Elyse Cherry was only 12 years old when she first argued her way into a "man's job."
She and a friend tried to sign up for paper routes in Revere, their hometown near Boston. But the man in charge dismissed them, because paper routes were only for boys.
"We knew that was wrong," Cherry says. "So, we kept pointing out that we were completely competent to deliver newspapers in a residential neighborhood and pressed for a good reason to limit paper routes to boys." Their arguments worked, and it turned out to be a great job, she says.
It was Cherry's first, but hardly her last, experience in working to make an economic opportunity fairly available to all.
Cherry is now the CEO of Boston Community Capital (BCC), a financial institution dedicated to defeating poverty by harnessing the power of the financial system. Under her leadership, BCC has increased assets under management by 3,500 percent, investing more than $900 million in low-income community development and social entrepreneurship in Massachusetts and nationally.
"Whether it's economic justice or equality or women's rights, these are values that have to do with creating the world we want to see," Cherry says.
BCC has also helped families avoid foreclosure through its groundbreaking SUN (Stabilizing Urban Neighborhoods) initiative, with approximately three-quarters of loans going to female borrowers or co-borrowers, and supporting the development and rehabilitation of affordable housing, with two-thirds of housing lending benefiting low-income women and their families. Roughly 70 percent of the borrowers are from communities of color.
In addition, BCC has provided over $65 million to finance child care centers, Head Start facilities, schools and youth programs to provide much-need care for children of low-income single mothers. The institution has also provided millions to help build community health centers and to supportive housing and shelters.
Cherry attended Wellesley College and moved to Tennessee for anti-poverty work in Appalachia before heading to Boston to attend the Northeastern University Law School.
A civic leader, she is active in supporting women's campaigns for public office, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren's successful unseating of Republican Scott Brown in 2012. She's currently co-chairing the Finance Committee for Martha Coakley's gubernatorial campaign in Massachusetts.
"Mentoring and politics are so important," Cherry says. "I was fortunate to find women--in school and in business--that were willing to lend a hand, and I strive to do the same."
Cherry has also chaired the boards of the Massachusetts Cultural Council and MassEquality, an organization dedicated to the establishment and protection of civil marriage for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.
"When we open a door, we have to leave it open behind us for women and the LGBT community to come through," she says.
--By Stephanie Yacenda
Long-time innovator, filmmaker and artist Lynn Hershman Leeson realized that the interviews she filmed with her visitors over the decades, other female artists, were in of themselves a groundbreaking piece of work.
"Most of the women I talked to had never been interviewed before," she says, "and most of their work had not been shown anywhere. I did not set out to make a documentary, but rather to remember the women."
Hershman Leeson went on to become the producer, director and editor of "!Women, Art, Revolution." The film won the grand prize at the 2013 Festival of Film on Art in Montreal. After the film was released, the interviews and related material to the archives were acquired by Stanford University, creating a permanent and unique resource for current and new generations of artists, students and historians.
"Art explodes your audience; you're dealing with issues on a larger scale, so you can erase the borders of local or national law," she says. "Art can be a political force for change."
Throughout her career, Hershman Leeson has received international acclaim for her pioneering use of new media and digital technologies in her work. She has created art and four feature films on topics ranging from touch screen video disks that invite users to touch the guide's body to using cracks in iPhone cases to represent the fractures technology creates in the images humans can capture.
Now professor emeritus at University of California, Davis, Hershman Leeson lives and works in San Francisco and New York. She is spending this year as a Distinguished Artist at the New School for Public Engagement in New York. Throughout her life, she has been recognized with other major grants, awards and public acclaim, including grants from The National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, and her work has been exhibited in New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Hershman Leeson grew up in Ohio and graduated from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. She relocated to University of California, Berkeley for graduate school, where she studied during the free speech movement of the mid-1960s. She was greatly impacted by the conversations surrounding her, and this experience was later reflected in her documentary.
In the art world, Hershman Leeson says women are still underrepresented and undervalued in their contributions. "The value system of women is really low."
Her new work will include a film and art installation series over the next few years that focus on the creation of a functional genetics lab.
"I do work that is about empowerment, personal and cultural," she says.
--By Angela Dallara
What's theological, geographically widespread and still highly patriarchal all over?
Christianity. The faith is the largest religion in the world with around 3.3 billion adherents out of about 7 billion people, according to Pew Forum.
Nielsen Jones, a donor-activist passionate about human equality and peace, has made it her mission to transform women's and girls' rights through religion. Jones, who grew up in a religious environment, is a self-described "holy thorn" in the side of complacent religious attitudes.
Jones is the president and co-founder of the Imago Dei Fund, a Christian-inspired organization that provides grants and support to a broad range of religious organizations around the world. The fund was established in 2009 by Jones and her husband Ross Jones in the Boston area. In her role at the fund, she has helped the foundation adopt a gender-lens in its grant-making.
