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Inspirational Women To Watch In 2015

We asked our writers which women inspire them and should stay on our radar for 2015. These 13 ladies range from young to old, from mathematician to reality star, but one thing remains the same across the board: All are leaving a powerful mark on the world. We can't wait to see what they do in 2015.

MARYAM MIRZAKHANI // First Female Fields Medal Recipient


Art Credit: Tibbetts photo: Kate Lord; McCall photo: Collin Richie

Last year Maryam Mirzakhani was the first woman to win the Fields Medal—essentially the Nobel Prize for mathematicians. Upon receiving the award notification via email, she assumed the sender’s account had been compromised. After all, the Fields Medal has long been criticized for its ignorance toward the career trajectory of female mathematicians—only being awarded to mathematicians under age 40, an age limit that's challenging for women who choose to have children to qualify. But Mirzakhani, who has a young daughter, has managed to break records in math while being a busy mom. “Mommy is painting again!” her daughter frequently says when seeing her mother doodle her way through complex proofs. The intensity of Mirzakhani's research leaves her with little desire to be the face of women in mathematics, but her quiet, compelling harmony of family life and career success paints possibilities for women considering paths through the hard sciences.

This year, she will continue exploring the mathematics of hyperbolic surfaces with characteristic optimism and tenacity in her role lecturing at Stanford University. Her endurance for tackling long problems inspires researchers who can relate to the feeling of “being on a long hike with no end in sight.” And her intrepid passion for mathematical research is an encouragement to women forging a path through the complex research challenges of our day.

Rachel Wilkerson

ELISE STEFANIK // Youngest Female Congressperson


Elise Stefanik has an exciting year ahead. When Stefanik was sworn into Congress last month at the age of 30, she became the youngest female woman to have done so. Representing the 21st district of New York, Stefanik has an already record-breaking 2015 and gives us reason to be excited for the future of women in politics, no matter where one stands politically. Some women’s groups believe we won’t reach true gender equality until we have equal numbers of men and women in Congress. But if Stefanik’s victory tells us anything, it’s that equal opportunity is what matters first. Society has advanced at least to a point where women like Stefanik no longer need to spend a lifetime working up the chain in politics to succeed. It’s 2015 and we have a peer in our national legislature. That, to me, is a remarkable step.

Mary Rose Somarriba

TAMMY TIBBETTS // Founder of She’s the First

Tammy Tibbetts, president and founder of She's the First.

“A millennial social entrepreneur on the run,” reads her website. But after having met and spent time with Tammy Tibbetts, I can tell you she is so much more than just that. She’s an entrepreneur with a heart for educating girls in developing countries. Since 2009, her nonprofit, She’s the First, has provided more than 700 scholarships to 300-plus scholars in 10 countries so that they can be the first in their families to graduate high school. As a first-generation college graduate, Tammy understands the power of education in affecting positive change and instituting leadership throughout the world. Her STF team members are equally impressive. Erin Leigh Patterson, for example, launched She’s the First’s “26 Miles for 26 Girls” campaign, running a marathon to sponsor the education of 26 girls. (Oh, and she’s done that twice). And Lindsay Brown is a “cupcake mastermind” behind the organization’s Tie-Dye Cupcake Campaign—a national bake-off that has raised more than $70,000 so far. Tammy has been named to Forbes' "30 Under 30," to Time’s "30 People Under 30 Changing the World," a Glamour Woman of the Year, and a winner of the 2013 Diane von Furstenberg Award. Beyond all those accolades, though, Tammy is a friend to women across the globe. Her entire team, and the continually sprouting STF college chapters, are an inspiration to all of us.

Maggie Niemiec

NADIA LOPEZ // Principal at Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brownsville, Brooklyn

I had no idea who Nadia Lopez was until last month, but she was already making a difference in the lives of those around her before she garnering the public's attention. When the photo series “Humans of New York” profiled a young man named Vidal and asked who influenced him most in his life, he answered, "My principal, Ms. Lopez… When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us… And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.” As the principal of a middle school in Brownsville, an impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhood in Brooklyn, Lopez faces innumerable challenges, perhaps the biggest being the need to change her students’ perspectives on their own worth. “This is a neighborhood that doesn’t necessarily expect much from our children, so at Mott Hall Bridges Academy we set our expectations very high. We don’t call the children ‘students,’ we call them ‘scholars.’…When you tell people you’re from Brownsville, their face cringes up. But there are children here that need to know that they are expected to succeed.”

