50 inspiring women from around the globe - Part 2: sportswomen, business and charity leaders, explorers and fictional characters

50 inspiring women from around the globe – Part 2: sportswomen, business and charity leaders, explorers and fictional characters

Welcome to Part 2! To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March and Women’s History Month during March, Pearson’s Women in Learning and Leadership team has created a list of 50 inspiring women to include in Pearson’s content and to help prompt discussions in the...


Welcome to Part 2! To mark International Women’s Day on 8 March and Women’s History Month during March, Pearson’s Women in Learning and Leadership team has created a list of 50 inspiring women to include in Pearson’s content and to help prompt discussions in the classroom.

In Part 1, we shared our pick of 25 inspiring authors, actors, artists, activists and STEM pioneers. Now, in Part 2, we conclude our round-up of 50 incredible women who have helped change the world, with 25 inspirational sportswomen, business and charity leaders, explorers and fictional characters. We hope you enjoy finding out more about these inspiring women and encourage you to find others who are equally brilliant through history and today.

5 inspiring sportswomen

Alison Hargreaves (1962 – 1995)

A British mountaineer, who was the first woman to climb Everest alone and without oxygen, Hargreaves was killed attempting to climb K2, one of the world’s most inhospitable mountains. By facing down criticism from those who said a mother should not put herself in danger, she made it easier for the next generation of women explorers.

Arati Saha (1940 – 1994)

The first Indian and Asian woman to swim across the English Channel (in 1959), she completed this feat in 14 hours and 20 minutes, and was the first female sportsperson to be awarded the Padma Siri – the fourth highest civilian award in India – in 1960.

Tessa Sanderson (1956 – )

The first British Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal (in 1984). She is a former javelin thrower and heptathlete. A six-time Olympian in the javelin from 1976 to 1996. In 1996 she became the second track and field athlete to compete at six Olympics.

Trischa Zorn (1964 – )

An American Paralympic swimmer who has been blind since birth and is known as the most successful athlete in the history of the Paralympic Games, having won 55 medals, and was inducted into the Paralympic Hall of Fame in 2012.

Kay Cottee (1954 – )

An Australian sailor who in 1988 became the first female sailor to perform a single-handed, non-stop circumnavigation of the world (it took 189 days).

5 inspiring business leaders and entrepreneurs

Madam C.J. Walker (1867 – 1919)

An African-American known as the first female entrepreneur, philanthropist, and political and social activist who invented a line of African-American hair products after suffering from a scalp ailment that resulted in her own hair loss and is recorded as the first female self-made millionaire in America in the Guinness Book of World Records. Walker’s life was portrayed in the 2020 TV show Self Made, with Octavia Spencer portraying Walker.

Ailbhe and Izzy Keane (1993 and 1997 – )

Irish sisters Ailbhe (pronounced Alva) and Izzy Keane founded Izzy Wheels, an Irish-based brand of designer wheel covers for wheelchairs. The idea was inspired by Izzy who was born with Spina Bifida and is paralysed from her waist down. Izzy has always seen her wheelchair as a symbol of freedom but never felt it expressed her personality. The duo collaborates with famous artists and fashion brands to create their limited-edition wheel cover designs. Izzy Wheels has been featured in Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Elle, The Oprah Magazine and TechCrunch and both sisters were featured in Forbes’ 30 Under 30 issue in 2018.

Maree Kinder (1987 – )

The Korean born founder of UK K-Beauty specialist retailer Beauty & Seoul who began the business in 2017 as a side hustle when she returned to her native Seoul looking for her birth parents. Ultimately disappointed in her parental search, she threw herself into writing a business plan in an effort to turn tragedy into triumph. It worked: Beauty & Seoul is now the UK’s leading online K-Beauty specialist retailer. Kinder still volunteers at her South Korean orphanage whenever she is in the country and donates a portion of her profits to it.

