Recently, I had attended BERG’s Women Icons Summit & Awards. This award ceremony was held to honor the accomplishments & contributions of women in different spheres of life. It is important that success stories of Women Icons should be publicly recognized so that such women not only become role models for future generations but also help change societal mindsets.

Post award ceremony, I wanted to have the chance to get to know my fellow awardees better. So my niece, Megan and I interviewed the Women Icons winners, Vandana Sharma, Barbara Ximenez, Sonia Kulkarni, Karen Leong and myself. We gave valuable insight into our lives as successful women in our respective fields of work and what it felt to be a Women Icon. Below are what we have shared.

What does being a Women Icon mean to you?

Vandana: I believe being a women icon helps to empower more women across the globe to follow their dreams, pursue excellence and achieve whatever they desire. The gender does not become an obstacle if one is determined to excel. I would like to break all gender stereotypes and hope to impact and inspire not just women but also men equally. I would like to influence this world for equality in all aspects.

Barbara: It is always a great honor to be recognized for something you love doing; everybody loves a compliment! I think that, unfortunately, it is still necessary to put the spotlight on achievers from demographics that are underrepresented in the business world, and I accept that a recognition like Women Icons comes with the responsibility to inspire people to never feel bound by the limitations that others put on you. I also feel it is necessary to point out that I am reaping the rewards of what has been a phenomenal team effort. I am very proud to be surrounded by a fantastic group of dedicated, hard-working, and creative individuals, and I hope that each of them feels that this award is theirs as much as it is mine.

Sonia: Being a woman icon means that I have to lead by example. I have a bigger role to play in the society which is far more responsible and accountable. It is people’s faith and love that has made me a woman icon and I need to give it due respect and humility. I am a reflection of all those women who are trying to achieve their dreams and they all are a part of me. I have to take them along with me on this journey as they have supported me to become who I am today. It’s no longer individual, it is inclusive. It’s not limited to but needs to create infinite possibilities and opportunities. It’s about igniting the passion and keeping the fire burning within. Woman Icon should be able to co-create and have a vision for the women and the larger place she needs to have in the society. She needs to create the right and positive influence by her value system, attitude, and behavior so that there is a take away for everyone as well as leaving behind a value driven thought process. She should enable everyone to become a better version of themselves thus impacting the society significantly.

Karen: The existence of this award – Woman Icon means that there remains a lot to be done in empowering women, and eliminating the obstacles women still face in the workplace and at home. (We don’t hear of an equivalent Male Icon award). Yet, shining a spotlight on Women Icons helps to highlight the diverse paths one can take to attain success and significance. And hopefully, encourages more women (and men) to take action towards living life to it’s fullest potential.

Marion: An icon is someone who represents the best of that ability and characteristic. When you call someone iconic, it means that that person is memorable in their field. Thus I believe that this is a bigger perspective of myself than I have dared to dream of or believe in. So I take the term “women icon” on as a challenge to myself to be more and more a true representation of the best qualities that a women leader can possess for her community and the world.

Who are/were your Women Icons? Then and Now. And why?

Vandana: Madame Curie: I have the deepest respect for Madame Curie for the fact that she was the first woman to win a Nobel prize and the only person to win the award in two different fields of Physics and Chemistry. She broke the gender stereotype that scientific accomplishments could belong to women equally and perhaps more. She inspired women and men alike. Despite the lack of resources, she achieved path breaking success. Madame Curie not only, was a distinguished scientist but she passed on excellence to her daughters and was an inspirational mom. Her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie followed in her mother’s footsteps, winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935. Madame Curie has always been my hero from childhood.

Coco Chanel: The ability to think pants and suits for women when they were expected to wear only dresses and skirts. Liberating women through the world of fashion was a breakthrough achievement. Almost revolutionary. She created the little black dress, choosing a color which was once associated with mourning and turned it around to the most sought after evening dress color until date. Coco lived a hard life as a young child but grew on to become the biggest fashion icon ever. I love her.

