Welcome to Adweek’s second annual Disruptors list, our celebration of women who are not only shattering the glass ceiling but advancing the cause of diversity and inclusion. Not satisfied with the status quo, these executives, entrepreneurs and innovators have taken the lead, upending existing power dynamics while breaking down one barrier after another. Read on to find out about these 39 dynamic women in advertising, media, marketing and technology who are changing the rules of engagement. –Stacy Perman
Last year, Adlon became the first women to direct and star in every episode of an entire TV season—and plans to do the same thing for the upcoming Season 3 of her FX comedy. As showrunner, she makes sure at least half her crew is female (“My mandate was women, women, women, every chance I get”) and the shooting days are as efficient as possible. “I just don’t like to waste time,” says Adlon, who was inspired by watching Tracey Ullman call the shots two decades ago, when she was a guest star on Ullman’s HBO series, Tracey Takes On. “She had two kids and said her goal was to be home by dusk every night, otherwise what’s the point? I learned so much from her that day. On my set, we don’t scrape the bone off the marrow.” —Jason Lynch
Badger made her mark in 2016, when she launched a video exposing the hyper-sexualized way women are portrayed in ads, along with the hashtag #WomenNotObjects. The initiative was a reaction to the rampant sexist advertising she and her business partner Jim Winters found while doing research for an Avon campaign. While Badger continues to speak out on the issue, presenting research that counters the “sex sells” myth to convince other agencies to end the objectification of women, she’s also incorporated the mission in her own work. A recent JCPenney campaign, “Style and Value for All,” featured women of multiple ethnicities and body types. —Desa Philadelphia
In 2016, Full Frontal With Samantha Bee debuted on TBS, smashing the late-night boys’ club. It wasn’t just her “Watch or You’re Sexist” promos that signaled there was a new lady in town. Unapologetically feminist Bee put women’s issues front and center, offering up her trenchant observations on everything from climate change to sexual harassment—without a desk and in a blazer and running shoes. “I only want to do the type of show that I would want to watch,” she says. Bee’s “evidence-based” comedy has earned the show eight Emmy nominations and a win last year for Outstanding Writing for a Variety Special. A ratings hit, the show was just renewed until 2020. Says Bee, “If we’re going to do a show, we should always go full bore all the time; just kick the door in and never look back.” —Stacy Perman
In January, Berland and a handful of other prominent CMOs from Chase, HP and Quantcast noticed that the lineup at the Consumer Electronics Show was lacking in women keynote speakers. So, Berland and her team created their own female empowering event and the hashtag #HereWeAre. All told, 150 changemakers including GE CMO Linda Boff attended, while 2 million watched the livestream on Twitter. “What we wanted to communicate is that we’re all one—we’re all in this together,” she says. Leveraging the momentum, Berland took the #HereWeAre campaign to the Oscars with a powerful TV ad featuring Issa Rae and Ava DuVernay, among others. Going forward, Berland sees the campaign—and Twitter’s role in changing the lack of diversity in leadership—as “a shared platform. It belongs to all the people who are involved.” —Lauren Johnson
Trail-blazing journalist Brown admits she has “always been someone who didn’t listen to received wisdom.” Ever at the forefront of shifting political and cultural tides, the first-ever (and to date, only) woman editor of The New Yorker, founder of Talk and the Daily Beast, and author, she sensed the onset of a new era of women’s activism nearly a decade ago. Brown responded the best way she knew how: by building something. Women in the World includes a news site, day-long salons in cities worldwide and an annual three-day summit in New York where writers, activists, politicians and marquee names like Melinda Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Meryl Streep examine all sorts of issues facing women today. “Sexual harassment is a horrendous story, but there are women in countries with no access to education,” Brown says. “There are still women who have to deal with honor killings. … Pay equity is a much more important issue than almost anything else, especially for African-American women. These are things we have to deal with.” —S.I.