As someone who works with New York City public school students every day, I know how hard the system can be for educators who are actively and passionately trying to make a difference. Lopez’s eloquence and drive to broaden her students’ horizons is so compelling that it has made national news, and the “Humans of New York” campaign to raise funds for the school has resulted in a visit to The Ellen DeGeneres Show—allowing Lopez’s example to reach other principals and educators across the nation who may feel discouraged. I hope it will inspire them to remember why they became educators in the first place and reignite a national conversation about how best to support our nation’s neediest children. And I not only hope, but know, that Ms. Lopez will have a transformative 2015 because she is already transforming the future, one young scholar at a time.

Monica Weigel

ZANNY MINTON BEDDOES // First Female Editor-In-Chief of The Economist

Last year, Jill Abramson was pushed out of her role as executive editor of The New York Times. Her dismissal sparked a much-needed discussion as to why the face of “serious editorial” was all male, but now that the surprise has died down, not much has changed. Journalism remains a tough space for women.

Thus, I was excited to find out last month that Zanny Minton Beddoes, a former International Monetary Fund economist and emerging markets journalist, has been named as the 17th editor of The Economist—the first female EIC in more than 171 years of the magazine’s publication. Most news outlets are struggling to find solid footing in a changing landscape, but the roles at the top still tend to be filled by a revolving cast of the same (male) characters. It will be refreshing to see a female face up there with the rest. Beddoes is certainly a woman to watch in 2015.

Just one question, though: Will letters to the editor still begin with the salutation “SIR–”?

Christine Emba

McCALL DEMPSEY // Founder of Southern Smash

McCall Dempsey, Smashing Scales, 225 Mag, 1.14.14, Collin Richie Photo

McCall Dempsey struggled with an eating disorder for 15 years but received absolutely no help or concern for it because she, like many who struggle with this disease, appeared healthy and perfectly put-together despite its severity. Dempsey eventually took the bold step of seeking help and challenging her deeply embedded fear of weight gain. She has since developed a sincere passion for promoting the recovery process and now serves as a strong voice of reason in a world of unrealistic body ideals and often disempowering concepts of what beauty ought to look like.

Dempsey then established Southern Smash, a non-profit organization that not only educates the public on eating disorders but also aims to promote unconditional self-love among women everywhere. Southern Smash uses panel discussions (called SMASHTalks), various support groups, and school and college events to challenge conversations around body shaming and the dos and don’ts of food—topics that have become a cultural norm within our society. An average day of Southern SMASH might consist of: “Let It Go Balloons,” where you scrawl the perfect weight on a balloon and then release it into the sky; “Scale Graveyard,” where you bury the scale that you have allowed to define you; the “BeYOU(tiful) Photo Booth,” and a bunch of prizes and giveaways. All the while, Dempsey runs her own blog titled Loving Imperfection. Now a wife and mother of one, Dempsey provides women of all ages with a source of strength and encouragement. 

Laura Jachimowicz

TANYA MENENDEZ // Cofounder of Maker’s Row


Tanya Menendez created an online network designed to make the manufacturing process simple to understand and easy to access. The impact of her work is reaching countless entrepreneurs across the country. From large corporations to first-time designers, American-made production now has unparalleled access to industry-specific factories and suppliers across the U.S. because of Maker's Row. She’s recently been featured in Time, Bloomberg Businessweek, Wired, Mashable, The Huffington Post, and others.

