The Women Reshaping the C-Suite

The Women Reshaping the C-Suite

By Pallabi Munsi and Nick Fouriezos

SourceImages Shutterstock, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY


Because boardrooms are changing.

By Pallabi Munsi and Nick Fouriezos

It’s easy to talk about those female execs who have already made it, women like Mary Barra of General Motors or Susan Wojcicki of YouTube. But what about the women who are quietly breaking smaller glass ceilings along the way and are just moments from cracking that big title at the top of the corporate ladder: CEO? This Sunday Magazine explores the surprising achievements of the woman-led corporate world across industries to look at the leaders of tomorrow — and you get to learn their names today. 

health care & medicine 

CVS Health Neela Montgomery

Neela Montgomery and Carolyn Ainslie

Neela Montgomery, EVP of CVS Health and CVS Pharmacy President. She was picked to take over America’s largest drugstore chain when she was plucked away from Crate & Barrel in August. But what Montgomery, 46, did at the housewares and furniture company was impressive, shifting more than 50 percent of sales online in just three years — while avoiding Amazon. Her hiring signals a future in which CVS Health services become increasingly digital and virtual. Arriving at to the top of American business ranks fulfills a generational journey — her grandmother was married at 12 and had 13 kids without ever receiving an education, while her mother was one of the first women to attend medical school in Kolkata, India.

Carolyn Ainslie, CFO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She might not have the name recognition of her bosses, but the former Princeton University CFO oversees the finances (including the all-important strategic investment fund) of perhaps the most important health care nonprofit in the world. The foundation has flexed its muscle throughout the pandemic, investing in major initiatives around equity for testing, treatment and vaccination, as well as showing how its previous investments actually helped create a vaccine. And while it’s unlikely she’ll end up leading the foundation — given the way the Gateses have steadfastly held onto the reins — another organization may one day scoop up the Corning, New York, native.

Cynthia Chen, President of North America Health at RB. She has bounced between Shanghai and New York City for two decades, showing an adaptability that crosses industries too — after all, how many people could be a top leader at a snack giant like General Mills one year and then help pilot British health and hygiene goods company Reckitt Benckiser (RB) the next? She handles those transitions with ease, having already driven double-digit growth at multibillion-dollar businesses while also winning awards in China for the company cultures she built

Shirley Xu, General Manager of Baxter China. Xu’s childhood dream was to work in health care, and she’s followed it through more than a quarter century at the China branch of Illinois-based Baxter. Maneuvering the always tricky Chinese health care landscape, she hopes to create affordable, innovative products — a goal in line with the Chinese government’s Healthy China 2030 plan to treat more patients more effectively. The Harvard Business School grad is a key executive bridging the gap between the U.S. and China at a time when relations are increasingly fraught.

Christelle Saghbini, Africa General Manager at Sanofi. She oversees African operations for the French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi, and as country lead in Egypt and Sudan. The French national arrived in Cairo when the Ministry of Health rolled out its “100 Million Seha campaign,” a nationwide hepatitis C screening campaign that put health care at the top of the government’s agenda. The company is a top employer in Egypt, with more than 1,200 workers, and brings in $200 million in revenue across the region. It has earned an award for helping Egypt achieve its sustainable development goals.

Chang Yi Wang, Founder of United Biomedical (UBI). Wang, 69, had a celebrated career in biomedical research, making history breaking down barriers for Asian women. She founded United BioPharma as a spinoff of UBI Asia and is focused on discovering new vaccines, like the uniquely engineered COVAXX for COVID-19, and bringing them to market. When her daughter, Mei Mei Hu, was interviewed by Wired about Wang’s work on an Alzheimer’s vaccine, she described her mother as “very particular and exacting — which is part of her genius.”

CVS Health Neela Montgomery

Liz Schwarze and Amy L. Farrell

environment & energy 

Liz Schwarze, VP of Global Exploration at Chevron. Schwarze believes that “every aspect of science has a home in what we do as geologists and geophysicists.” It was during graduate school at the University of Texas in 1989 that she bagged an internship with Chevron, which led to her lifelong journey in energy. Since being hired as a development geologist in the 1990s, she has worked on projects everywhere from the Gulf of Mexico and Venezuela to Angola and the San Joaquin Valley. And she isn’t about to stop. That’s because Schwarze is driven by the daunting task of “finding the next barrel,” as she likes to say.

Cindy Yeilding, Senior VP of BP America. Her mom took her rock and fossil hunting as a young child, which first got Yeilding, 60, interested in geology — and after navigating the male-dominated profession, she declares it “isn’t race or gender that defines us: it is our brains.” Recognized as one of Houston’s Top 15 Business Women by the National Diversity Council, Yeilding is working on building another pipeline — for women looking to enter the energy industry. The task will require education, strong female role models in STEM fields and continued career support, she says

Amy L. Farrell, Senior VP of the American Wind Energy Association. When House Democrats wanted to insert renewable energy tax credit provisions into a larger pandemic stimulus package last March, they sought Farrell’s advice. A former Environmental Protection Agency senior official who served in the George W. Bush administration, Farrell believes Big Wind’s sails are lifting. And she will have plenty of opportunities to catch an updraft given President Joe Biden’s willingness to entertain renewable energy and spend big on infrastructure. 