Lesley Slaton Brown
In November 2015, Hewlett-Packard spun out into two separate companies: HP Inc. and HP Enterprise. Post-split, the personal computer giant had some more news: It named four women and two people of color to each of the new boards, making it the most diverse in the tech industry. “We didn’t do that just to do it. We did it because we know that there’s greater influence, there’s greater revenue generation,” says Brown. The company also provided unconscious bias training to hiring managers and made business partners pledge to be inclusive. Last year it launched a series of videos on diversity. Branded “reinventing mindsets,” the series exposes unconscious biases and features Brown delivering the tagline: “HP is hiring, and talent is our only criteria.” —D.P.
When Burch opened her first boutique in 2004, her business plan included an anomalous proposal: to start a foundation to empower other women with entrepreneurial dreams. Established in 2009, the Tory Burch Foundation inaugurated a fellowship for female small business owners that provides access to capital, education and networking opportunities. Each fellowship class also takes part in a pitch competition that awards a single winner an investment of $100,000. Burch’s vision is grander still. She mounted a worldwide #EmbraceAmbition campaign aimed at changing the way society views and values the drive and determination of women and girls. Earlier this spring she led the foundation’s Embrace Ambition Summit, with speakers addressing barriers to equality. “If we confront the biases and stereotypes that hold people back,” wrote Burch in an op-ed, “we can create new norms that will allow us all to embrace equality.” —S.I.
Tarana Burke and Alyssa Milano
When Tarana Burke launched the “me too” movement in 2006, her goal was to help young women of color who were survivors of sexual assault find resources for support and healing. She hoped she could change her community. When actress Alyssa Milano asked her Twitter followers to reply #metoo if they had been sexually harassed and assaulted, in October 2017, she hoped to change the mind of anyone who doubted the magnitude of the problem. “To me, sending that tweet was to put the focus back on survivors. It was really a way for women to stand up,” says Milano. Together, they inspired survivors around the world to speak up in droves. In a recent speech, Burke said she is traveling the country trying to bring the conversation back to the need for resources to help the “hundreds” of people she hears from every day who “feel like they finally have an outlet and there is nothing to help them.” —D.P.
Clarke has worked to reimagine integrations in daytime TV—where the audience is 68 percent female—and change brands’ perceptions about those viewers as “women who are sitting at home and not really doing much,” she says. To that end, she attracted new brands to daytime, including Autotrader, which she cold-called and convinced to do an integration on The Talk. “It definitely resonated with the audience, and they felt enough of a return on their investment to come back and do three integrations after.” However, Clarke wants to do more than just sell a product: “We want take-aways for all the integrations we do. It’s about trying to elevate the woman who’s watching also.” She and her twin sister Tricia Clarke-Stone are also writing Double Down, a “remixed rule book” to inspire women coming up in the business, which will be published next February. —J.L.
When Colella joined NBCU in 2015 from Maxifier, where she had been one of the first female CEOs in ad tech, “my role didn’t exist at the time, and the group didn’t exist, and it was important for me to look broadly across the industry and set an example for other women that were looking to make a difference,” she says. Leading all development and strategy behind NBCU’s data-driven ad targeting platform, Audience Studio, she’s opening advertisers’ eyes about gender targeting (“women are the ones who are out there shopping, whereas brands thought, I’m developing a razor, so I should look at men”) while participating in a variety of events, like the Villanova Council for Marketing Intelligence, “to show women what a typical career could look like. That’s a way to get women interested in the engineering concepts and coming to our company.” —J.L.