"We seek to partner with organizations that create a world where girls and women can flourish as full equals in society through programs for maternal health, education, leadership development and economic opportunity," she says.
While Jones has found that there are many faith-based organizations doing good humanitarian work to empower girls and women around the world, the patriarchal structure of Christianity proves to be a persistent obstacle.
"Every faith tradition, Christianity included, has within it forces working to transform patriarchy and find the higher side of faith which supports full human equality for women and men alike. Yet everywhere there are disturbing signs of religious backlash threatening progress," she says.
Conservative evangelicals have some gender baggage to work on, she adds. "Women are often excluded from boards and it's called 'biblical.' Setting up a conference with all male speakers in 2013 is not OK."
In response, Jones has partnered with Gordon College to conduct a two-phase study to gather hard data on women's representation at the highest levels of leadership in evangelical institutions.
"We're already seeing that gender balance and mutuality (replacing gender hierarchy) is not only good for healthy human relationships, but also for creating healthy organizations and productive businesses," she says.
Jones has a degree in government from Dartmouth College and a graduate degree in educational policy from Boston University. She has also completed the Selah Certificate Program in Spiritual Direction.
She gains inspiration from the numerous other women-led groups and networks she's involved in, including Women Moving Millions, the Global Fund for Women, the Women's Donor Network, Prosperity Catalyst and the Boston Women's Fund.
"At the heart of my philanthropic work is partnering with visionary women change-agents to create change from within their own cultural and religious contexts to make a better world for girls," Jones says. "I love and believe in the girl spirit. Let's unleash it in the service of a world that is better for all of us."
--By Stephanie Yacenda
Once upon a time, such as in the year 1966, female college graduates with degrees in business administration, and who had made the dean's list consistently, would not be hired by businesses.
The serial innovative philanthropist Winsome McIntosh faced this exact challenge. A member of the University of Florida class of '66 ,with a (dean's list) degree in business administration, she hunted for paid employment in the business world without success.
Facing the corporate wall and wanting to travel, McIntosh was hired by Pan American Airlines as a stewardess (today's flight attendant) and later as a purser. She met her husband-to-be on a flight and quickly changed careers. The couple co-founded American Legal Systems, a software company that they eventually sold.
In 1971 she joined the board of the McIntosh Foundation, a small family foundation endowed by her husband's parents from their family business, the A & P grocery business. Saying her work is her hobby, she is the current vice president, works 50-hour weeks and sees herself as a "supervolunteer." She has been an instrumental partner with her husband in the organization's evolution, including a grantee portfolio of women's organizations.
"Women's equality is a personal interest of mine and we are moving gently into that area," she says.
A trustee with $40 million in assets to manage, McIntosh leverages her philanthropy by starting nonprofits she believes should exist and supporting organizations that can serve as catalysts for change, including women's rise in the political power structure.
The beneficiaries of the foundation include Women's eNews, the Women's Campaign Foundation's She Should Run Foundation and Rachel's Network (which she founded), named in honor of Rachel Carson, the author of "Silent Spring."
A mother of three sons and a grandmother, McIntosh headed Rachel's Network for a decade and grew the organization to include 100 members. The network is a membership organization of leading female philanthropists interested in issues of the environment, women and children's health and women's empowerment.
She recently also founded ClientEarth, a group of activist lawyers committed to securing a healthy planet, with branches in London, Brussels and Warsaw, Poland. In its sixth year of operation, the foundation has been named the most influential environmental organization for the past two years.
McIntosh's goal for the next 10 years is to help bring political parity for women and break barriers by supporting organizations with unrestricted money. She gives donations to female candidates in both parties and strategically in the capacity-building of women's organizations.
"When you are a philanthropist, it's important to take risks and meet new people," McIntosh says. "We are looking for game-changing strategies within the women's leadership."
--By Darina Naidu
Throughout her remarkable years, as a woman living through the end of apartheid in South Africa to becoming a politician and activist in the new nation, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has been an essential champion for women's rights and equality.
She is currently the executive director of UN Women, a United Nations entity that works towards gender equality and the empowerment of women worldwide.
"One of my top priorities is women's economic empowerment," Mlambo-Ngcuka says. "I know that poverty has a woman's face, and if we want to end extreme poverty, we have to empower women and girls."
Mlambo-Ngcuka was born in Clermont, a township in Durban, South Africa. She was raised with a sense of social responsibility, aware of the inequalities in her country due to apartheid. A graduate of South African universities, she gained an understanding of the challenges faced by women globally when she worked as youth director at the World YWCA.
"It became clear early in my life that women's rights are human rights," Mlambo-Ngcuka says.
Through her work in communities, she was inspired to get involved in politics. In 1994, she became a member of South Africa's parliament. Two years later, Nelson Mandela appointed her as deputy minister of trade and industry. She later served as minister of minerals and energy until 2005. It was that year that she became the first woman to act as deputy president of South Africa, a title she held until 2008.
