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15 Amazing Women Achievers Who’ve Proved It Pays To Dream Big

From winning the Miss Universe title to heading the top financial institution in the world, these rule-breakers show us what real role models look like.

Nivedita Jayaram Pawar

Year after year, strong, intelligent, and determined Indian women have been making their mark around the world in varied fields— from business and scientific research to even the cricket pitch. What better day than International Women’s Day to salute these fiercely intelligent, powerful, and inspirational women who have made the world sit up and take note.

1. Leena Nair, CEO - Chanel 

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A gold medallist from XLRI Jamshedpur, Nair is a much-celebrated HR leader globally. Recently, in a post on LinkedIn, Nair said: “I always tell HR people they need to walk with swagger... HR is no longer a backroom department, it’s a vital part of running any successful business. If you want to support your people, you need to understand how the business works, and you need to be visible within the business.” After joining HUL as a management trainee in 1992, Nair worked in various roles in factories, sales, and the corporate headquarters in HUL. Nair is married with two sons, and her interests include reading, running, and Bollywood dancing.

2. Mithali Raj, captain - Indian women's national cricket team

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India's greatest female batter, Mithali Raj, has reached milestones aplenty in her storied international career spanning more than two decades. The Jodhpur resident who had a regimented upbringing in an army family is  passionate about Bharatanatyam. Recently, Raj was conferred the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award by India’s president, Ram Nath Kovind. This made her the first female cricketer to receive this award.

3. Falguni Nayar, Nykaa founder and CEO

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Investment banker Falguni Nayar launched beauty and fashion e-commerce platform Nykaa from her father's office when she was 50. Almost a decade later, after her IPO was oversubscribed nearly 82.5 times, India's richest self-made woman billionaire says she is only getting started. Nayar was born and raised in a Gujarati family, where the household chatter revolved around investments, the stock market and trade. A graduate of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, she spent a bulk of her career at Kotak Mahindra Capital Co. When she left in 2012, she was the managing director and head of its institutional equities business. “I started Nykaa at the age of 50 with no experience. I hope the Nykaa journey can inspire each of you to be the Nykaa (heroine) of your lives,” Nayar said recently.

4. Harnaaz Sandhu, Miss Universe 2021

Twenty-one-year-old Sandhu, hailing from a small town in Punjab, made history by becoming only the third Indian woman to be crowned Miss Universe. She won the prestigious title—21 years after Lara Dutta in 2000—and clips of her final answer in the Q & A round went viral shortly after. Sandhu is a strong advocate for women's rights and draws her inspiration from Priyanka Chopra. In her spare time, she enjoys yoga, dancing, cooking, horse riding, and playing chess. 

5. Megha Rajagopalan, tech reporter, BuzzFeed News 

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Megha Rajagopalan won the Pulitzer Prize in 2021 in the International Reporting category for her investigative reports that exposed secretly built China's mass detention camps for Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province. Rajagopalan analysed thousands of satellite images of the Xinjiang region to try and figure out where one million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities were being detained. Based in London, Rajagopalan has previously reported from over 23 countries—including China, Thailand, and Afghanistan. She was previously associated with Reuters as a political correspondent.

6. Anjali Sud, CEO - Vimeo

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Detroit-born and Indian-origin Sud has a B.Sc. degree in Finance and Management from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and an MBA from Harvard Business School. During her early career, she tried everything from marketing diapers online to investment banking, before finding a job at Vimeo as a vice president and head of global marketing in 2014. She became the CEO of the company in July 2017. Sud’s career advice to people is to look smartly where nobody else is looking.

7. Dutee Chand, first Indian to win a 100m gold in a global event

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India’s fastest female runner Dutee Chand is undoubtedly a superstar on the track, and one in life as well. From breaking running records to being India’s first openly-gay athlete, Chand represents the spirit of freedom. In 2014, Chand was suspended from athletics by the IAAF due to perceived female hyperandrogenism, but that ruling was reversed in 2015 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. After winning the case, Dutee went on to win two silver medals at the 2018 Asian Games and, in 2019, became the first openly gay athlete in India. 

8. Gita Gopinath, chief economist - IMF

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Gopinath made India proud as she became the second Indian—and the first woman—to hold this position after former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan. Born in Kolkatta in 1971, Gopinath grew up in Mysuru in Karnataka. According to her father TV Gopinath, Gita was interested in sports, learned the guitar, and also participated in a fashion show—but she gave it all up to focus on studies. Watching Bollywood movies is a great stress buster for this technocrat and author of several books. 