Colleen DeCourcy and Susan Hoffman
With storied reputations as creative innovators on a global scale, DeCourcy and Hoffman have subtly but noticeably entered a new phase of their careers. Part binary stars, part colliding galaxies, the pair became co-CCOs in 2017, the year W+K was named Adweek’s Global Agency of the Year. Empowered by the rise of the #MeToo movement, women across advertising looked for support from above, and found it in Hoffman and DeCourcy. The two, heavily involved in the launch of #TimesUpAdvertising alongside 200 female peers, see different challenges and opportunities in this moment. DeCourcy thinks first of mentorship and ending the unconscious bias that’s inevitable when you “look at a creative department and see five women in a sea of 100 men.” For Hoffman, it’s a time to tear down the creative machine and usher in a new era of storytelling. “The ballpark is not the same anymore,” she says. “It’s upside-down and topsy-turvy and resurfaced and maybe not even recognizable, allowing for a new game. It’s a time of reinvention. It’s a time for change.” —David Griner
With a single blog post, Fowler all but christened the #metoo movement, disrupting not just the ride-hailing industry, but nearly every other one, too. The engineer’s frank account in February 2017 described being propositioned by her supervisor and provided details about a company where sexual advances as well as discrimination were entirely commonplace, and complaints about them to management entirely ignored. Fowler’s outspokenness shed light on the toxicity of the bro culture that typifies Silicon Valley. Her whistleblowing forced accountability at Uber, whose CEO thereafter resigned, and encouraged women elsewhere to speak up and out about harassment and discrimination in their own workplaces. —S.I.
Audrey Gelman and Lauren Kassan
Inspiration for The Wing—part co-working space, part social club—came from the women’s social club movement dating back to the 1890s. Since opening their first location in New York in 2016, Gelman and Kassan have strived to provide driven women with a space to network, attend speaker sessions, work or even relax. To date, they’ve raised over $40 million in venture capital and membership runs in the thousands, according to Gelman, who says, “Every day is International Women’s Day at The Wing. It’s not about breaking the glass ceiling but building a new house.” (In March, the New York Human Rights Commission opened an investigation into The Wing to determine whether its women-only policy is discriminatory.) With three current locations, The Wing plans to open seven more sites (including in Seattle and Toronto) in the coming months. —Katie Richards
Last year alone, Green was anointed one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine, a Top Women Investor in VC by Forbes and VC of the Year by TechCrunch. Not bad for someone who once spent hours auditing meat inventory in a supermarket freezer. The former CPA turned stock analyst stands out not just for grit, though, or for being wildly successful in a male-dominated field. It’s her knack for spotting and backing winners that sets Green apart. After her angel investments in Warby Parker and Bonobos paid off, Green’s Forerunner became the only VC firm to back Jet.com and Dollar Shave Club, both of which were acquired last year in billion-dollar deals by Walmart and Unilever, respectively. A champion of female entrepreneurs, Green has also staked Draper James, Reese Witherspoon’s clothing line. She honors that commitment on home turf at Forerunner, too, where six out of the seven top people are women. —S.I.
After successful stints at mcgarrybowen and Ogilvy & Mather, Griffith launched Grayce four years ago to focus on women-centric business strategies. “I like to start everything with a higher-order vision or mission,” she says, “and everything we have been doing is rooted in the same mission, which is to represent women as equals, and in doing so have the world learn to treat them as equals.” Her consultancy helps established companies improve marketing to women, and helps women entrepreneurs find new customers. This year Griffith is launching Build Like a Woman, a platform for startups that offers business tools and the same brand-strategy advice she provides Fortune 500 companies, but for just $99 per module. —D.P.
Savannah Guthrie, Hoda Kotb, Libby Leist
When sexual misconduct allegations against Today co-host Matt Lauer surfaced last November, the fallout was swift—Lauer was fired and the shake-up was groundbreaking: an all-female lineup took over NBC’s morning show. Kotb joined Guthrie as co-anchor and Leist was tapped as executive producer. “At this moment in history, it fits,” says Kotb. “But we have a huge staff; we’re not the only elements in this.” Viewership soared. “Because the Today show is and always has been first and foremost a news show, we are at our best when we are relevant, setting the agenda and leading the way in terms of the day’s news,” says Guthrie, who along with Kotb and Leist spent decades covering hard news. They bring a honed attention to detail, whether it’s breaking news or reporting the latest fashion trends. “Today is a 24-hour operation with changes being made to the last minute,” says Leist, so everyone has to be passionate about covering the news. “Literally it’s why we get up in the morning,” says Guthrie. —D.P.
