Mar 22, 2023 · 8 min read
5 Women Leaders Inspiring Us Right Now
We take pride in recognizing the remarkable women we collaborate with to tackle some of society’s most pressing challenges.
From climate activists to scientists to social entrepreneurs, these women leaders leverage their deep experience and bold ideas to drive social change.
Explore their inspiring work, lessons learned and advice for aspiring leaders everywhere.
Fawn Sharp, President of the National Congress of American Indians
Fawn R. Sharp, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, did not anticipate a career in tribal leadership.
Despite her initial reluctance to serve as an elected official, she now describes her advocacy for policies that benefit tribal governments as a sacred calling.
“I’m able to work hand-in-hand with tribal leaders across the country, and around the world, to ensure that we have the resources to sustain what we have, to protect what we have, and to prepare future generations,” she says.
As a citizen of the Quinault Indian Nation in Taholah, Washington, Sharp understands firsthand the devastating impact of climate change on tribal communities. Before her current role, she served as a five-term president of the Quinault Indian Nation, supporting economic growth and environmental protection efforts in her community.
Sharp remains committed to advancing her work on climate change on a national and international level. She is a crucial partner in the Building Tribal Leadership initiative that supports tribal leaders in governing the emerging carbon dioxide removal sector.
Carbon dioxide removal — pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — is essential to combating climate change. There are many ideas for removing carbon dioxide. But, there’s much to learn about developing and scaling these ideas safely, equitably and effectively to benefit surrounding communities and the environment.
Despite the obstacles, Sharp attributes her unwavering commitment to knowing that her work serves a larger purpose, saying, “it has been daunting, but we have never lost hope.”
Megan Marcus, Founder of FuelEd
Megan Marcus, founder of FuelEd, began pursuing an idea to develop her nonprofit while training as a therapist. She was looking for the next step in her professional journey, which she thought was to pursue a clinical psychology program. However, her interest began to pivot.
“I had, on the side, become really fascinated by the education sector, even though my background was more in psychology,” Marcus explains.
During her studies, Marcus recognized parallels between the teaching and counseling professions — particularly how both are founded on human connection and can promote personal development. However, she became increasingly aware of a distinct gap, finding that traditional teacher preparation programs largely lack the relationship-building skills emphasized in training for therapists.
This insight spurred her to launch FuelEd, which equips educators with the interpersonal skills, self-awareness and emotional well-being necessary to build strong relationships and support students. Their programming focuses on educator self-awareness, personal transformation and the science of attachment.
Since its founding, FuelEd has worked with more than 18,000 educators nationwide through partnerships with K-12 schools and districts to bring what we know from research into the classroom — strong teacher-student connections are essential to drive student learning and development.
Reflecting on her experience, Marcus emphasizes the importance of supporting the emotional development of every adult working in schools.
“We’re really shifting and augmenting our program,” says Marcus, “so that it can impact an entire school and an entire district, and all the way down to the culture, and climate, and the practices.”
For aspiring social entrepreneurs, Marcus advises seeking help from others. She also stresses the importance of taking things one step at a time.
Marcus adds, “I just felt like I was putting one foot in front of the other and the path was unfolding in front of me.”
Ninfa Zuno, Founder of United Through Education-Familias Unidas and Kim Zuno, United Through Education-Familias Unidas Program Administrator
Ninfa Zuno and Secundino Zuno — co-founders of United Through Education-Familias Unidas — were both working at Hoover Elementary in Redwood City, California, when they were inspired to create more opportunities to support their students and families.
The majority of students at Hoover Elementary are of Latina/o/x background and from families that are newcomers to the United States. “They are fresh from another country with no family, no friends but a desire to have a better life,” says Ninfa.
To help families navigate this transition, Ninfa and Secundino invited parents to attend workshops after school focused on creating a bond between students and parents centered around education.
The success of the workshops led school leadership to encourage the couple to expand the program, and in 2006, United Through Education-Familias Unidas was launched. This family-based program offers reading, math, science, technology, health, and arts courses, and supports about 250 families in the local community each year. It is also one of 64 community organizations in San Mateo County that participate in the CZI Community Fund.
Kim Zuno, program administrator for United Through Education-Familias Unidas, says what sets their program apart is that the entire family is involved.
“We teach a theme, we have a project that the families work on together,” Kim adds. “And as a parent myself, I know that when I’m engaged in whatever my kids are doing, they want to do it too.”
As the program evolved, Ninfa and Kim began collaborating with other organizations to support the holistic needs of the entire family. This included partnerships with the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley and Cañada College to offer courses to older students and adults, and information sessions with Sequoia Hospital on healthcare. They also partnered with local libraries to provide Chromebooks and hotspots to families and sponsor field trips to parks and museums with the San Mateo County Parks and Recreation.
“We have a curriculum that is very different right now because we are listening to the community and their needs,” Ninfa says. “Then through that, we adapt.”
When asked for advice on launching programs to serve local communities, Kim and Ninfa stress the importance of listening first.
“When you know the needs of your community and how to effectively communicate with them, that’s how you’re going to get progress in your community,” Kim says. “That’s how you’re going to help.”
Dr. Kat Milligan-McClellan, Scientist and Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut
Dr. Kat Milligan-McClellan, assistant professor at the University of Connecticut, is on a mission to use her expertise in microbiology to benefit others.
During her junior year as a pre-med major, she held a work-study position in a research lab. “I loved the smell of agar, and discovering new things every day,” Milligan-McClellan recalls of her undergrad days.
However, her research at the time did not focus on diseases that impacted her friends and family. This motivated her to switch to studying microbes that could impact diseases that directly affect Alaska Natives.
Now, Milligan-McClellan’s work examines how ecosystems shape microbial communities and how changing those microbes could impact our vulnerability to inflammatory diseases, such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease. As she explains, “inflammatory diseases are caused by complicated interactions, including our environment, stress levels during early development, our genetic background, and more. By studying these in combination, my hope is that my work will lead to ways we can prevent these diseases.”
As the first person in her family to earn a PhD and the first from her hometown to lead a research lab in microbiology, Milligan-McClellan is passionate about mentoring the next generation of Indigenous scientists.
“I try to mentor the whole person, to ensure that in addition to doing the best research possible, they are maintaining mental and physical health outside of the lab as well,” she explains.
Her research also prioritizes communication with the communities impacted by her findings, including Alaska Native communities, an approach that Milligan-McClellan says is important to her as an Inupiaq woman.
Last year, Milligan-McClellan was selected to be part of CZI’s Science Diversity Leadership program, which supports outstanding early- to mid-career faculty at U.S. universities and institutes who act as mentors and role models for Black, Latina/o/x and Indigenous professionals in biomedical science. The program is designed to increase diversity, equity and inclusion in the scientific field.
With the support of this program — aligned with her own goals — Milligan-McClellan hopes to make even more of an impact.
She says, “Freeing up time to work with others on diversity issues will allow me to create networks of Indigenous scientists at a much faster rate and with more intention.”
Progress Is Possible
The women we work with at CZI are not only breaking barriers but also inspiring the next generation of leaders. Their unwavering commitment to creating positive social change reminds us that progress is possible. It starts with a diverse group of individuals coming together to work towards a common goal.
We are grateful for their partnership and honored to celebrate their achievements.