9. PV Sindhu, Indian badminton player

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Born and raised in Hyderabad, sports runs in Sindhu’s blood—both her parents were national level volleyball players. Sindhu chose badminton over volleyball as she was greatly inspired by the success of Pullela Gopichand, the 2001 All England Open Badminton champion. The 26-year-old now has a whopping 264 career wins under her belt and is ranked world no 7 in women’s singles. For her contribution to sports, Sindhu has been conferred with the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, the Padma Shri, and the Padma Bhushan.

10. Tulasi Gowda

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This 72-year-old tribal from Honnali village in Karnataka was honoured with the Padma Shri for her contributions and efforts to protect forest cover. Gowda also known as the “Encyclopedia of Forest" due to her vast knowledge of diverse species of plants and herbs, has planted more than 30,000 saplings. She joined the forest department as a temporary volunteer, where she was recognised for her dedication to nature preservation. She was later offered a permanent job in the department. She retired after 15 more years of service at the age of 70.

11. Flight Lieutenant Bhawana Kanth, one of the first female fighter pilots of India

Born in Bihar's Darbhanga district, 28-year-old Kanth completed her schooling from Barauni Refinery DAV Public School. She is also a trained engineer. In 2016, she became one of the first three women to be commissioned as fighter pilots in the IAF. In 2021, she became the first woman fighter pilot to take part in the Indian Air Force's (IAF's) tableau at the Republic Day parade at Delhi’s Rajpath. She is currently posted at an airbase in Rajasthan where she flies the MiG-21 Bison fighter plane. Kanth loves to play badminton and volleyball, and enjoys adventure sports like trekking, rock climbing, rappelling, and rafting. Photography, cooking, swimming, and travelling are amongst Kath's other interests.

12. Dr Trinetra Haldar Gummaraju, transgender activist, surgeon, and Instagram influencer

Born as Angad Gummaraju to Bengaluru-based parents, this young doctor had to face a lot of scrutiny for being the only trans-woman in a boys hostel. Gummaraju’s Instagram account helps people understand topics like gender, sexuality, queerphobia, bullying, mental health, and feminism. She has 226K followers on Instagram and 14K subscribers on her YouTube channel ‘The Trinetra Method’. Through her content, she guides trans people, shares insecurities, worries, and missteps, and also calls out trolls. 

13. Ghazal Alagh, co-founder Honasa Consumer Pvt. Ltd. (Mamaearth, The Derma Co., & Aqualogica)

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This beauty tycoon successfully built a profitable direct-to-consumer (D2C) venture and became the first unicorn of 2022. Her brands Mamaearth, The Derma Co., and Aqualogica are highly acclaimed for their efficacy and environment consciousness. The 33-year-old Alagh, who recently appeared on Shark Tank India—a business reality show, was one of the youngest sharks on the panel. Besides being a successful entrepreneur and devoted mother, Ghazal has also been recognized as one of the top 10 women artists in India, nationally and internationally. Reading and travelling make up two of her favourite pastimes.

14. Nidhi Sunil, first Indian model to be L’Oreal Paris’ global ambassador

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Amid a beauty culture that’s obsessed with fair skin, lawyer-turned-model Nidhi Sunil is breaking colourism barriers. After countless magazine covers and a strong fan base (with 120,000 followers on Instagram), Sunil made history in 2021 by becoming the first Indian model to represent L’Oréal Paris as their global ambassador. The cover girl has said she enjoys travel because it allows her to get lost in new places. Sunil also said that getting to meet people, understanding their history, and learning about how they got to where they are today, has really enriched her career.

15. Sirisha Bandla, aeronautical engineer and commercial astronaut 

Bandla, who was born in the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh and brought up in Houston, became the third Indian-American woman (after Kalpana Chawla and Sunita Williams) to fly into space when she joined British billionaire Richard Branson on Virgin Galactic's first fully-crewed successful suborbital test flight from the US state of New Mexico. The 35-year-old aeronautical engineer joined four others on board Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity to make a journey to the edge of space from New Mexico. They reached an altitude of about 88 kilometers over the New Mexico desert—enough to see the curvature of the Earth. The crew experienced a few minutes of weightlessness before making a gliding descent back to Earth.

Photo: Featured personalities
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