the journalists: Are we ringing the alarm in the right way? Are we doing our jobs to try to uphold our democracy?”

13. Blair Imani

Writer, mental health advocate, and historian

If you’ve seen Blair Imani’s “Smarter in Seconds” videos, you know she’s brilliant at taking complex ideas about topics like cultural appropriation, gender, racism, intersectional feminism, and religion and turning them into vibrant, funny, memorable content. (Costumes are sometimes involved.) But Imani’s also great at educating in longer formats: Her TEDx talk, “Queer & Muslim: Nothing to Reconcile,” which talked about her bisexual and Muslim identities (and told the story of how she chose to come out on a conservative talk show), went viral and sparked a national conversation. And her three books — one an illustrated history of the Great Migration from the South, one an illustrated celebration of women and non-binary people making change, and one based on “Smarter in Seconds” — also show her great talent for making history and activism actually … fun.

“I grew up in the ’90s, so edutainment was my bread and butter. History doesn’t have to be boring. It’s actually very exciting, if you approach it the right way.”

14. Marah Lidey

Co-founder and co-CEO, Shine

Marah Lidey’s first experience of racism was in the first grade, when another student assaulted her. Living life within “compounding systemic racism and generational trauma,” she says, “has wreaked havoc on Black well-being” and “the state of our collective mental health.” When she and Naomi Hirabayashi were coworkers, they began talking about the stress and anxiety they experienced — but as women of color, they couldn’t relate to any of the self-care apps they saw. So they created Shine. Sign up, and you’ll get a daily text with tips to meditate, cope with stress and connect with a supportive and inclusive community. And in 2020, just as stay-at-home orders were first being issued, Lidey and Hirabayashi launched Virus Anxiety, a free toolkit and “safe space on the internet” to help everyone take care and get the support they need to cope with the pandemic.

I’ve come to the humble realization that I’m the only one with my unique experience — and that inherently is worthwhile.”

15. Dame Pat McGrath

CEO and founder, Pat McGrath Labs

Pat McGrath, whom Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour once called “the most influential makeup artist in the world,” came up in London’s club scene in the ‘80s — when, she said, women of color couldn’t find makeup that made them look good. She’s dominated runways since the ‘90s with her bold, art-inspired vision, and she’s currently dominating Instagram (not to mention the beauty industry) with the same. In 2018, Pat McGrath Labs, the makeup company she founded just three years earlier, became a unicorn (worth $1 billion); her product drops still sell out in minutes. In December 2020, McGrath became the first makeup artist ever to receive a damehood.

“I think in my career I have chosen to embrace freedom over fear. I have felt free to make the creative decisions I wanted to make, to take risks.”

16. Bozoma St. John

Chief marketing officer, Netflix

Bozoma St. John refers to herself as a “badass,” and her marketing career is proof she’s right. As the head of music and entertainment marketing for Pepsi, she landed a $50 million deal with Beyoncé. As head of global consumer marketing at Apple Music and iTunes, she brought passion to her job, leading a memorable series of ads starring Taraji P. Henson, Mary J. Blige, and Kerry Washington. And in June 2020, she was hired as the chief marketing officer at Netflix, where she became the first Black person in the C-suite and is leading a new marketing approach during a huge era for the company. And as if being “the world’s most rockstar marketer” weren’t enough: Her memoir, “The Urgent Life,” about surviving the death of her husband and her approach to business, is due out via Viking sometime in 2022.

Advice that I have … for Black women, in particular, is that we actually have to own our unique ability and our unique experiences — and tout them. I am doing it and I would like the rest of us to continue doing it — to push, push, push — not to subscribe to what has been told to us that we are supposed to look like and behave like, but to really be who we are and therefore, make room for others when it’s their turn.”


Disclosures

© 2021 Ellevest, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

All opinions and views expressed by Ellevest are current as of the date of this writing, for informational purposes only, and do not constitute or imply an endorsement of any third party’s products or services.

The information provided should not be relied upon as investment advice or recommendations, does not constitute a solicitation to buy or sell securities and should not be considered specific legal, investment or tax advice.

The information provided does not take into account the specific objectives, financial situation or particular needs of any specific person.

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Ellevest Team

The Ellevest team is working to help women reach their financial and professional goals.