Mosaic of a Lady: 5 Super Femme Stories

03/06/2015 06:54 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015

How do we tell the story about women today? A portrait, more like a contemporary mosaic, if you will, emerged, of disruptive, brilliant, super femmes from diverse backgrounds around the globe, as I interviewed five women to celebrate International Women's Day. Each unique, each inspiring their communities and beyond to hack away perceptions in the third wave of feminism. Presenting a mosaic of today's bold new femmes (from bottom left / clockwise: Dr Michelle Dickinson, Annie Kevans, Nyla Rodgers, Polina Raygorodskaya, Artemis Women in Action Films).


#1 Portrait of an Artist!
London based artist, Annie Kevans, is no stranger to the disproportionately male dominated art-world. She'd presumed that "female artists must be rubbish, they've always been ignored in the past 400-500 years." She was quickly proven wrong as she explained, "the penny dropped when I did a series about women impressionists and the fact that being a female artist, I was at a great disadvantage." She portrayed forgotten female artists in, 'Women and the History of Art,' shown in London and San Francisco, where we first met at the Jenkins Johnson gallery a few months ago. Stephen Fry is amongst her avid collectors, and she recently collaborated with Jean Paul Gaultier to produce a series of 32 paintings depicting his muses (i.e. Madonna, Kate Moss, Amy Winehouse, David Bowie).

Our conversation continued over the phone last week, talking more about her life as a female artist. By the 1980's, women could do anything, "...we've got shoulder pads, Madonna, Working Girl." Even so, she quickly realised her position as a woman, saying, "my work has to be much better. Until we have women in the top 3 at auction prices, we won't be taken seriously as an investment, until we have that precedent set. The top 47 highest are all men." She encourages girls to "try ignore things you hear," such as, "there's no such thing as great female artists," or "a lot of girls think they can't have a family and be a good artist. All successful females in art history were mothers," as is Annie. Male artists are "worshipped for being philanderers, sexy -- it's never been that about women. Absorbing such things is complete nonsense and holds people back. I've never heard, women can't act / sing / dance / write, it sounds ludicrous," she explains. Yet, when it comes to art, men get away with it. It's like a male domain and their ideas of genius." On another note, Annie's found a way to bring contemporary female artists together, similar to 'boys clubs,' throwing amazing six-hour-lunches at the arts and media Groucho private members club in London, based on 'who would you like to have lunch with'? Guests include a who's who list of fellow female artists like, Lynette Yiadom Boakye, Turner prize 2013 nominee, and White Cube artist, Rachel Kneebone. With more panel discussions to come in Miami in May, the perception of female artists is shifting. Perhaps history will repeat itself as Annie fondly shares her love of a time when Thamyris/Timarete, Irene and Marcia/Iaia of Cyzicus (around 90 BC), who "surpassing Sopolis and Dionysius, the most famous painters of her day, ... not only worked faster than they did, but also fetched higher prices," from Giovanni Boccaccio's 'De Claris Mulieribus,' written around 1370.

#2 Tech Super Powers!
I tracked down Dr Michelle Dickinson, who was judging Australia's version of Extreme Tech Challenge, OzAPP Awards, and followed her via email to New Zealand. Her #nanogirl (as she calls herself) persona impresses everyone she encounters, you can see what the buzz is about in her TedX Auckland Nanogirl, My Quest to Become a Superhero talk. Our interview was via email where she responded in writing. Here are some excerpts of her tech-wise thoughts about being a woman in science and technology. "My experience has been good and bad, mostly good with the occasional sexist comment or expectation that I am the receptionist. I don't mind though, I like surprising people by not fitting into the stereotype. I think that confidence is a big part of being successful and we need to nurture females to have more confidence in themselves." About females in her field

My ratio in my job is about 20 percent female to males which is not ideal, but in my specific discipline of chemical and materials engineering we are now at 50 percent, which I think has a lot to do with the higher number of female teachers. Being a woman in tech has taught me that my own insecurities have prevented me from stepping forward to take opportunities and as women we need to build confidence in ourselves to know that we don't have to be the best in the world at something to take it on, instead we need to be confident that we can take on new responsibilities even if it means learning new skills. It's also taught me to speak up more, and how important good communication is for both networking and for being a great project leader.

And nanogirl's advice on shifting inequalities starts with gender. "We have to create environments where the gender balance is more equal, and this is important not only to show the future generation that this is a welcoming space, but also because problem solving is best carried out with a diverse range of people who have a diverse skill set and experiences." She endorses more creative constructive toys for both genders that help build confidence in building, constructing, balancing -- good preparation for science in their teen years. She says she'd love to see curriculum in schools reward teenagers more for being creative and having an opinion on why something happened rather than having more black and white responses. Finally, enabling more female role models to be in the media would allow girls to see somebody like them who they desire to be like -- She challenges us to name one female TV lead science presenter in the world. Just one...

