Lessons from indomitable women

Iconic women leaders describe how they overcame challenges ranging from civil war to gender bias and pandemic stress

Success stories from organizations that have adapted to a fast-changing digital business landscape.

Realizing one’s true potential may require rejecting the status quo and constructing a new reality, several iconic women recently told ServiceNow’s Now at Work 2021 virtual conferences.

They included Abby Wambach, a former U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team star and World Cup champion, and author and entrepreneur Arianna Huffington, among others. Through anecdotal storytelling, each speaker urged the audience to challenge norms and conventions that impede rather than further equality and the pursuit of one’s own ambitions.

This is especially true, Wambach said, for people in marginalized communities, including women playing at the highest echelons of global sports.

For example, Wambach said, she spent years pushing for women soccer players to be treated as equals to their male counterparts, with little success. “It’s like screaming into the abyss,” she said.

For real change to happen, we have to fix the issues at the table where decisions are being made.

So she took matters into her own hands. In 2020, Wambach, along with other high-profile women, including tennis star Serena Williams and actress Natalie Portman, launched Angel City FC, a Los Angeles–based expansion team in the National Women’s Soccer League.

“For real change to happen, we have to fix the issues at the table where decisions are being made,” Wambach said.

Forcefully addressing gender inequality, she said, requires “getting cash into the hands of women employees, because power and money go hand in hand.”

Swimming through hardship

If Syrian athlete Yusra Mardini had surrendered to her reality, she would have most likely died by now. Instead, she became an Olympic swimmer.

Mardini was 13 years old when civil war broke out in Syria a decade ago. She lost her home and several friends, but found solace, and a measure of safety, in swimming.

“The pool was the safest place for me,” Mardini said. “It was terrifying to go outside. The pool was the only thing that didn’t change.”

But Mardini lost even that sanctuary. The war forced her to flee Syria. She made her way to Beirut, Turkey, and Greece before settling in Germany. She continued her training, however, and was named to the first ever Olympic Refugee Team at the 2016 Rio Games.

Though competing in the Olympics had been Mardini’s dream, she felt great ambivalence when it became reality. “Everyone is going to think that I didn’t earn my spot,” she recalled thinking.

But as Mardini entered the stadium for the opening ceremony, she shifted her reality. She was no longer a refugee to be pitied, she told herself, but rather a powerful symbol of hope for displaced people across many countries.

“It wasn’t only about me anymore,” she told the Now at Work audience. “I was representing refugees around the world.”

Changing realities, however, doesn’t always require big acts but rather quick moments of contemplation, Huffington said.

Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post and other businesses, launched Thrive Global in 2016 to provide companies online tools to improve mental health.

The pandemic has prompted people “reevaluate life and look at what really matters,” such as mental health, she said. To that effect, Huffington said, people can learn how to balance life and work, “to be productive without suffering.”

At work, Huffington said, people should frequently take quick breaks throughout the day to recharge, whether to look at photos of family and friends, breathe, take a walk, or listen to music.

Neuroscience tells us such activities beat back stress, depression, and anxiety, she said. “Stress is unavoidable,” Huffington said, “but cumulative stress is avoidable.”