Ruby Raut (1990 – )

Nepalese eco-entrepreneur who set out to address the issue of girls and women in Nepal when menstruating. Aged 20, she moved to London, gained a degree in environmental science and raised £7,000 through crowdfunding to launch WUKA (Wake Up Kick Ass) in 2017. Her brand of eco-friendly, reusable ‘pants’ completely replace tampons and pads. Raut is listed in the UK 2019 Top 100 Women in Fem Tech and Health Tech.

Anne-Marie Imafidon, MBE (1990 – )

The British Founder and CEO of Stemettes, a social entreprise which encourages girls aged 5-22 to pursue careers in STEM. Imafidon is a computing, maths and language prodigy as one of the youngest to pass GCSE exams while in primary school. She speaks six languages and at 19, became the youngest ever graduate with a master’s degree, after studying at the University of Oxford from the age of 15.

5 inspirational charity leaders and philanthropists

Maya Smith (1984 – )

The executive director of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation in the US which engages a diverse array of partners across sectors to conduct innovative research, builds authentic LGBT youth-focused programming, and leads effective campaigns that foster kindness and advance the conversation around mental health.

Ruth Ibegbuna (unknown – )

Founder of Manchester-based RECLAIM Project, an innovative strengths-based initiative which enables young people to achieve their potential. After several years as a secondary teacher, Ibegbuna began developing RECLAIM ten years ago out of her frustration at seeing so much wasted potential in young people; often written off due to their postcodes or through appallingly low expectations of their outcomes.

Vilissa Thompson (1986 – )

The CEO of US-based Ramp Your Voice! an organisation focused on promoting self-advocacy and strengthening empowerment among disabled people. She created the #DisabilityTooWhite viral hashtag in 2016 which addressed the lack of diversity within the disability community, and how a lack of representation impacts disabled people of colour and their ability to feel fully included and accepted within the community. She also acted as a consultant for Senator Elizabeth Warren’s 2020 US presidential campaign, where she assisted in the development of the Disability Rights & Equality policy plan.

Wngari Muta Maathai (1940 – 2011)

A Kenyan social, environmental and political activist who founded the Green Belt Movement, a non-governmental organisation focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation and women’s rights. In 1984, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award “for converting the Kenyan ecological debate into mass action for reforestation” and was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize (in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace).

Karen Sugar (unknown – )

The founder and Director of US-based Women’s Global Empowerment Foundation (WGEM) which assists under-privileged women in Uganda by offering business training and access to microloans to help facilitate their professional independence. In the last decade, WGEM has provided more than 4500 women with literacy training, 15,000 loans, access to peer counselling and launched an impactful Healthy Periods Initiative which blends education, microenterprise and access to locally-made sanitary products for school girls and vulnerable communities.

5 inspirational explorers, adventurers and travel pioneers

Jeanne Baret (1740 – 1807)

Overcoming a poverty-stricken childhood in France, Baret risked everything for her love of botany and in doing so became the first woman recorded in history to circumnavigate the globe, disguising herself as her husband’s male assistant in order to board the ships La Boudeuse and Étoile in the 1760s. She was involved in collecting more than 6,000 plant specimens on the voyages, though she wasn’t fully credited until the 21st century!

Jessica Nabongo (1984 – )

A Ugandan-American travel blogger and brand influencer and the first Black woman to have travelled to every country in the world. She achieved this in 2019 by finishing in the Seychelles after having visited all 195 UN member states and having travelled to 89 countries solo.

Ann Bancroft (1955 – )

An American adventurer, author and educator who, along with Norwegian Liv Arneson, was the first woman in history to ski and sail across Antarctica, in 94 days in 1992/1993. She has also conducted Arctic expeditions, campaigned for equal marriage rights in the state of Minnesota which eventually led to success in that US state, and created the Ann Bancroft Foundation to improve the lives and opportunities for girls around the world.

Erika S. Bergman (1987 – )

An American submersible pilot, virtual reality engineer and ocean explorer who began her career in chemical oceanography, studying at the University of Washington, while working as a ship engineer. In 2013, she received a national Geographic grant for her ‘Classrooms under the Sea’ expedition to live stream video from submersibles.