Amelia Earhart: Amelia was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She followed her passion for flying and made several world records. As the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, she received the Distinguished Flying Cross from the US Congress, the Cross of Knight of the Legion of Honor from the French Government and the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society from President Herbert Hoover. Amelia dedicated her life to prove that men and women could excel in their profession regardless of gender. She broke the stereotype around flying which was considered a men’s playfield. She was a great icon who stood out for her free spirit, courage and Independence. I draw a lot of inspiration from Amelia Earhart.

Now: While these three iconic women continue to be my inspiration till date, I also draw a lot of inspiration from Shery Sandberg, Iris Apfel and good work being done by young Emma Watson.

Sheryl Sandberg: Sheryl is a brilliant personality for inspiring new age women professionals across the globe. She encourages women to lean in and build networks which help empower more women to get a seat at the power table. Her candid approach towards building trust and mentoring women to excel in their professional pursuit is very powerful. More women need to do this in their own spheres of influence.

Iris Apfel: This 95-year-old fashion diva with her unique sense of fashion, inspires me to live well, dress well, work hard and enjoy success each day. She believes “there’s always a way if you want something badly enough and you work hard at it.” I totally agree with her.

Emma Watson: Emma, as a UN Goodwill ambassador, has been doing a commendable job of highlighting the need for men and women to participate equally towards a gender-equal society: Equal rights and equal opportunities.The recent UN campaign #HeForShe could be very powerful to have the world come together and join forces to build an equal world.

Barbara: Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, Malala.: There have been countless women throughout history that pursued their dreams and ambitions with a stubborn disregard of what anybody else thought of it. And these are just the women that have somehow achieved public recognition for their achievements; when I look around me I see inspirational women who fight for what they believe in, often while juggling many conflicting responsibilities, everywhere.

Sonia: I have always been inspired by strong, brave, bold and independent women who have dared to outdo, broken the stereotypes and lived on their own terms throughout my life whether she is my grandmother, mother, sisters and the everyday women I meet across the span of my life. Women are and can be women’s biggest strength as we understand each other both physically and emotionally. We understand the challenges of life and what kind of struggles each one goes through. We should be able to learn from each other, inspire and imbibe. Some of the women I have admired are:

Maya Angelou, an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and was credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years.
Deepa Malik, an Indian athlete. She is the first Indian woman to win a medal in Paralympic Games and won a Silver medal at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in the shot put. She has won accolades for her participation in various adventure sports.
Indira Gandhi, the only female Prime Minister of India
Indra Nooyi, Chairperson and Chief Executive Officer of PepsiCo, the second-largest food and beverage business in the world by net revenue. She has consistently ranked among the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women. In 2014, she was ranked at #13 on the list of Forbes World’s 100 most powerful women and was ranked the 82nd most powerful woman on the Fortune list in 2016.

Karen: The late Teresa Hsu, affectionately known as Singapore’s “Mother Teresa” who lived to 113 years, is a Women Icon close to my heart. I am awed by her boundless positive energy and tireless life-long dedication to helping the aged sick and destitute. True happiness stems from living a life of purpose and meaning, and Teresa Hsu personifies that for me. When I met her at 100 years young, she shared that she was born into poverty, and even resorted to eating grass to survive. Remembering her words, “I don’t want another person to have to “eat grass” like me”, Teresa has inspired me to live a life of contribution. I believe that everyone is born influential, and my mission is to help people to unleash the influence within, and make a positive impact in their world.

Marion: Mother Teresa: for her deep courage and compassion. She went to another country and lived and breathed the challenges of being with the poor and the outcasts. In so doing, she not only helped those who were in need but changed the consciousness of the people in that community and that country, so much so, that when she died, there was a huge funeral procession by her adopted country, India.

Audrey Hepburn: I simply love her style and quirkiness. She was not a conventional beauty but she had a strong sense of self. And you never forget when she entered and left the room.

Wonder Woman: I know she’s not real. But to me, she embodies the super powers that all women have and super sexy is also a power. And of course my mother – who gave up a lot for the family and was my model for always helping others in need.

