Meet 6 Trailblazers in the NFL, Coast Guard and More: ‘Success Isn't Being the First,' It's Having ‘Many Others Follow'

Illustration by Elham Ataeiazar

At our current rate of progress, the United Nations warns it will take 300 years for women to achieve true gender equality.

But women aren't backing down from the challenge. 

2022 was a year of historic firsts, from the first woman to lead a branch of the U.S. armed forces to the first Black female president of an NFL team.

Women are continuing to break down barriers in business, sports, politics, entertainment and beyond: They're excelling in high-pressure jobs, becoming leaders in historically male-dominated industries, and using their power to make these industries more equitable and welcoming for the next generation. 

In honor of International Women's Day, CNBC Make It spoke with some of these trailblazers about their paths to success, their ambitions and the legacy they want to leave behind.

Janet Yang

The first Asian and fourth female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Illustration by Elham Ataeiazar

Growing up in New York during the 1960s, Janet Yang thought it was impossible for her to work in entertainment.

"I never saw people that looked like me in front of or behind the camera," Yang, who is Chinese American, says. "I think the first Asian person I saw on TV was Bruce Lee, and that's it." 

Now, Yang is one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. In August, she began her first term as president of the academy, becoming the first Asian person, and fourth woman, to hold the position.

The academy, founded in 1927, is one of the most elite clubs in Hollywood, billing itself as "the world's preeminent movie-related organization." While its most visible endeavor is deciding the winners of the Oscars each year, the 10,000-plus-member organization also has a museum, library and other initiatives dedicated to the preservation and promotion of film.

Yang, 66, is an Emmy and Golden Globe-winning producer whose film credits include "The Joy Luck Club," "High Crimes" and the Oscar-nominated animated film "Over the Moon." 

But many of her proudest achievements have happened off-screen. She's earned a reputation as a "godmother" to other Asian Americans working in Hollywood and is actively involved in several organizations working to amplify AAPI voices in entertainment.

"I've felt like an outsider many times throughout my life," she says. "It's wonderful to have a sense of belonging, and terrible not to. … If I can help open the door for other women and people of color, I'm thrilled."

Adm. Linda Fagan

Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard and first woman to lead any branch of the U.S. armed forces

Illustration by Elham Ataeiazar

Adm. Linda Fagan did not plan for a lifetime of service in the U.S. Coast Guard — and she certainly didn't plan on being its first-ever woman commander. She made history for taking on the role in June 2022 and now oversees 42,000 active-duty personnel along with tens of thousands of reserves and volunteers.

Fagan grew up just west of Boston and spent summers sailing with her family. That's when she first saw the organization she would eventually lead. "There was something about the Coast Guard, the missions, seeing the small boats that just spoke to me," she says. Fagan ended up attending the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and her first tour of duty in 1985 took her to Antarctica. 

From there, the Coast Guard would offer a new assignment every couple of years. "And I just kept asking myself questions like, 'is this something that I'm excited about? Do I feel like I can make a difference, that the work is meaningful?'" she says. "And I was able to answer yes to all those questions." So she stuck around.

In time, she learned to connect with the service on a deeper level. "It's not a job," Fagan says. "It's so much more than that. It's lifestyle. And it's a calling. It's serving something greater than self."

Among the lessons she's learned in her historic career and one she'd like to remind other women of, regardless where they find themselves in their career: "You're stronger, smarter, more capable, more courageous than you believe."

Sandra Douglass Morgan

The first Black female president of an NFL team

Illustration by Elham Ataeiazar

Sandra Douglass Morgan often jokes that she underestimated the amount of attention her new job would bring. In July, Douglass Morgan was named the new president of the Las Vegas Raiders, also becoming the first Black woman to lead an NFL team in the league's history. 

It's not the first glass ceiling the 44-year-old has shattered, either: In 2008, she became the North City Las Vegas city attorney, making her the first Black person in Nevada's history to hold the job. In 2019, she was the first person of color elected as chair of the esteemed Nevada Gaming Control Board.

Of all 32 teams in the NFL, less than 10 have a Black or female president. But Douglass Morgan wants to be more than a statistic. She's working to make her team and the NFL more diverse, starting at the top — one of her first moves was to hire a director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Raiders.