Barbara Hillary (1931 – 2019)

An African-American adventurer, inspirational speaker, publisher and former nurse who was the first Black woman to reach the North Pole (in 2007 at the age of 75) and the South Pole (in 2011 at the age of 79) and, therefore, the first Black woman to reach both poles. An even more incredible feat given she was just shy of her 80th birthday. Following her ventures to both Poles, she became an inspirational speaker, addressing organisations such as the National Organization for Women.

And finally, 5 inspiring fictional TV characters

Dora the Explorer (first appeared on Nickleodeon in 2000)

This American children’s animated television series features protagonist Dora Marquez, a seven-year-old Latina girl, with a love of embarking on quests related to an activity that she wants to partake of or a place that she wants to go to, accompanied by her talking purple backpack and anthropomorphic monkey companion named Boots. Each episode is based around a series of cyclical events that occur along the way during Dora’s travels, along with obstacles that she and Boots are forced to overcome or puzzles that they must solve. Later Dora moved to the city and had adventures with a new group of friends.

Moana (from the Disney film from 2006)

Moana is a strong-willed girl, daughter of a chief of a Polynesian village, who is chosen by the ocean itself to reunite a mystical relic with the goddess Te Fiti. When a blight strikes her island, Moana sets sail in search of Maui, a legendary demigod, in the hope of returning the relic to Te Fiti and saving her people. She succeeds through her tenacity, perseverance, and a kind heart. At the end of the film Moana takes up her role as chief and wayfinder, leading her people as they resume voyaging.

Carol Danvers – Captain Marvel (first appeared in Marvel Comics in 1968)

Carol Susan Jane Danvers is a fictional superhero appearing in Marvel Comics. Created by writer Roy Thomas and artist Gene Colan, Danvers first appeared as an officer in the United States Air Force and a colleague of the Kree superhero Mar-Vell in Marvel Super-Heroes #13 (March 1968). Danvers later became the first incarnation of Ms. Marvel in Ms. Marvel #1 (January 1977) after her DNA was fused with Mar-Vell’s during an explosion, giving her superhuman powers. In the late 1970s she became associated with the superhero teams the Avengers and the X-Men. Danvers has been labelled as one of the most powerful characters in the franchise. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Carol Danvers, is portrayed by Brie Larson in her own film and Avengers: Endgame (both 2019).

Xena Warrior Princess (US TV series which ran from 1995 to 2001)

Played by actor Lucy Lawless, Xena is a reformed warrior princess on a quest to seek redemption for her past sins against the innocent by using her formidable fighting skills to now help those who are unable to defend themselves. Co-created by Robert Tapert and John Schulian, she first appeared in the 1995–1999 television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, before going on to appear in Xena: Warrior Princess TV show and subsequent comic book of the same name.

Mulan (from the animated film from 1998 and live action version of 2020, both from Disney)

Fa Mulan is the hero of the Disney film ‘Mulan’, which centred around the invasion of imperial China. When her injured and elderly father is conscripted, she disguises herself as a man so she can take her father’s place in the army. During her training, she ends up being the strongest, most determined, and best solder in the army, all the while hiding her true identity from the other soldiers and her commanding officer. When the truth is revealed, the law states that she should be condemned to death. In the end her life is spared but she is banished from the army and left in the mountains. Despite this, she ends up saving the emperor of China from assassination. She risks her life to save her father and ends up saving not just him but the whole of China.

Inspired? Read Part 1 in which we share the first 25 inspiring women on our list of 50 from around the globe!

Further reading

Celebrating International Women and Girls in Science Day

Five inspiring women in education for International Women’s Day

How can we encourage more women and girls to pursue STEM careers?

Inspirational Leadership? Which women leaders do you most admire? I’m Stumped. #IWD2018

What do women want and what does society want for women?


With grateful thanks to The Pearson WILL Committee: Michelle Hessels, Rushda Khan, Sarah Bacon, Jessica Pentelow, Sophie Thomson, Clare Cox and Helen Wadhwani for compiling this list.

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