Folorunso Alakija, Executive Vice Chairman of Famfa Oil. One of the wealthiest women in Africa, Alakija, 69, is a power broker — and may be destined for even greater heights. Born in Ikorodu, Nigeria, Alakija spent her childhood shuttling between Nigeria and the U.K. But childhood was, if nothing else, chaotic. Born to one of a chief’s eight wives, she had a tough time trying to stand out among 58 siblings. Fun fact? She started her career as a secretary and made her mark by becoming one of the biggest names in the Nigerian fashion industry before diversifying her business empire into oil.

CVS Health Neela Montgomery

Marne Levine and Jennifer Li

technology & social media

Marne Levine, Vice President of Global Partnerships, Business and Corporate Development at Facebook. She earned the name “Trash Queen” while completing her Harvard thesis on solid waste management, a moniker she wears with pride. A problem solver who worked for the Clinton and Obama administrations, she then served as a public policy head at Facebook. Now in her late 40s, Levine has taken her talents to the photo-sharing app — where she is committed to lifting up women on social media and in Silicon Valley. Known for knocking down the corporate wall by showing off her family life, Levine is one influencer worth following.

Jennifer Li, CEO of Baidu Capital (and Former CFO of Baidu). When Westerners want to find something, they think of Google, but in China, it’s Baidu. Li, 53, led the Eastern web giant’s $306 million investment in online travel provider a decade ago, cementing Baidu’s position as China’s dominant search engine with 70 percent of the market — the year after Google left the country. A former General Motors executive, Li is the perfect CEO material: a digital expert, dealmaker, strategist and financier. She took a horizontal move in 2017, moving to CEO of Baidu Capital, the company’s investment arm. If those investments start really paying off, she could make a case to lead the whole shebang one day.

Ruth Porat, CFO of Alphabet. Speaking of Google, its parent company’s financial chief has guided some of the search giant’s biggest investments, like a February 2019 commitment to spend $13 billion on data centers and offices across the United States. The British-American breast cancer survivor, who’s in her 60s, is a former Morgan Stanley executive vice president and was No. 7 on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list in 2020. She ably shepherded Alphabet through the tumult of COVID-19, as its stock price has soared, but crises are nothing new for Porat. She was credited with suggesting the European debt financing model that saved Amazon from collapsing during the dot-com collapse two decades ago.

Hooi Ling Tan, COO of Grab. The Malaysian entrepreneur is co-founder and chief operating officer of Grab, the ride-hailing service that became Southeast Asia’s first decacorn — a privately held $10 billion firm. In her mid-30s she has already shown her skills by expanding into new markets while executing a multibillion-dollar deal to acquire Uber’s Southeast Asia operations in March 2018. The former McKinsey analyst came up with the idea for Grab with a classmate, Anthony Tan (now Grab’s CEO), at Harvard Business School.

Maggie Wu, CFO of Alibaba Group. The longtime chief financial officer, in her early 50s, was promoted to director of Alibaba’s board in September, while retaining her previous role. With founder Jack Ma lying low after angering the Chinese powers-that-be, the company’s top leadership — including Wu — face a big challenge in making sure that Alibaba remains in the good graces of the Chinese Communist Party. Good thing this former KPMG accountant carries a reputation as a “steady Eddie.”

Dhivya Suryadevara, CFO of Stripe: Suryadevara still managed to dream big while being raised in Chennai, India, by her widowed mother, moving to the U.S. to attend Harvard Business School — where she took on substantial debt and felt constant financial pressure. (One release valve for her? Boxing.) In 2018, the University of Madras graduate, who’s now in her early 40s, became the CFO of General Motors. Now, she hopes to expand Stripe, an American financial services company dual-headquartered in San Francisco and Dublin. 

Anna Griffin, CMO of Smartsheet*. Griffin is taking the work management software company into the new decade with marketing chops that earned her two Effies, rewarding excellence in the field, and other awards for her accomplishments in digital media such as an Edward R. Murrow award. She takes pride in joining brands that are challenging the status quo, with executive experience at CA Technologies and Juniper Networks. One of her favorite sayings? You can’t make a new tool only to use it in old ways. “It would be like having Netflix playing on a rotary phone,” she told MarketingTech.

