Leadership Recoded … 10 women shaking up the business world, from Canva’s Melanie Perkins and ClassPass’s Payal Kadakia, to Drybar’s Alli Webb and Nubank’s Cristina Junqueira

March 5, 2020

We all need “more female” attributes to seize the opportunities of today’s rapidly changing business world.

Making sense of relentless change and complexity requires us to rise above the data points and short-term priorities, to see a bigger picture – to make sense of a new emerging world. That requires intuition more than logic (intuition is more forwards looking, whilst logic tends to look back).

To add value beyond machines and AI, we need to unlock our humanity, our creativity. That requires us to be more empathetic, to make new connections. Ideas, design, relationships are most valued in today’s business world.

And to solve the big problems of our world, we need to be more thoughtful – to find more responsible, caring and creative, intuitive and inspiring solutions.

You could say “the future is female”

It’s not just about getting to a level playing field in diversity and inclusion, which matters … but even more, its about taking those attributes, those qualities, which are typically “more female” and to embrace them … both for men and women.

We could go into a biological and neurological discussion at this point, but I think the point is clear. Women therefore can have an advantage, whilst for men it might require some unlearning.

The future is not like the future used to be. Being a leader of the future, is not achieved by following the traits of the past success. It’s time to look forwards, together, with a positive mindset, to embrace the opportunities of an incredible new world.

So here are 10 incredible female business leaders, stepping up to disrupt and reinvent our world and our lives:

Kathy Hannun, Cofounder and CEO of Dandelion

Kathy Hannun was at Google X when she became obsessed with geothermal energy for home heating and cooling. It drastically cuts the eco footprint compared with diesel or propane-powered furnaces — but a system typically cost $80,000 or more to install in a private house. Hannun cofounded Dandelion in 2017 to bring down the expense. Already, the company’s innovative equipment means that homeowners can either pay $18,500 up front and recoup the costs over about five years or put no money down and pay $135 a month, less than most diesel heating bills. So far Dandelion has raised $23.5 million and is growing 20 percent month over month; its waitlist is in the thousands. “My goal is to make this the mainstream option,” says Hannun. “And advance the way society heats and cools indoor spaces.”

Cristina Junqueira, Cofounder and VP of Nubank

Cristina Junqueira was working at a traditional bank in Brazil, and in 2013 she scored the largest bonus of her career. She quit immediately. Junqueira realized she wanted to change people’s lives, not just make money. Within months, she helped launch Nubank, a Brazilian fintech company that aims to make banking accessible to everyone via tools like low-interest credit cards, high-interest savings accounts, and an app-based credit system. In the early days, it was all hands on deck for Nubank’s tiny team. “You would call our customer service line and it would ring on my cellphone,” Junqueira says. But today, she’s having the impact she hoped for: Her company is valued at $10 billion, recently announced plans to move into Mexico and Argentina, and is exploring new products like personal loans, investment products, and accounts for small and medium-­size businesses.

Payal Kadakia, Founder and executive chairman of ClassPass

Back in 2010, Payal Kadakia gave herself two weeks to come up with a viable business idea — time enough, she thought, to know whether she was cut out to be an entrepreneur. It worked. That experiment evolved into ClassPass, the subscription-based service that now helps users in 2,500-plus cities in more than 20 countries discover and book exercise classes. This year, Kadakia expanded into corporate wellness with a service that gives employees access to classes with 22,000 studio partners; clients include Google, Facebook, and Morgan Stanley. But the company, which has raised $255 million, is approaching the milestone of 100 million class reservations, a figure that keeps the founder motivated. “Our ultimate success metric is when someone goes to class,” Kadakia says.

Andrea and Robin McBride, Founders of McBride Sisters Wine 

Sometimes a founding story is so good, you just want to bottle it. And these sisters did. Andrea McBride was 12 and living with her foster mom in New Zealand when the phone rang. “Hey, Andrea; it’s your dad,” a man said. He told her he had terminal stomach cancer and she had a big sister named Robin (left) on the opposite side of the world. Andrea set out to find her. It took a few years, but she did. Andrea was 16 and Robin was 25 when the two first met, in New York’s LaGuardia airport. “When I got off the plane,” says Robin, who’d been brought up by her mom in California, “she was standing at the end of the jetway. I thought I was seeing my own reflection.” In 2005, the sisters ended up in California concocting a plan to squeeze into the very male, very white, very old-school wine industry. First they became importers, then distributors, and in 2009 they produced their first vintage. Many followed, including a Black Girl Magic collection, from New Zealand and California. Today the McBride Sisters Wine Collection sells 80,000 cases a year, landing it in the top 3 percent of wineries by size. But the sisters want to see more women there. On March 8, International Women’s Day, they debuted She Can — a New Zealand sauvignon blanc and a California rosé in cans — along with a fund to advance the careers of women in the wine industry. “It’s better than when we started,” says Robin. Andrea finishes the sentence: “But there’s still a lot more work to be done.”

