Pioneering Stories From The Female Trailblazers Who Came Before Marissa Mayer

As Marissa Mayer takes up her job as CEO of Yahoo and her torchbearer role for ambitious women juggling careers and families, Fast Company gathered wisdom from an inspiring group of women who broke barriers in media, entertainment, dance, athletics, and more.

Pioneering Stories From The Female Trailblazers Who Came Before Marissa Mayer


She may not be the first pregnant CEO ever, but Marissa Mayer broke through a pretty impenetrable glass ceiling when she was appointed the new CEO of Yahoo just a few months before she’s due to give birth to her first child. Though there’s no hard data to prove it, Mayer may just be the first woman asked to helm a Fortune 500 company while in her second trimester. Indeed, of the 18 women occupying corner offices, she may be the youngest.

Mayer’s no stranger to trailblazing. As Google’s employee #20 (or thereabouts), she was the search engine giant’s first female engineer. Now, as she prepares to spearhead the turnaround of an ailing company–all while negotiating the perils and triumphs of new parenthood–she’s poised to add role model (whether she wants to or not) to her resume. With that in mind, we took stock of the long list of female pioneers ranging from suffragettes to scientists, who shifted the focus of our cultural conversation beyond buzzwords and balancing acts and tipped it toward innovation and outstanding contributions. 

“It is phenomenal how far women have advanced in America over just 50 years,” Dyllan McGee, filmmaker and founder of MAKERS series from PBS and AOL, tells Fast Company. She hopes that stories like Mayer’s and those from the inspiring coterie of women trailblazers she’s filmed will be preserved beyond newsy headlines. “Our hope is that [our series] will ignite sustained dialogue about how far women have come and where we need to go in the future.” Here are some highlights from the MAKERS videos and the words of wisdom the women in them shared with Fast Company exclusively. 

Forget Your Fear

The pioneering spirit isn’t always fearless in the face of firsts. In fact, Violet Palmer says in the MAKERS series, “I was scared out of my wits,” when she took the court as the first woman to officiate in the NBA because she says, “I just knew the entire world was waiting for me to fall on my face.” Fourteen years later, Palmer’s earned a slew of firsts, including being the first female to referee an NBA playoff game.

Never Be Complacent


American Ballet Theater’s soloist Misty Copeland, the company’s first African American female soloist in 20 years, may have learned to quell such stage fright since beginning her career at 13, but she tells Fast Company that the most important role she’s ever played isn’t necessarily on stage. It was and is important for me to be a pioneer in my field because what it stands for is so much bigger than the simple goal of wanting to succeed as a professional classical ballet dancer in a top ballet company. Representing for a race and demographic that has never been tapped into as a black woman in classical ballet, I’m hoping to change the face of what we’re supposed to accept and be complacent with as is. I will never be complacent.”

Be Willing to Give Your All

Sometimes a woman doesn’t have a choice but to stand up for what she believes in, even if it’s dangerous. Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, was the first African American woman to practice law in Mississippi, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. She says in an upcoming MAKERS interview that she didn’t think about being first, she just wanted to make a difference. “I had lived with injustice all of my life and always hated it and I was used to being excluded. I was used to kind of being shutted aside… So there was never a time–from the time I could toddle or think–that I didn’t hate segregation, and these things build up. There was nothing that I was not prepared to do and I think that it was extraordinary to be willing to die for something.”

Become The Role Model You Wish You Had

As a Korean-American, journalist SuChin Pak says faced the opposite problem. “For me as a teenager, the most difficult challenge, the one that’s almost impossible to overcome, is the invisible racism. How do you rebel against something that you can’t see?  And just as importantly, how can you imagine what the possibilities are if you don’t know they exist? I never saw myself in the movies or on TV or in magazines. The only Asian American female that wasn’t karate chopping, delivering Chinese food or on Mash as an extra, was Connie Chung. There wasn’t a single other Asian female face out there that I could emulate. The power of seeing yourself reflected in the world around you, directly affects how a young person may imagine herself doing something extraordinary.”

Fix What’s Not Right


Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to officially run the Boston Marathon, says that because the race was all male for 70 years, the prevailing wisdom was that it wasn’t just unfeminine, but could also cause health problems. Switzer tells Fast Company she didn’t set out to be a pioneer; for her it was a matter of correcting a situation. “When something bad happens to you, you can walk away from it or take the responsibility to make it right. As it turns out, it had a very happy ending!”  

Change Perceptions

The first female body building champion faced similar opposition. Rachel McLish says in an upcoming MAKERS video that she nearly opted out of her first competition, until her business partner convinced her it would be a milestone for women. “In the past, beauty was always determined by a man’s vision of what a female should look like. I had no desire to try to be like a man or try to look like a man. My intent was to really to empower women for their own good and for their own self confidence.” McLish says she was careful not to emulate the men. “I wanted to empower the women. I wanted to show them that you can be sexy, you can be beautiful, and you can be as strong as a man.”

Create a Community

Alexis Jones’s passion for media and empowering girls created the perfect storm for pioneering an innovative approach to feminism. Undaunted, by the media onslaught of the feminine ideal, she founded I AM THAT GIRL to disrupt the definition of normal. Says Jones: “I wanted to create more than a nonprofit, more than a savvy brand. I wanted to create a community inspiring girls to discover their innate worth and purpose. I believe real change is possible and it takes just enough crazy to make it happen.”

Stick to Your Vision


Though she doesn’t consider herself a pioneer, 16-year-old fashion blogger Tavi Gevison didn’t waver from her original vision of creating a positive media outlet for girls with “I didn’t think of myself as a pioneer, I just created my own outlets to write, share, and curate because the tools were available and I didn’t think twice about it. I saw a void so I tried to fill it.”

Start From Scratch

For food activist Ellen Gustafson, necessity was the mother of pioneering–and invention. She tells Fast Company, “When the structures to accomplish my goals didn’t exist, I just worked to build them myself. With both FEED and the 30 Project, the mission of a better world has been the driver of creating new ways to solve problems.”

Never Give Up

Nichelle Nichols almost quit her groundbreaking role on Star Trek when scene after scene she was featured in cut her dialogue to a couple of inconsequential lines. But a chance encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King changed everything. Nichols says King told her “‘The work you are doing, you may not know how important it is, but Uhura is more than just a communications officer. You’re a symbol. You have created this role with such dignity and such beauty. You have a greater good. Star Trek is the only show that my wife Coretta and I allow our little children to stay up late and watch and you are their hero.'”

Sustain Excellence


Finally, Danica Patrick, the only woman to ever win an IndyCar series and podium at the Indy 500, tells Fast Company she prefers to look beyond shattering records and focusing instead on daily realities. “I have never looked at myself as a pioneer in the racing industry. Every day I strive to be my best, the best in and out of the race car. If others think that I’m a pioneer in the field, then that’s an honor.”

Read more: The League of Extraordinary Women

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.