"I've always said that there's more than enough room for everyone at the table," Douglass Morgan says. "To me, the definition of success isn't being the first — it's to have many, many others follow behind you." 

Stephanie Linnartz

The first female CEO of Under Armour

Illustration by Elham Ataeiazar

Stephanie Linnartz credits much of her ambition and work ethic to growing up in McLean, Virginia, as the oldest of six children. Her family is in the hotel restaurant business, and she and her siblings were expected to help whenever they could. 

"Cleaning rooms, checking people in, waiting tables, you name it I've done it," Linnartz said in an October 2022 interview with the College of the Holy Cross, her alma mater. 

She joined the hotel industry herself at Marriott in the '90s and worked her way up the corporate ladder to become president of Marriott International, a role she served in for two years. Now, she's the first female CEO of Under Armour, stepping in to lead the iconic sportswear brand last month.

Linnartz was one of 60 candidates considered for the top job at Under Armour and was ultimately selected for her digital prowess and success in transforming Marriott's online presence, Under Armour founder and Executive Chairman Kevin Plank told CNBC

Another trait that's helped her get ahead in her career? "Being confident and humble at the same time," she told Holy Cross. 

"You must have a very strong sense of your own self-worth but also be humble and realize no one human being has it all or knows it all," Linnartz explained. "This goes for any leader ... staying true to that principle very early in my career has helped me stand out and push ahead even when times are hard."

Maura Healey

The first woman and openly gay governor of Massachusetts

Illustration by Elham Ataeiazar

Maura Healey has a career full of firsts.

In 2014, she was elected attorney general of Massachusetts, becoming the first openly gay attorney general in the nation. And on Nov. 8, 2022, the 52-year-old made history when she became the first woman and the first openly gay candidate to be elected governor of Massachusetts. Healey's triumph flipped the seat from red to blue for the first time in eight years.

She wants Bay Staters, and people in general, to know that they, too, can forge a path full of firsts.

"Every one of us, every citizen, is a first," Healey said in her inaugural speech on Jan. 5. "You may be a first-generation immigrant, choosing Massachusetts as the foundation of your American dream. You may be the first in your family to go to college, or to send your child there. The first in your neighborhood to start a business."

"In this state, we are all trailblazers. We are all leaders."

Healey credits her ambitious nature and her strong desire for success to her mom, who raised her and her five siblings on her own. 

"My mom was a really strong figure in my life. And it's not until later that you appreciate how much she sacrificed, how hard she must have had to work, to be able to provide for us and give us the love and support, including emotional support, to have the opportunities that we have," she tells CNBC Make It. "I'm really grateful for that."

"I come from a line of strong women in my family … my great-grandmother, my grandmother, my mother. [They're all] really great examples of strength, grace and compassion."

Amy Schneider

The first woman to win $1 million on 'Jeopardy!'

Illustration by Elham Ataeiazar

Life has been a whirlwind since Amy Schneider became the first woman to win $1 million on "Jeopardy!" last year: She ended her record-breaking 40-game hot streak with $1.4 million in earnings; quit her job as an engineering manager; married her wife, Genevieve; visited the White House; became the first openly transgender woman to qualify for the game show's Tournament of Champions; and took home the $250,000 top prize in November.

Schneider, 43, has also become a trans icon and uses her platform to advocate for LGBTQ rights.

In recent years, state lawmakers have advanced a historic number of bills that limit gender expression for transgender youth. Still, Schneider remains relentlessly optimistic about progress and focuses on what she can do to help. In November, the Ohio native testified before an Ohio House of Representatives committee meeting against a bill that would restrict gender-affirming medical care for minors. 

"There are so many people, more than you probably realize, that are with you and fighting against these things as best they can," Schneider tells CNBC Make It. "They may not be winning every battle, but they're winning some. Pay attention to that."

"What's happening is a backlash because trans people are visible now," she adds. "And that's upset people. But the nice thing about trans people is that we pop up everywhere. We're in every community. And once you have gotten the message on trans people, once you have met one and realize that they're just people like anyone else, that's a one-way street. You don't go back. Everyone that changes their mind on the issue is a permanent addition on our side."

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