Krizia Liquido

HARPER LEE // Author of To Kill A Mockingbird

In 1960 Harper Lee released what has become one of the most important novels of the 20th century. After winning the Pulitzer Prize for To Kill A Mockingbird, the public and her publisher eagerly awaited a follow-up to this remarkable book but, ultimately, none came. Now, 55 years later, the 88-year-old Alabama native has a new novel, Go Set a Watchman, and a new chance for accolades from both critics and fans. The very private Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor in 2007 in addition to the numerous academic and literary honors she's received over the years. All of this for a book Lee herself never thought would even sell. This new novel, written before Mockingbird, was thought to be lost until the manuscript was discovered last fall.

For a woman who now quietly resides in an assisted living facility, Lee is definitely in for an impactful year. I, for one, cannot wait to read this new work by a true American master. Publisher HarperCollins recently revealed the publishing date is July 14, so let the countdown begin for the book that follows Mockingbird—the best-selling book of all time.

—Hannah Allen White

SADIE ROBERTSON // Youth Role Model, Author, Entrepreneur

Seventeen-year-old Sadie Robertson is best known for role on the hit series Duck Dynasty, but she really caught our attention when she twirled her way through last season’s Dancing With the Stars. Although she didn’t win the trophy, she won the hearts of viewers everywhere with her Southern charm and the kind of grace, modesty, and humility we don’t often see among young starlets today.

In our “sex sells” culture where all that’s provocative and risqué is gold, Robertson managed to balance beauty and style with what appeared to be effortless elegance. These days, she’s bringing that balance to the world of couture, partnering with designer Sherri Hill to create a line of dignified and age-appropriate prom dresses. Not yet 18, Sadie’s sure to keep taking the world by storm, all the while giving young girls a desperately needed model of grace to follow.

Chelsea Samelson

ALEXI PAPPAS // Cross Country Runner


Alexi Pappas’s record as a track runner is enough to make her stick out as an extraordinary and inspiring woman. After graduating with honors from Dartmouth College in 2012, she was a finalist for the 22nd Annual NCAA Woman of the Year award and is a pro runner training for the 2016 Olympics. But that’s just small potatoes for Pappas. She’s also a poet, actress, and filmmaker. Yes, you heard right; she’s co-directing, writing, and starring in the movie Tracktown, alongside such seasoned comedy actors as Andy Buckley (The Office) and Rachel Dratch (Saturday Night Live). The kind of woman who recently had a discussion with President Obama about the merits of running, Pappas is a refreshing reminder that one can have brains, beauty, smarts, and a lot of heart—an inspiration to women inside and outside of sports to be “more of who they are.” I am looking forward to seeing her running progress… and seeing the film!

Melanie Wilcox

LIZZIE VELASQUEZ // Speaker, Author, Advocate


I first became aware of Lizzie Velasquez when she captured national attention for her TEDx talk, “How Do You Define Yourself?” In what was the most viewed TEDxWomen Event in 2013, Velasquez tells her story of living with a rare congenital disease that doesn’t allow her to gain fat. When at 17 Velasquez discovered a YouTube video crowning her “The World’s Ugliest Woman,” she was confronted with the cruelty of online bullying. But instead of yielding to self-pity and hate, Velasquez chose to forgive. That one step years ago was the first that led to her now flourishing career as a writer, speaker, and activist.

Now 25, she exemplifies how what we often think are our flaws and weaknesses can become our greatest strengths. Velasquez’s online presence is still contentious; her YouTube videos garner thousands of views and hundreds of comments, many of them still negative. But her positivity and resilience are proof that happiness is not something that comes from outside approval, but from self-love and hard work.

This March, her story will reach thousands more when a film about her life debuts at the SXSW film festival in Austin, Texas. A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story documents her mission to create a more positive online environment, from her first TEDx talk to her lobbying Congress to get the first anti-bullying bill passed. Needless to say, 2015 holds great things in store for Lizzie Velasquez, and I’m excited to see what positive cultural conversations this film will start. If Lizzie’s grace and beauty can come from such adversity, we all have one more reason to keep our faith and hope in humanity.