What do you think is the next step for Women in your ecosystem or industry?

Vandana: Women in India have a long way to go in the fight for rights and gender equality. We need more heroes in the form of men and women who advocate the gender equality in a fast growing and developing nation. There is a need to encourage young girls to grow and believe they can achieve equally and perhaps more basis their capability. The governance and public policies today need to provide scope and support emphasis over “power of excellence and merit” in any field. Each sector has to belong and be equally accessible to girls as well as boys. For a while, it might mean encouraging women more than men since the decision makers in most seats everywhere today are men and they need to start considering women as equals OR in an ideal world we have women decision makers in equal numbers as their male counterparts who can then jointly institutionalize processes and policies which build a meritocratic culture. Women need to feel safe and uninhibited in daily lives which means better safety, security, and laws that are deterrent towards elements that discourage/disrespect an equal society. There is a need for building a new mindset in the society which helps women see themselves as equals and are not discouraged from doing something due to their gender. This starts from home and school: from own families, teachers and peer.

Barbara: There are far more women working in tech now than when I started in the nineties, although there is still a real shortage of women coders. However, what I look forward to most – for my industry and every other one – is the day when none of this is a topic for discussion anymore. When we learn to recognize achievements for what they are and not who is behind it.

Sonia: Women in general, need to keep evolving especially their thought processes. They should not give up on their careers but keep acquiring knowledge and upgrade their skills. They should also focus on their core areas of interests and not look at alternative professions. They should take up a stand for themselves rather than being apologetic and stop trying to prove to anyone other than themselves that how good a daughter, wife, mother or professionals they are. Let go of the guilt and make the right choices. Most importantly own and celebrate their successes. I will be happy to see more women focus on themselves, their well-being and be a better person both physically and mentally. Take their overall health and fitness seriously. I would like women to stick to their career choices especially in the field of public relations and communications and focus on rising to the top. In a PR agency, there are 50 to 60% women in the junior to middle management category. This ratio drastically changes with only 10 to 20% women in the senior category as most women give up their careers mid-way or change to an alternate profession which is more stable and steady. I would like to see more women CEOs in PR field and more top notch women PR professionals as communication directors on the board of companies. I would like women to be strategic public relation advisors to the government as well as large conglomerates holding their own merits and positions. They should be path breaking and become visionary strategists specializing in various political, social and economic situations and crisis management. Women should mean business.

Karen: At Influence Solutions, a premier talent development organization which I co-founded, we work with organizations across industries to achieve greater results, through empowering their leaders and teams. Most senior leadership teams in organizations today are still dominated by men. The next step is for even more women’s voices to be heard. I believe that the business world will benefit from more equitable gender diversity in leadership positions.

I once facilitated a year-long leadership training engagement for an international banking client for a group of 25 high potential women leaders. At the very onset, I asked the group to draw the ideal CEO for their bank. Ten minutes later, when all the drawings were plastered on the wall, there was a realization – everyone had drawn a man as their ideal CEO. That’s when I shared that according to ancient wisdom, written in the Bhagavad Gita everything in the world is created twice. First in the mind. Then on ground. Till they are able to see themselves as CEO, it is unlikely to happen. It’s when we believe it when we can see it, will it become a reality.

Marion: I am currently involved in improving women financial literacy, and women entrepreneurial capacities. It seems strange that with the same amount of education that most women have, we do not play a stronger role in politics and financial arenas. That’s one aspect. I have been writing about women leadership in technology and leadership in general as a whole for a long time. And my next step is to promote and exemplify many women leaders. As well as to mentor and capacity build as many new and younger women entrepreneurs. I am working with a female US partner with the great Venture Capital and Entrepreneurship experience to create a platform where women of high net worth can mentor or invest in women businesses, through looking at common metrics of financial and market viability.

This article was co-written with Megan Neubronner.

Megan Rachel Neubronner is a 19-year-old student hoping to work in the media industry in the future.

Besides being an occasional student writer, she has a keen eye and interest in graphic design.

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