With one more question to go, we learn about Michelle's vision for the future, "I have big visions for the future that involve empowering girls and ethnic minorities to see themselves in places that a stereotype currently doesn't put them. I also see that the rise of digital technology means we can grow more entrepreneurs who can create a future that they want to live in."

#3 Women Mean Business!
From her Boston office, Polina Raygorodskaya, and I talked about her phenomenal entrepreneurial trail, starting from the time when she was four and her family migrated to the States. I've been following her since she appeared as the only female CEO to make it into both the top 10 finalists of the world's largest start up competition, XTC (which had 2000 entries). She was in the top 3, giving her the chance to visit Necker Island last month and pitch to Sir Richard Branson where he offered to invest in her company, Wanderu.

It's no surprise to hear she's always done her own thing. Growing up between two brothers, Polina was a tomboy who started a lemonade stand when she was ten, followed by a newspaper. She was already thinking about how to solve problems. Now, she's quick to point out that she's proud of being a woman in tech and wants to inspire other women to follow suit. Prior to tech, she used to have a PR firm in fashion and taught herself to code. She makes it sound effortless talking about what she loves about tech, "it allows you to change the world much faster. You can reach people all over the world in milliseconds. It's relatively inexpensive to create something that impacts people much faster on mass." In other words, "there's a lot of opportunity to build a website, sell online and scale that."

Then comes the challenging part, "it takes a special kind of woman to do that -- there are many ups and downs. It's an intimidating men's club, if you can get passed that, it's super women running businesses." She is inspired by top female billionaires. What inspires Polina most is her own desire to solve problems, not only the ones she has, but that millions of people have. She advises women starting out to keep going no matter what, but there are two sides to that coin -- on the one hand you need to be persistent to survive tough times, on the other it's important to recognize when something's not working, not every idea is a good idea. She's one of those people who are 'go, go, go,' and has learned that survival through tough times takes being in the moment, "it's important to meditate, calm down and take control of the situation." She exemplifies the American Dream, and attributes her drive to her hard-working parents, who have always been very supportive, both verbally as well as being hands on.

#4 Kicking it with Women in Action Films!
Back on the west coast I interviewed Kataka Gara, in L.A. She's a self-prophesed alpha female whose viewpoint is deeply distinct. She's on the board of directors of the first ever festival for Women in Action Films, Artemis. Everyone involved loves women empowerment! Kataka identifies as a lesbian and has many straight and gay males in her life. Having a heterosexual male ally as a co-founder has impacted beyond women standing alone. Artemis Women in Action Film inaugural festival this April 25 & 26 has attracted over thirty films from countries like Iran, Canada, South Africa, all over Europe and South America -- it's the perfect platform for the empowerment of women and girls. Kataka adds, "our dream is coming true!"

It couldn't be timed better! Not only have Women in Action Films reached record highs (grossing nearly $3bn at the box office over the past three years), but also the larger message around women has become more paramount than ever. There has been a shift in female protagonists, no longer the victims, or supporting the male lead. It has taken many years of cultivation -- women have made an impact on the screen -- they are increasingly seen as physically equal to men, no more is this crystal clear than in Action Films.

Her advice to girls is, "Don't doubt yourself. If you have a vision, go for it!" The idea that boys network and women need to do more of it came up and Kataka talked about the early 1990's, when not much was known about AIDS. She appeared on the Jerry Springer show to talk about what she was doing to create a "no alcohol/drugs, safe sex, safe place for women in San Francisco," the first of its kind, which was unheard of at the time. She continued with some insights about the kind of men that are supportive of women in her view, "They are 100 percent comfortable in their maleness. They listen and they are confident whether they're straight or gay." There is always 'societal pressure.' "The thing about men -- they love women so much -- they are sometimes weak around them." Her message is, "it's OK to be vulnerable, and women are afraid they will not find the man of their dreams." The notion that "it's important to build a team -- we are on the same team" is key to men, she says.

#5 Hope is IT!
Meeting Nyla Rodgers for the first time at a private event in San Francisco, I was deeply touched by the pure simple goodness of Mama Hope, a nonprofit she founded in 2006 to honor her mother shortly after she passed -- this is her legacy and story!

Our conversation continued at a hip lounge in downtown SF -- talking more about Mama Hope's efforts to galvanize and scale human connection across borders, genders, cultures and mindsets to achieve the goals of her non-profit. The idea that men are allies and partners is central to its success -- "Men haven't been asked, we've assumed they don't care," has been her experience, which seems to be a common theme. Hence, the 'Men For Women' campaign to bring the male voice into the narrative is currently underway. It is a compilation of clips from men around the world talking about the women they love, their vision for women in the future, and challenging other men to get involved -- you can see more here.