Mariam Naficy, Founder and CEO of Minted

Minted, which transformed over 11 years from selling stationery to being a massive marketplace for indie artists, inked a big deal this summer: Samsung and Method will now license work from Minted’s community, giving newfound exposure to independent designers. “We’re a source for companies that understand the value of one-of-a-kind design but may not have the scale or merchandising bandwidth to develop it internally,” says founder and CEO Mariam Naficy. And Minted doesn’t just have scale; it has crowd buy-in. Back when the company focused solely on greeting cards and wedding invitations, Naficy devised a crowdsourcing model for up-voting the art potential shoppers liked best. Fast-forward to today, and that means big brands can tap into a decade of data on design that inspires both fandom and sales—Naficy even says that by now, Minted can predict which designs will ultimately become best-sellers.

Neha Narkhede, Cofounder and chief product officer of Confluent

Next time you swipe a credit card or call a Lyft, thank Neha Narkhede, who is building what she calls a “central nervous system” for companies’ data. It started while she was working as an engineer at LinkedIn, where she helped create Apache Kafka, an open-source software system that processes the deluge of data flowing through the platform — clicks, messages, and news-feed updates — and makes it available to users in real time. “We said, ‘This is not just a LinkedIn problem; this is part of a broader trend that’s happening in the world where businesses are going to become more digital,’ ” Narkhede says. So she and two colleagues left to start Confluent, a software system that turbocharges Apache Kafka’s capabilities for startups, financial institutions, and Fortune 500 companies. Confluent enables its customers to process trillions of event streams every day, integrating data across apps and platforms and making all that information available centrally to analyze in real time. The service has quickly become an integral tool for businesses looking to leverage their digital footprint, and it shows in Confluent’s growth: The company recently raised $125 million in Series D funding, catapulting it to unicorn status with a $2.5 billion valuation. Next year, Confluent will focus on international business while increasing its 800-person workforce. “The market is as big as what the relational database market will be,” Narkhede says. “That’s on the order of tens of billions of dollars—that’s what we’re looking at in terms of total market potential.”

Melanie Perkins, Cofounder and CEO of Canva 

Canva, the Australia-based graphic design platform, was created in 2013 to help anyone, anywhere — with any level of design knowledge — create and publish beautiful, professional materials. Six years later, CEO Melanie Perkins and her cofounders have made strides. Canva has raised more than $140 million, is valued at $2.5 billion, and has 15 million active monthly users around the globe. “We’re now in 100 languages, and a goal for the year ahead is to bring access to every single market,” Perkins says. “We’ve done less than 1 percent of what we think is possible — we’ve got .56 percent of the world’s population on the platform, but we want to empower the entire world.”

Kendra Scott, Founder and CEO of Kendra Scott

As she designed her first jewelry collection out of her home in 2002, Kendra Scott never dreamed it would become a $1 billion brand. But today, her eponymous company has a unicorn valuation, 100 stores, and shows no signs of slowing down — though Scott’s main focus is about more than baubles. Of the Austin-based brand’s 2,000 employees, more than 90 percent are women, many of whom are mothers. Nursing rooms are commonplace at HQ and distribution centers, Kendra Scott Kids provides a children’s playroom, and once a year Camp Kendra invites in employees’ kids for a day of activities, in which office employees become camp counselors. “If we can support our staff, these women, at this very special time in their lives, we’ll have an employee who is incredibly loyal to our brand,” says Scott. “We believe in their future.” In September, that support expanded beyond the walls of Scott’s company, when she announced the Kendra Scott Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Program in partnership with the University of Texas. The programming will feature speaker series and courses on everything from building a business to advocating for equal pay and will be available to University of Texas students. “We want women to be able to access this information,” Scott says.