Throughout her political career, Mlambo-Ngcuka has focused on aiding those who needed the government the most. She worked closely with South Africa's mining industry to ensure that it was inclusive.
In 2013, she received a doctorate from Warwick University in Britain and was sworn in as executive director of UN Women. She plans to make women's equality a true global priority. Her focus will be on driving U.N. member states to achieve gender equality and women's empowerment and protect women's human rights. It is a vision of Mlambo-Ngcuka to more fully engage men and boys as partners in equality with women and girls.
"This is the time. We cannot end poverty, we cannot build lasting peace and we cannot have sustainable development if we leave behind half the population," Mlambo-Ngcuka says. "The 21st century will go down in history as the century of equality for women and girls and this will transform our world."
--By Amy Rubinson
Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner is the co-founder and executive director of MomsRising.org, a million-plus member online and on-the-ground national organization working to increase family economic security, decrease discrimination against women and mothers and mobilize women to work for social change.
Rowe-Finkbeiner grew up surrounded by activist women. "My great grandmother was the first president of the Rochester, N.Y., chapter of Planned Parenthood. My grandmother followed in her presidency. My mother was an active feminist and social worker," she says. "So, for the most part, I was brought up in a bubble that girls had achieved equality and that our grandmothers and mothers had taken care of it all."
After college, Rowe-Finkbeiner worked in environmental policy and grassroots engagement. She left her job to care for her then-newborn son, now 17, who had a primary immune deficiency. With her husband working and providing health care for the family, Rowe-Finkbeiner was able to focus on her son. But she realized how lucky she was, and wondered what would happen if she didn't have those resources. "Looking over the edge, I realized it shouldn't be about luck," she says.
Inspired to help women in similar situations, she did some research and found that the U.S. government did not track full-time mothers because they were considered "unremunerated labor." This launched her exploration into the impact of motherhood on women's economic equality.
"The massive invisibility of mothers in America has rippling effects," Rowe-Finkbeiner says. "In fact, maternal status, or motherhood, is now a greater predictor of wage and hiring discrimination than gender. And 81 percent of women in the U.S. have kids by the time they're 44 so this impacts the majority of women in our nation."
In, 2005 she wrote the award-winning book "The F-Word: Feminism in Jeopardy" and in 2006 she co-wrote "The Motherhood Manifesto" with future MomsRising co-founder and board president Joan Blades. In May of that year, they co-founded Momsrising.org.
"We started with a handful of members," she says. "Now we have a total of a million members, with members in every state, and we also reach approximately 3.5 million women through our social media and blogging channels. We've won Forbes awards as one of the top websites for women, have over 1,200 bloggers and also a commercial radio program."
Some of Momsrising.org's current initiatives include advocating for women's contributions to be reflected in the national budget; fair pay; paid family leave; access to affordable child care; sick leave; access to health care through the Affordable Care Act; and equal pay and equal work opportunities.
"When people take action together, despite the rampant cynicism of our time, it makes a difference in the long run for us and for future generations," Rowe-Finkbeiner says.
--By Lauren Trapanotto
Coming of age in the 1950s when opportunities for women were slim, Ambassador Melanne Verveer saw the low expectations as a reason to strive for better.
"There were obvious realities one had to deal with," she says.
Deal with them she did.
Before most recently becoming executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security at Georgetown University, she was the first United States ambassador-at-large for global women's issues during Hillary Rodham Clinton's tenure as secretary of state. Verveer also served as Hillary Clinton's chief of staff during the Clinton administration.
"Women are on the front-lines of change, they are agents of change and often they are doing this at enormous personal risk. Their courage and commitment is truly inspirational," she says.
A graduate of Georgetown, Verveer joined the staffs of the late South Dakota Sen. George McGovern and of northwest Ohio's Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. Later, Verveer served as an executive for People for the American Way, Common Cause and of the U.S. Catholic Conference.
Verveer's role as the first U.S. ambassador for women's interests is a "tribute to [Hillary] Clinton," she says. As ambassador, she was called on to ensure women's issues were fully integrated in the formulation and conduct of U.S. foreign policy. Her job was also to work to promote stability, peace and development by empowering women politically, socially and economically around the world.
"These are issues that are obviously fundamentally important to half the world's population but are also important to those of us in the U.S. working on these issues," she says. "Where women prosper, all of society prospers."
Verveer's position as the director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security is a continuation of what she undertook at the State Department on behalf of women and girls, she adds. Like her position there, Verveer is taking the lead and developing leadership toward securing women's roles in peace building and security across the globe. The goal is to ensure women make progress for themselves and consequentially their own countries.
"These are critical issues of our time," she says. "The role of women is so important in terms of ensuring the kinds of outcomes of peace, stability, economic opportunity that are critically important for our world."
With no plans to stop her humanitarian work, recently returning from Myanmar, she says, "Every day brings with it the realities of how important these issues are."
--By Maggie Freleng