The Top 5 Most Innovative South Asian Women


By:  Hyacinth Mascarenhas

These women are much more than just smart, beautiful and powerful. Making strides in their own respective fields, these entrepreneurial women are defying the South Asian and female stereotypes and are doing so with flair.  Both ambitious and persistent, these women did not only shatter the glass-ceiling, they’re standing on top of the shards in style.

Elan decided to highlight five Desi women whose inspirational career paths, mindsets and successes are worth aspiring toward:


Huma Abedin, Dedicated Civil Servant and Fashion icon

“In some tiny, tiny way I am part of history, but I am also able to help people.” – Huma Abedin

Since she was 15 years old, Huma Abedin aspired to become “the next Christiane Amanpour.” However, after a White House internship with the secretary of state in 1996, Abedin soon climbed the ranks to become the personal aide and advisor to then Senator Hillary Clinton and later “traveling chief of staff” during her presidential campaign. Currently serving as a deputy chief of staff to Sec. Clinton, Abedin is often referred to as “Hillary Clinton’s secret weapon.”

Fluent in Arabic and a practicing Muslim, Abedin was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan to a Pakistani mother and Indian father. In 2010, Time Magazine listed her as one the “40 under 40” rising stars in American politics.

Today, she is not only known in Washington for her excellent diplomatic and organizational skills, but her impeccable fashion sense as well. With a wardrobe filled with Yves Saint Laurent, Prada and Marc Jacobs on the campaign trail, she is also friends with world-famous designer Oscar de la Renta who designed an exquisite chiffon dress for her wedding to Rep. Weiner.



Leila Janah, Founder and CEO of Samasource

“Handouts are not going to end global poverty, but work – real work – just might.” – Leila Janah.

As founder and CEO of Samasource, an award-winning non-profit business that connects people living in poverty to “microwork,” a term she coined in 2008. Samasource takes larger projects from companies such as Google and Microsoft, breaks them down into smaller tasks or “microwork,” and through its technology platform connects impoverished works from nine countries with those small jobs to build skills and generate life-changing income. So far, her company has moved over 14,000 people out of poverty and secured over $5 million in contracts with big-name tech companies such as eBay and LinkedIn.

The 30-year-old Harvard graduate also co-founded Samahope, a crowd-funding site for medical treatments in developing nations, in 2011.

In addition to being a tech entrepreneur, Janah is also a board member for CARE USA, a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty, and has modeled for Sorel, a boot-manufacturer known for making “footwear for the fearless.”


Rachel Roy, Fashion designer

“You should always feel confident in everything you wear, no matter what trend you fit or don’t fit into.” – Rachel Roy

Raised in Northern California by an Indian father and Dutch mother, Rachel Roy grew up collecting issues of Vogue magazines and always dreamed of one day becoming a fashion designer. As an entrepreneur, designer, philanthropist and mother today, she seems to have done it all.

Since her brand’s launch in spring 2005, her collections speak volumes about her feminine aesthetic – elegant, effortless and confident. She even earned a reputation for knowing how to enhance a woman’s body without revealing too much. In August 2009, Roy launched RACHEL Rachel Roy, a youthful sister to her designer collection that features affordable sportswear, handbags and jewelry.

In addition to garnering critical acclaim in publications from Vogue to Bazaar and appearing on multiple TV shows including Project Runway, Roy also had the honor of dressing notables including First Lady Michelle Obama, Halle Berry and Jennifer Garner among numerous other celebrities. She was also given one of the fashion industry’s highest honors by being inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) in 2007. She also continues to give back by partnering with Heart of Haiti artisans to bring Haitian designed jewelry to the US market and help create jobs and exposure for these artisans. She also works with OrphanAid Africa and the Kindness Is Always Fashionable charitable bag program.


Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, Documentary filmmaker

“It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from – if you put quality work out there, it will be appreciated.” – Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

As an investigative journalist and multi-award winning documentary filmmaker from Pakistan, Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy aims to tell the untold stories. In 2010, she became the first Pakistani woman to win an Emmy award for her work in Pakistan’s Taliban generation, a riveting film on how the war on terror continues to create a generation of child terrorists in her homeland.

After becoming the first non-American to win the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, she has won multiple accolades for her work in more than 10 countries including Pakistan’s first Oscar for her powerful documentary ‘Saving Face.’ The film not only brought Pakistan’s acid-violence problem to the forefront, but also sparked an educational-awareness campaign within the country. She also works with Project SAAVE (Stand Against Acid Violence) which partners with organizations to provide surgeries and support for survivors.

In 2012, Time Magazine featured her as one of the 100 most influential people in the world for her powerful investigative stories. Her passion, strength and efforts to showcase these often unheard voices have allowed for critical change in these communities making her a truly remarkable woman to emulate.



Nilofer Merchant, Business leader and Entrepreneur

“If the industrial era was about building things, the social era is about connecting things, people and ideas.” – Nilofer Merchant

Known as the “Jane Bond of innovation,” Nilofer Merchant has made waves in Silicon Valley, CA as the go-to person for growing and guiding businesses from Fortune 500s to web start-ups.  Having worked for major companies including Apple and Autodesk and early start-ups such as Golive, Merchant has had companies such as Yahoo, Logitech and Symantec turn to her for guidance on developing new product strategies, venturing into new markets and optimizing revenues.

She also coined the term “onlyness” – something that only one particular person can bring to a situation and add value to the system – in her book, 11 Rules for Creating Value in the #SocialEra (chosen one of the Best Business Books of 2012 by Fast Company.)

Today, she serves on boards for both public and private companies, writes columns on social business models for The Harvard Business Review and books about collaboration and openness in the business and social sphere, and lectures on innovation, board governance and marketing at Stanford University. Her powerful, practical and even provocative ideas on innovation, management and business are shaping the future of many organizations by highlighting that “making a profit doesn’t mean losing purpose, community and connect.”




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