Rauxa is the Catalan word for “madness,” and Gwaltney’s firm touts its “unbridled emotion with a little touch of madness.” Launched in 1999 with just four employees, Gwaltney has since built the largest woman-owned marketing agency in the country with 275 employees (56 percent female). Her guiding principle also seems a little crazy: transparency. But the desire to be open and honest with clients about what was working and where change was necessary led Gwaltney to develop the data-driven approach that would become her calling card. “I like to say we were big into data before data was big,” she says. Another priority: mentoring. The company’s president and CEO, Gina Alshuler, started out as Gwaltney’s assistant in 2001. —D.P.
In 2016, after directing commercials for brands like Airbnb and Stella Artois, Har’el realized that most of the directing opportunities were going to white men. So, Har’el founded Free the Bid, a nonprofit initiative that works to get more women behind the camera by asking agencies and brands to open up the bidding process, and to ensure that at least one of the three bids go to a woman. “It’s encouraging to see how the ad agencies and brands are starting to learn that listening to intersectional perspectives yields better work that more accurately reflects consumers,” says Har’el, who is currently working on her first feature film. She notes that pledges from agencies and brands to hire female directors have jumped 400 percent. “The potential opportunities for women’s work to be discovered, developed and financially compensated are endless,” she says. —Kristina Monllos
Haubegger has always worked to amplify minority voices. “I’ve had a number of jobs and one career; my life work is telling our stories,” she says. Growing up in the 1970s, Haubegger yearned to see more substantive, Latinx characters on TV. In 2005, she joined Creative Artists Agency where she reps clients Eva Longoria and Jennifer Lopez while also providing insights on diverse markets, working to increase inclusion. “We’re the only ones in the room everywhere—the one black evp, the one Latino creative,” she says. “One is a token, two is a minority and three is a good start.” A graduate of Stanford Law School and the founder of Latina magazine, Haubegger, who also executive produced the 2004 film Spanglish, says, “The most impactful thing I can do is focus on trying to change who gets to tell stories in this industry and how stories are told.” —Lindsay Rittenhouse
A few years ago, attending a conference typically meant a stuffy ballroom at a nondescript hotel with generic food and lackluster programming. That is, until Johnson decided to start Create & Cultivate—a conference turned online platform for young, ambitious female entrepreneurs. “Conferences can be beautiful and Instagrammable,” she says. “You can go to a conference and get your hair done and also sit with a VC and talk about venture capital.” Launched in 2011, recently, C&C has drawn such speakers as Gloria Steinem and Glossier founder Emily Weiss, along with such brand partners as Fossil, Microsoft and QuickBooks. Next up: the launch of Work Party, a book, podcast and tour targeted at younger millennials and Gen Z entrepreneurs. —K.R.
Sarah Miyazawa LaFleur
Back when LaFleur worked in private equity, she dreaded going to clothing stores. For professional women, LaFleur felt, shopping was a patronizing experience: “The fit and the fabric were terrible,” she says, not to mention the “female markup” on the price. Rather than wait for a new brand to correct that situation, LaFleur did it herself. In 2013, she launched MM.LaFleur, a store that works like an atelier, where a client “simply shows up, is offered a glass of wine and her stylist presents options to try.” Minutes later, it’s done, the selections shipped to the customer’s home. MM.LaFleur’s retail model is changing the $48 billion women’s apparel market. And the executive suite too: The team is made up of three women and three men and the company provides equal maternity and paternity leave. “It’s important to me that we create an environment of equality,” she says. “When women succeed, the world is a better place. —Robert Klara
One of a handful of women at the helm in corporate America, Lake was the only one to take a tech company public in 2017. Stitch Fix, which uses algorithms along with personalized, stylist-curated apparel delivered to customers’ homes, was valued at $1.46 billion after its November IPO. In March, Lake reported it had 2.5 million users and $295.9 million in net revenue. Outspoken, she has voiced reservations about being identified as a “woman CEO,” rather than simply as CEO, and clearly prizes diversity: half of her executive team are women. She wants such equity to become the norm, so that a broader range of ideas may be presented and realized. At a Makers conference last year, Lake recounted the rejections she received from more than 50, mostly male, would-be funders, who didn’t believe in her idea or were unconvinced it could work. The dismissals only propelled her, and her inclusion in the unicorn club does nothing if not prove them wrong. —S.I.