C.K. Dawson

VANESSA HURST // CEO of CodeMontage, Founder of Developers for Good, Cofounder of Girl Develop It


I love awesome women who want to improve the world. I also love awesome women who are technologically innovative. Vanessa Hurst has both those traits, which is why she should be on everybody’s radar in 2015. Hurst is the Founder and CEO of CodeMontage and cofounder and advisor to both Girl Develop It and WriteSpeakCode. At 27 years old, she was named one of Business Insider’s "30 Most Important Women Under 30 In Tech." Hurst isn’t just looking to innovate the world, she is looking to make it better. The former Girl Scout explains that “At the age of four, I made a promise to try to help people at all times. By the time I reached college, I thought I had to be a teacher or doctor to do so—until I discovered computer programming.”

Girl Develop It empowers women to learn web and software development through affordable classes and mentorships. The organization has 39 chapters across the U.S., bringing classes in everything from Development 101 for the newbies to Ruby on Rails and Python for the more advanced coders out there. But Hurst isn’t just about empowering women—at CodeMontage, she is helping coders “be superheroes” by giving them the opportunity to impact projects across the world. CodeMontage connects coders hoping to improve their skills with projects that need coders, projects ranging from a grammar web app for middle school students to an encrypted messaging program. In 2015, they are hosting live HP Coder Day of Service projects throughout the country. By impacting individual women and encouraging coders of all sorts to turn around and impact social causes across the board, Hurst is truly changing the world.

Marina Olson

JANAIHA BENNETT // Youth Leader and Mentor


Janaiha Bennett helps direct a year-round academic enrichment and mentoring program that serves 3rd to 11th grade girls in the inner-city of Washington, D.C.–those of what she jokingly calls the “post-millennial Miley Cyrus generation.” Leading a group called PALS, the Program for Academic and Leadership Skills, Bennett is dedicated to helping girls “understand themselves, the world, and their place to be great women within it." Programs of past summers have included asking the girls to plan a fashion show reflecting the concept of “authentic beauty.”

“When only 4 percent of women around the world consider themselves beautiful,” Bennett says, “we have lost our sense of true beauty. Our girls set out to recapture its meaning.” Every once in a while, there’s a moment when you see the girls growing in their self-worth. “While a moment like that may not grab as much immediate attention as a gif or meme of Miley,” Bennett admits, “it certainly echoes long after.” Through conversation-starting projects like these, PALS makes a difference in the community in a way that Nelson grasps vividly. After all, she's a native of inner-city D.C., herself.

Mary Rose Somarriba

ALYNDA LEE SEGARRA // Singer and Songwriter


The first time I heard Hurray for The Riff Raff perform music years ago, I was lounging in a rusty, dusty old coffee shop in New Orleans. A sucker for soulful female crooners like Nina Simone, Lana Del Rey, and Adele, I rushed to find the face to match the voice, and there she was—Alynda Lee Segarra, a petite young Puerto Rican, hunched over another musician’s guitar. I immediately could see: This is talent of rare quality. The NOLA music scene seemed to think so, too. Segarra became a fixed contributor in some of NOLA’s better bands such as Why Are We Building Such A Big Ship? Six years since that day, the national tastemakers are catching on. Bob Boilen of All Songs Considered called her “Small Town Heroes” as one of the best albums of 2014, and NPR proclaimed the stunning “Body Electric” as the “Political Folk Song of The Year.” With this momentum, Segarra is sure to have an exciting year in store—one that I’m excited to say promises we’ll hear a lot more of her exceptional talent.

Alana Newman

VIVIENNE HARR // Philanthropist and Speaker

A few years ago, at the age of eight, Vivienne Harr made headlines by raising more than $100,000 to fight child slavery with her traveling lemonade stand. Several years later, she is still selling lemonade for the cause through her website Make a Stand, has become the youngest person to give a TEDx talk, and has been listed among Town & Country‘s “50 Most Influential Philanthropists in America." This year she is the Chief Inspiration Officer for an exciting new project called STAND, which aims to be the first social media platform designed to make social giving easy and effective. By creating a space for people to “connect and engage around values and causes important to them,” Vivienne and the team hope to empower more people, whatever their age, to put their “compassion into action.” For a 10-year-old, Harr is a huge reminder how one person really can make a difference.

Sophie Caldecott