The initial drive behind this campaign was to counter-balance all the horror stories about men in Africa we hear from the media. She wanted to showcase men "who build maternity wards, schools for girls, devoting themselves..." But what she found out making this video, "it's not only in Africa, but everywhere." She believes true lasting change will only happen when everyone's at the table. Her vision for the future, "how many men want women to take on ruler-ship because they are kinder, more nurturing." Nyla hears from men that they have had their hand at it and it's time for women. Men need to be taught to be more vulnerable -- they say they don't want their daughters to have this conversation about gender divide.

Super Femmes Wish List

Annie Kevans:

#1 Work Wish: A couple of contemporary women artists to hit the highest earning living artists..
#2 Women's Wish: Wage Equality for all women.
#3 Personal Wish: My ongoing wish is to get better as an artist.

Michelle Dickinson / Nanogirl:

#1 Work Wish: Right now I'm a bit obsessed with using nanotechnology in medicine to stop things from sticking. We have lots of problems due to adhesion of proteins onto implants, and so my superpower would be the power to create super slippery surfaces.
#2 Women's Wish: is to tell Dads to spend time with their daughters tinkering and building and doing the things that they might traditionally think was for their sons. Daughters idolise their Daddies and this is one of the most powerful role models that could change the future of what little girls want to grow up to be.
#3 Personal Wish: is to expand my charity internationally. Right now my charity OMGTech teaches children from poorer backgrounds, especially girls to code, 3D print, and build robots -- it's a hands on workshop that builds confidence and exposes children to gain technology skills they may never have seen before. It's run nationwide around New Zealand, but I'd like to take on the world with my vision for a more gender balanced and diverse generation of science and technology savvy kids.

Polina Raygorodskaya:

#1 Work Wish: is to create the travel brand for the next generation.
#2 Women's Wish: I wish more women were inspired and unafraid to follow their dreams.
#3 Personal Wish: Health and happiness to my family and loved ones, success isn't just about money, it's about living.

Kataka Gara:

#1 Work Wish: Artemis Women in Action Films Festival -- the first one we're doing becomes as powerful and as big as Cannes and Sundance Film Festivals.
#2 Women's Wish: International Women's Day becomes a global celebration. We stop and celebrate all the women in our lives.
#3 Personal Wish: I'm always focused on what I can do for others. Truly be a leader in the community for female empowerment.

Nyla Rodgers:

#1 Work Wish: We are about to evolve our model so we are able to help people around the world build sustainable programs that will transform their communities. I hope to get 1,000 video submissions from around the world and the people will see the divide between men and women go away. I'd love submissions from some of our thought leaders like our president, Barack Obama and other world leaders.
#2 Women's Wish: They're able to exist in the world knowing they have more support than they can comprehend. See and love themselves despite everything out there that's telling them not to. And, they're able to understand the individual light they all have.
#3 Personal Wish: Of course I want to get married, I want to have children. But I trust the universe won't let me down. I love creating community -- I'm so lucky I get to do things with action and meaning. I always have people who push me forward and inspire me.

Finally, I was curious to hear why they all thought that Fifty shades of Grey had become the best-selling trilogy in recent history. I'd met author, Erika L James, in Seattle on her first visit (after she'd written her books) a few years ago. She was a larger than life, raunchy, warm woman, whom I'm happy to say shared some good advice. I was blown away to see the frenzy she caused and how much she genuinely loved her fans. One thing was clear, as divided as opinions about the books and film are, ranging from 'I think women enjoy the fantasy' to 'It's great!' and 'There's been a lot of confusion' -- the larger message is about a new era where gender inequality is no longer an issue.

I try to picture my mother, Antigone, in the late 1950's. A young Greek immigrant in Australia, toiling away at her first paid job at a sweltering rubber factory, dressed in heels, dainty dresses, with a strong independent spirit and sense that she was worth as much as her counterpart male colleagues. She was able to do the same job as a man, in fact, even better, and she managed to negotiate equal pay for equal work with her Scottish-Australian supervisor. She's given me wings to fly, my sister's my #1 hero, and I love seeing my amazing nieces and god-daughter become their own version of super-femmes. This story is for you my loves, and for everyone whose lives have been inspired, touched, made more meaningful because of a special woman... Happy International Women's Day!

"Because we are your Mothers and Your Sisters and your Daughters and your Heart.
We are your Beginning, your End, and your Truth from the Start." -Lyrics from spoken song, Glory Bound, by Sky Muncaster