African Americans watch more television than any other group. But for a long time, BET, where Lee has been an executive for 32 years, was the only TV network specifically targeting their $1.2 trillion in buying power. There’s more competition now, but Lee says BET will “continue to be the megaphone for our community … not only in programming but in news and public affairs and community service projects.” As for Lee, since 2010 she has organized Leading Women Defined, an annual invitation-only gathering where high-profile black women discuss the issues of the day and strategize responses. This year, guest of honor Michelle Obama’s remarks about her time as first lady and sidestepping Washington’s many political pitfalls made global headlines. —D.P.
Susan Lyne says that she has a thing for ignoring the stereotypical rules set by society while also focusing on female consumers. It’s fitting then that she now heads up BBG (an acronym for Built by Girls) Ventures. At a time when roughly 8 percent of investment partners are women, BBG—an Oath-backed company—currently invests in 54 female-founded businesses, from Glamsquad to Zola. Previously, the CEO of Gilt Groupe and president and CEO of Martha Stewart Living, Lyne now spends her days meeting ambitious women who want to change people’s lives. “They are all incredibly optimistic, despite the fact that getting VC funding is still significantly tougher for women,” she says. —K.R.
Earlier this year, Black Panther director of photography Morrison became the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar for best cinematography, for her work on Mudbound. The nod spotlighted a problem that many didn’t know existed. “A lot of people didn’t realize there had never been a woman nominated for best cinematography and really I think that put a magnifying glass up to this industry, which is sexist in all ways,” says Morrison. Currently mulling over her next project, Morrison believes that “diverse representation across all spectrums within [film set] departments” is important, “so that we’re reflecting the world that we live in and not some weird, messed-up Hollywood version of it.” —K.M.
In college, Karen Okonkwo ran a sorority blog with some friends. They wrote about everything from health and beauty to fitness. But they couldn’t find any images—stock or otherwise—of black women to include with their posts. When Okonkwo searched for a basic image of a black woman drinking coffee, “it took about five hours to find something that was halfway decent. That really bothered me,” she says. Okonkwo joined up with photographer friend Joshua Kissi to launch TONL—a collection of stock photography highlighting only minorities. Since its launch in August 2017, TONL has partnered with big brands including Facebook, Google and PopSugar to spread a message of equality and diversity, and in the process, making stock photography a better reflection of society. —K.R.
There’s arguably no more apt symbol of the equal pay component of the #TimesUp movement than Pompeo. At the end of 2017, the Grey’s Anatomy star signed a new contract with ABC for $20 million, making her the highest paid dramatic actress on TV. The deal also guarantees Pompeo a seven-figure signing bonus, back-end equity points likely to yield an additional $6 million to $7 million, real estate on a Disney lot for her production company, as well as network pilot commitments. What has surprised and delighted many, in addition to the contract terms, is Pompeo’s willingness to break social taboos and to speak candidly about salaries, efforts to pit women against one another and the need to demand one’s worth in the marketplace. “It’s really important to encourage each other, encourage other women,” she told Ellen DeGeneres in March. “To stand up and be strong and know we’ll be OK, and we have each other’s backs.” —S.I.