CVS Health Neela Montgomery

Thasunda Duckett and Telisa Yancy

financial services & retail

Thasunda Duckett, CEO of Chase Consumer Banking at JPMorgan Chase*. If banking has a diverse figurehead with rockstar appeal, it’s Duckett, the gregarious 47-year-old who rose from humble Texas roots to become the first Black woman named to the banking giant’s Operating Committee in September. “This is a reminder that I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams,” she told Essence after the promotion. A big believer in meeting consumers where they are, she championed Chase’s aggressive strategy of building physical branches in cities with majority Black and Latino populations across America, a brick-and-mortar approach with surprising success before COVID-19 complicated in-person transactions. Read more on OZY.

Telisa Yancy, COO of American Family Insurance*. When she was little, she’d jump on her asphalt worker dad and shout: “You smell funny!” That, he would respond, is “the smell of money.” Now Yancy rolls down her window while driving past construction sites to get a big whiff. Ingrained with that work ethic, Yancy took chances to rise to the top, even leaving senior jobs at Ford Motor Company and Burger King to later become a director at AmFam. While a demotion on paper, the career shift allowed her to spread her wings, working her way back up within just a few years. Now she is knocking on the door of helming a major company.

Gunjan Kedia, Vice Chair at U.S. Bank. The Wealth Management and Investment Services lead was an engineering student in India when she last pulled an all-nighter. When thousands of pandemic relief loan applications came in last spring, that’s exactly what she had to do to make sure 3,000 bank employees could process the requests and get cash to support the suffering businesses. By the end of the second round, U.S. Bank had assisted nearly 100,000 applicants. Kedia, one of three female leaders on the company’s management committee as of September, is also helping promote financial awareness among women and underrepresented groups.

Gisel Ruiz, Former EVP and COO of Walmart U.S. It’s hard to fixate on one award, given Ruiz has won almost all of them recognizing women (and, particularly, Latina women) in business. Beginning in the Walmart management training program in 1992, she rose to COO to head more than 3,900 locations and $260 billion in U.S. sales. After successfully keeping the trains running at the world’s largest retailer, it’s only a matter of time until she takes the top job somewhere. She left Walmart in 2017 and is now a key board member of Cracker Barrel, an appointment she received after some high-stakes drama. She won that battle and, at just 50 years old, Ruiz has untapped star potential. 

CVS Health Neela Montgomery

Beth Diaz and Elaine Paul

media & education 

Sharon Feder, Former COO of Mashable. One of Mashable’s early executive success stories, Feder has since served as chief digital officer at Rachael Ray and the chief content officer at job search startup TheMuse. Now an adviser to the online clothing manufacturer Lab141 Inc. and other organizations, Feder is public about her desire to lead a brand or nonprofit that is dedicated to doing good in the world, building on her years of philanthropy work and creative content management. She also co-founded and sold a hyperlocal social network for dog owners called MySocialDog. 

Ania Lichota, Former Executive Director of UBS Philanthropy. In 1996, this Polish woman packed one bag and hopped on a bus to study at the London School of Economics. She has since visited more than 60 countries and climbed the highest peaks on every continent, including Mount Everest, and wrote a book about it. Along the way she served in key positions with major companies like General Electric. Her most recent C-Suite role was as the executive director of UBS Philanthropy Services, heading up “mission impossible assignments” for the Swiss investment bank’s charity arm. That was seven years ago, and while she has transitioned into executive leadership coaching, the prospect of doing good in a post-2020 world could convince her to come off the sidelines. 

Beth Diaz, VP of Audience Development and Analytics at The Washington Post. Diaz stands out just for the eye-popping growth she has helped the Post see since taking over in 2014 — a digital transition that saw the fabled newspaper attract 114 million unique visitors online in November, up from 46 million in November 2014 and at points surpassing the reach of the New York Times. With women taking the helms of major newsrooms nationwide and aggressive online outreach becoming the norm, audience experts like Diaz are bound to play an even bigger role going forward. 

Elaine Paul, CFO and VP of Finance at Amazon Studios: After six years as the CFO at Hulu, Paul jumped to Amazon, where she joined YouTube veteran Jon Wax and former NBC executive Vernon Sanders. Paul holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Stanford University and a master’s degree in finance and strategy from Harvard Business School. A fan of stand up paddle surfing in her free time, she was also a VP for the Walt Disney Internet Group, giving her about as wide a breadth of knowledge in online streaming as humanly possible. 

Lynda Mann, SVP of Commerce at Digital Trends. It took just two years for Mann to rise from a director role to an executive one at Digital Trends, and the reasons are obvious. She grew the company’s revenue by 74 percent during her first year and by 162 percent the next. That earned her the Top Women in Media’s 2020 Catalyst Award. Given her previous work at Wirecutter, a New York Times-owned news company, it’s clear Mann is pioneering the business end of making traditional media profitable in the 21st century. 

*Disclosure: OZY is proud to have advertising relationships with American Family Insurance, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Smartsheet.