There are many ways we can approach the topic of women in business. We could collect lists of the most powerful women in business, or the most handsomely paid. We could look for figures illustrating how many female CEOs there are in America today (far fewer than you probably think), or how many companies include one or more females on their boards of directors (hint: not nearly enough).
Those are all legitimate topics, but what about women who are shaking up business, changing how we view the marketplace with their bold and sometimes even controversial stances? They aren't simply out to prove that they can move in lockstep with the status quo. Instead they aim to succeed with big-picture thinking that goes far beyond simply boosting the bottom line in the short term.
There are surely countless examples of women who are paving new paths for positive economic growth and opportunity for everyone; many of them are probably still flying under the radar. In this case, though, I'm listing three women who spring to mind as among the most radical -- and inspirational.
The moral compass of our lives must also be the moral compass of our livelihoods. -- PepsiCo (NASDAQ:PEP) CEO and Chairman Indra Nooyi, speaking at the Ceres 25th Anniversary celebration.
Pepsi's leader Indra Nooyi has been hard at work for years positioning the company for its "Performance with Purpose" mission. She's been making moves to bring the beverage and snacks company into a future where consumers increasingly care about responsible, stakeholder-friendly business.
Nooyi has refused to allow the 117-year old company to stick with the status quo and rely on "what always worked before." She has come out swinging in areas like sustainability and adding healthier-for-you snack options.
Nooyi was one of the speakers at environmental advocacy group Ceres' recent 25th Anniversary celebration, where she made such statements as, "Sustainability must become synonymous with business."
In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed co-authored with Environmental Defense Fund's President Fred Krupp, Nooyi spoke of the need for greener delivery fleets and expressed support for the Obama administration's proposed new standards for fuel economy and greenhouse gases for medium- and heavy-duty trucks.
"Better fuel economy and higher efficiency helps companies compete; less money spent on fuel means more to invest in products, processes, people, and communities," the authors contended.
In just one example of Pepsi's strides in the area, from 2008 through 2014, the Frito-Lay North American division slashed diesel fuel use by 23% and still increased net revenue by 16% to $14.5 billion.
Meanwhile, Pepsi has been devoting R&D to gear up its product portfolio for a healthier profile. Many people tend to dismiss or deride Pepsi for its reliance on unhealthy "sugar water," but they may not be aware that Pepsi is using science to diversify its products beyond what are increasingly perceived as "vice" products.
For example, from 2006 through 2013, Pepsi removed approximately 402,000 metric tons of added sugar from its beverage portfolio. For the sodium-aware, it's stripped 3,900 metric tons of sodium from products. The company has been busy in its labs finding even more ways to remove salt without sacrificing taste.
These are bold moves -- and at times, Nooyi has had to defend the company from investors who couldn't see the long-term value in such initiatives. However, a glance at Pepsi's long-term stock chart shows that Nooyi's initiatives most definitely haven't harmed the company; in fact, they have likely helped it -- long-term shareholders have done quite well.
It's impressive enough that Sheryl Sandberg is Chief Operating Officer at wildly successful social media giant Facebook (NASDAQ:FB). However, while most corporate executives still go out of their way to avoid voicing any potentially uncomfortable or even controversial opinions, Sandberg has been an outspoken advocate for women in business in her free time.
Sandberg's book Lean In honestly and directly addressed some of the issues impacting women in the workforce. She didn't shy away from voicing some blunt opinions that many women probably didn't want to hear.
Lean In isn't a one-off piece of print; profits from the book help fund LeanIn.org, which offers inspiration, educational tools, and support to women in business, and Sandberg has made additional donations for its operating budget. Sandberg also launched the "Lean In Together" campaign, which champions women and men joining together in driving change, and co-wrote a related four-part series for The New York Times with Wharton professor Adam Grant.
Sandberg recently suffered a terrible tragedy when she lost her husband Dave Goldberg to an accident. Most influential corporate leaders try to keep their personal lives private, but Sandberg turned to her own employer's platform to write a heartfelt, public post about her experience and, ultimately, the complex nature of grief. The post surely resonated with those who have ever suffered through such an event, as well as helping those of us who haven't experienced the same level of loss to understand how very difficult and complicated it is.
By turning to Facebook to share a heartbreakingly honest and authentic exploration of grief -- one of the greatest challenges humans endure -- Sandberg actually also underlined exactly why Facebook's business mission matters: for its ability to connect people and increase understanding and empathy.
As former president of Bank of America's Global Wealth & Investment Management division and former chief financial officer at Citigroup, among gigs at other major financial companies, Sallie Krawcheck knows her way around Wall Street.
In fact, according to Newsweek, part of her drive to open up the marketplace and improve the way business works has to do with her experiences in the industry during the financial crisis: "Capitalism broke, and I had a front seat." She also contends that had women been better represented on Wall Street, the financial crisis could have played out much differently. According to Fast Company, she believes that "what could have averted the financial crisis [was] more diversity of perspective, of opinion."
Today, Krawcheck's financial savvy and zeal for helping women succeed in business has made her one of LinkedIn's most followed Influencers, with about 900,000 followers. She's been lauded many times, including having been named No. 9 on 2014's 100 Most Creative People by Fast Company.
Krawcheck's vision for a brighter future includes an "inclusive capitalism," and she has espoused the holistic concept that gender and other forms of diversity are good for businesses and the marketplace. She told Newsweek that if women were fully represented in the economy, it could be 8% or 9% larger.
She has used her high profile to try to lead the charge, having bought the Ellevate Network, which currently offers networking and career advice to more than 30,000 female professionals. She also joined forces with socially responsible investment fund Pax World to create the Pax Ellevate Global Women's Index Fund, which screens for companies with female management, or that have one or more women on their boards of directors. In other words, it allows people to invest in women's advancement in the workplace.
Krawcheck has also been championing a new way of looking at business and investing -- one that appeals to women and the Millennial demographic -- that includes purpose as well as profit. Socially responsible investing has been growing admirably. According to the Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment (U.S. SIF), at the beginning of 2014, U.S. assets directed into the SRI area increased by 76% to $65.7 billion in just two years' time, and from 1995 to 2014, the area has surged by 929%: a compound annual growth rate of 13.1%. Krawcheck's "Big Idea" argument from late 2013 that we are at a tipping point for the philosophy to go mainstream looks spot on.
Squashing the status quo
Cognitive diversity is one of the great things women can offer businesses. Still, it can be extremely difficult in business and other settings to give honest opinions when one is considered "rare" or "different." These three women in business are not only among the smartest, most powerful, or visionary, but they're all paving the way in inspiring women to go ahead, be themselves, and think differently. That's the key to excellence.
Check back at Fool.com for Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance topics.