Throughout her career, Rees has made a point of, as she puts it, “surrounding herself with a very female ‘village of artists,’” made easier, she adds, by working on independent films. “I think it destroys the false narratives of ‘not being able to find talented women for xyz craft’ and ‘women aren’t interested in xyz genre,’” she says. This year, Rees made history: She was the first black woman to be nominated for best adapted screenplay for Mudbound; her cinematographer (see Rachel Morrison) also earned a nomination for her work on the film. Rees gave a nod to those accomplishments in her gorgeous Samsung spot that aired on Oscar night—and she made a point of hiring women for her commercial crew, too. “I’m just continually hiring talented black and brown people and LGBTQ people and women that are interesting and trying to give them access,” says Rees, “to let my productions be a first stepping-stone ‘in’ to an industry that’s not welcoming—especially if you’re standing at the intersection of many ‘isms.’”—K.M.
God-is Rivera looked around her agency in 2016 and felt alone. In one week, police had killed two black men and a sniper attacked Dallas police—and no one was talking about it. “I was like, ‘If I walk into one more place and I am one of two black people out of 120 people, I cannot do this anymore,’” she recalls. “But I didn’t want to leave. I’m not a quitter. I wanted to make it better.” So, the social strategist began a conversation with Mikey Cramer, director of social media, and her current boss, Ronnie Felder, managing director of human resources, that led to her appointment as VML’s first director of inclusion and cultural resonance. She’s since increased multicultural recruitment, led seminars about Black Twitter and developed winning client strategies. “A lot of stereotypes and tropes that hurt people today were perpetuated by advertising … so now we’ve got to undo all that,” she says. “But if we created it, we can absolutely undo it.” —Stephanie Paterik
Ruthie Schulder and Jessica Resler
The job opportunities, when Schulder and Resler graduated from NYU’s Stern School of Business in 2011, “all felt like we were put in a box and they clipped our wings and we were not allowed to do fun stuff,” says Resler. Instead, they decided to blaze their own trail in experiential marketing, founding The Participation Agency in 2011. Early work included an effort for Big Apple Circus inspired by the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus. More recently, the agency, where 65 percent of the employees are female and hold all but two leadership roles, has focused on bringing marketing insights to emerging markets. “We are risk takers and very much have a rebellious nature and knew the type of work we wanted to do,” she adds. —L.L.
Since assuming her current role in 2015, Smith has made gender balance and diversity a prime focus (while also implementing flexible schedules and a health and well-being program)—to wit, the agency has seen a 58 percent increase in creative female leadership. “We are in a business that demands the best creative product and we get better work out of diverse teams that are more representative of the consumers and shoppers that purchase the brands we support,” she says. —Lisa Lacy
After recently joining the board of directors for feminist media brand Makers, the ad sales chief has worked to make good on her pledge to increase Turner’s representation of women and people of color in the company’s overall leadership roles. Now, nearly half of her direct reports are female, and Speciale has championed diversity at all levels—from senior management to summer interns. Says Speciale: “It’s been amazing watching meetings be so different now, with just having people come from different places. It’s getting everybody to think differently and we’re getting a lot better work from it.” As she explains, “I believe that unless you have all voices represented, the product is never going to be what it truly needs to be.” —J.L.
Tiffany R. Warren
“I went to award shows and I didn’t see a lot of people of color being honored,” says Warren, who started Adcolor, her “night job” as she calls it, in 2005 to address that. “We were the first award show to include our LGBTQ brothers and sisters,” she says. “We feel strongly, look for the marginalized to fit in the center.” At Omnicom, Warren has sought to shake up the status quo. “What does sameness get us?” she has asked, when faced with ambivalence about diversity in the industry. Because of her persistence, issues of inclusion are now part of Omnicom’s everyday conversation. A diverse workforce isn’t simply a nice thing to have, Warren insists—it’s a business imperative that must inform “everything we do: in data, the way we recruit talent, the way we work with our clients. It’s not a stand-alone theory or idea; it should be weaved into everything.” —Sara Ivry