Reshma Shetty, Cofounder of Ginkgo Bioworks

A biological engineer who can synthesize bacteria to smell like bananas, Reshma Shetty never intended to be an entrepreneur. But as a graduate student at MIT, she became passionate about designing biology-based products the way an architect designs a house. To make her vision a reality, in 2008 she cofounded Ginkgo Bioworks. Eleven years later, Shetty and her 250-person team are known for cutting-­edge biotech and valued at $1.4 billion. Ginkgo’s work has spanned various industries, from healthcare to agriculture, with products like synthetic probiotics that reduce gastrointestinal problems in soldiers and (in progress with Synlogic) medicines that program the body’s cells to treat complex diseases. Earlier this year, Ginkgo spun out a separate company called Motif Ingredients to engineer sustainable alternative proteins that taste like the real thing. “Although we’re going after these radically different markets,” says Shetty, “the common thread is biology.”

Alli Webb, Founder of  Drybar

Drybar founder Alli Webb has a new company, Squeeze, that aims to do for massages what she did for blowouts: Make the experience easy and affordable. The chain launched in March; customers book appointments via an app and can select from a menu of treatments and preferences, from pressure type to areas to avoid. But unlike Drybar (which has 130 locations and 4,000 employees), Squeeze will scale as a franchise, and Webb’s team is creating a two-year blueprint for its future partners, detailing how to greet customers and market locally. “We love the idea of enabling other people to become entrepreneurs themselves,” Webb says.

What are the successful traits?

Fortune Magazine recently asked a range of female leaders about the personality trait they credit for helping launching them into their leadership positions of today:

Ginni Rometty, Chairman, President, and CEO, IBM  … “Be curious. A constant thirst to learn has served me well my entire career, especially in the tech industry. We’ve always hired for curiosity at IBM. We receive 7,000 job applications a day, and our managers and HR teams are geared to look for people who are curious and committed to constantly advancing what they know.”

Gail Boudreaux, President and CEO, Anthem … “My strong focus on leadership has been a large part of my success to date. I believe the ability to build and inspire teams is critical and that individuals and organizations can accomplish extraordinary results when they leverage the power of their collective strength working together.”

Julie Sweet, CEO, Accenture … “Openness: starting with my decision to learn Chinese and live in Taiwan and China in 1987 and 1988, before it was commonplace. I have often pursued paths that were not well-trodden. It has helped me become a continuous learner and to understand that it is often from unexpected sources and places that you learn the most.”

Judith McKenna, President and CEO, Walmart International  … “It must be somewhere between curiosity and always focusing on people. Both are really important, and I really believe that if we always keep our associates, our people, at the heart of everything we do, and build out strong teams, then we’ll continue to make our business successful.”

Amy Hood, EVP and CFO, Microsoft … “I’m pretty gritty. I can work through most things and come out on the other side feeling like I’ve learned a good lesson and I’ll get better.”

Leanne Caret, President and CEO, Defense, Space & Security, and EVP, Boeing … “I love being authentic and letting people see the real me. That hopefully creates an environment where we are all in it together.”

Jennifer Taubert, EVP, Worldwide Chairman, Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson … “I think two qualities have been critical in my career: optimism and perseverance. Optimism because I believe in stretching and redefining the boundaries of what’s possible. Perseverance because, with determination, you can overcome any obstacle to do the right thing for patients. ”

Michele Buck, President and CEO, Hershey  … “Being a great listener has long been one of my hallmark leadership qualities. I find immense value in seeking diverse perspectives when I’m making an important business decision. I want to hear from people who are deep in the organization, closest to the work, as well as those outside the decision domain who may see things a bit differently. As a leader, it’s important to set direction and impart your knowledge to others; but, you have to balance that with listening to the expertise and point of views of those around you. Intentional listening, and the learning associated with that, has undoubtedly been key to my success. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to weigh the perspectives of those around me with my north star. Then, I listen to my gut, which to me isn’t just natural instinct, it’s been built through years of experience, successes, failures, and everything in between.”

Mary Dillon, CEO, Ulta Beauty … “Curiosity and empathy. I told my children as they were growing up to always ask other people about themselves, to be curious to learn about others and to respect their journey. At Ulta Beauty, this is the way we do business. We have a deep curiosity about our guests and their needs, and we treat associates with the respect they deserve. We believe these values are helping us win customer loyalty.”

Marillyn Hewson, Chairman, President, and CEO, Lockheed Martin … “A focus on effective communication—and it all starts with the ability to really listen. Listening to your customers leads to a customer-focused vision. And listening to those you lead creates a climate of understanding and trust. By focusing on consistent and effective communication, leaders can also more quickly identify those times when it is critical to step forward and reach out directly to customers, shareholders, or employees. Simply put, effective communication is the engine for effective leadership and effective decision making at every level.”

Download a summary of my keynote: The Future is Female

Peter Fisk’s new book Business Recoded is out in September 2020.