Mary Kay Henry

For waging the war for livable wages.

Mary Kay Henry
Rally point: A march and rally by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in Denver, Colorado. [Photo: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post via Getty Images]

Unions no longer have the power they once did–and Mary Kay Henry, international president of the 2 million–member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), knows it. “We can’t just be about our members,” she says. “We have to think about all working people.” She got a chance to do just that when nonunion fast-food workers went on strike in New York in 2012. SEIU leaders joined them, and together they’ve built their cause into a national movement, fighting for fast-food workers’ right to organize and a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Henry’s work on the “Fight for $15”–co-ordinating protesters and raising funds–has contributed to policy changes like Seattle’s new $15 minimum wage, and a $10.10 minimum wage called for by President Obama in his State of the Union address. “No one should work for a living and have to get by in poverty,” she says.

The Service Employees International Employees Union rallies for workers.

Bonus Round

Where or how do you seek out creative inspiration?

The people I meet every day are my creative inspiration. Working men and women and their families are the backbone of the U.S. economy. Their stories, their dreams, their courage to fight and lead, that’s what inspires me and find new and innovative ideas to lead this fight for a better future.

What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

I start my days with prayer and meditation.

What’s your favorite Twitter or Instagram account and why?

My favorites change with what I am following most closely at the time. Right now its #Ignite1u which is the hashtag we used for our recent leadership conference. Its so inspiring to see the everyday stories and creative expressions of our leaders from across the country.

What are some things you do to refresh your mind when you’re in a rut?

When I find my energy dwindling or my creativity in a rut, I tidy up our office and take walks to refresh my mind and draw inspiration from the space and the people around me.

Who outside of your field inspires you the most and why?

I am always inspired by people who take action together for the common good. The fast-food workers who are fighting to raise wages for everyone are a perfect example. The courage they display every time they collectively go on strike–knowing they could be risking their jobs–is awe-inspiring. But it happens in other venues and for other reasons, whether it’s young people organizing online to protect the environment, or immigrants moving to an unfamiliar country to make a better future for their children, or people from every walk of life pouring into the streets to demand an end to racial injustices. These are the people who inspire me most, because their brave and selfless actions are ultimately what bring about change.


About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire