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23 Black leaders who are shaping history today

Black Americans have played a crucial role in helping to advance America’s business, political and cultural landscape into what it is today. And since 1976, every U.S. president has designated the month of February as Black History Month to honor the achievements and the resilience of the Black community. 

While CNBC Make It recognizes that Black history is worth being celebrated year-round, we are using this February to shine a special spotlight on 23 Black leaders whose recent accomplishments and impact will inspire many generations to come. 

These leaders, who have made history in their respective fields, stand on the shoulders of pioneers who came before them, including Shirley Chisholm, John Lewis, Maya Angelou and Mary Ellen Pleasant.  

Following the lead of trailblazers throughout American history, today’s Black history-makers are shaping not only today but tomorrow.  

From helping to develop a Covid-19 vaccine, to breaking barriers in the White House and in the C-suite, below are 23 Black leaders who are shattering glass ceilings in their wide-ranging roles. 

Kamala Harris, 56, first Black, first South Asian American and first woman Vice President

Vice President Kamala Harris.

Photo credit: Getty; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

On Jan. 20, Kamala Harris became the first Black, first South Asian American and first woman Vice President of the United States. 

Harris, born in Oakland, California to an Indian mother and Jamaican father, spoke about her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, in her first speech as vice president-elect.

“When she came here from India at the age of 19, she maybe didn’t quite imagine this moment,” Harris said on Nov. 7. (Shyamala came to the U.S. in 1958 to study biochemistry.) “But she believed so deeply in an America where a moment like this is possible.” 

“So, I’m thinking about her and about the generations of women — Black women, Asian, White, Latina, and Native American women who throughout our nation’s history have paved the way for this moment tonight,” she said.

Harris is also the first vice president to have graduated from a historically Black college or university (HBCU), Howard University, and credits her “sense of being and meaning” to her time as a student there. Harris is also a member of the oldest historically Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

And she was the first Black American to serve as California’s Attorney General from 2011 to 2016. In 2016, she was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate for the state of California.

Harris also helped others make history in December when she hired the first all-woman senior staff for the U.S. vice president’s office. —Cory Stieg

Rosalind Brewer, 58, Walgreens’ next CEO and only Black woman to currently lead a Fortune 500 firm

Walgreens’ next CEO Rosalind Brewer.

Photo credit: Getty; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

In March, Rosalind Brewer, who currently serves as Starbucks’ chief operating officer, will be starting a new position as CEO of drugstore chain Walgreens Boots Alliance. When she steps into this new role, she will be the only Black woman currently leading a Fortune 500 firm, and just the third Black woman in history to serve as a Fortune 500 CEO. Ursula Burns, who served as CEO of Xerox between 2009 and 2016 was the first, and Mary Winston, who served as interim CEO at Bed Bath & Beyond in 2019, was the second.

Brewer, who joined Starbucks in 2017 as the company’s first Black and first woman COO, previously spent five years serving as the CEO of Sam’s Club, which is owned by Walmart. Prior to working for Walmart, she spent 22 years working for manufacturing company Kimberly-Clark, where she started her career as a scientist and eventually worked her way up to being president of the company’s Global Nonwovens Sector in 2004.  

As a longtime executive in corporate America, Brewer has been transparent about the challenges she’s faced as one of very few Black women in the C-Suite. 

“When you’re a Black woman, you get mistaken a lot,” she said during a 2018 speech at her alma mater, Spelman College. “You get mistaken as someone who could actually not have that top job. Sometimes you’re mistaken for kitchen help. Sometimes people assume you’re in the wrong place, and all I can think in the back of my head is, ‘No, you’re in the wrong place.'”

As Walgreens’ next CEO, Brewer will be responsible for improving the company’s revenue amid the pandemic and tasked with overseeing the drugstore chain’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout.  —Courtney Connley

Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett, 35, lead scientist on the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine team

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, lead scientist on the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine team.

Photo credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

At a December event hosted by the National Urban League, Dr. Anthony Fauci had one very important thing to say about the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine, aka “mRNA-1273,” approved by the FDA for emergency use on Dec. 18.

“The first thing you might want to say to my African-American brothers and sisters is that the vaccine that you’re going to be taking was developed by an African-American woman,” Fauci said. “And that is just a fact.”

Indeed, Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, a 35-year-old viral immunologist and research fellow in the Vaccine Research Center of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is the lead scientist on the team that developed the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine. She built on her six years of experience studying the spike proteins of other coronaviruses like SARS and MERS in order to design the vaccine within two days of the novel coronavirus being discovered. (Spike proteins sit on the surface of coronaviruses and penetrate human cells, causing infection.)  

“I like to call it the plug-and-play approach,” Corbett, who has a PhD in microbiology and immunology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in a virtual NIH lecture on Oct. 15. 

“Basically the idea [is] that we had so much knowledge based on work from us and from other labs previously that we were able to pull the trigger on vaccine development and start the ball rolling toward a phase 1 clinical trial.” —Cory Stieg

Victor J. Glover, Jr., 44, first Black astronaut to live and work at the International Space Station for an extended stay

NASA astronaut Victor Glover.

Photo credit: Getty; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

When NASA astronaut Victor Glover arrived at the International Space Station — roughly 250 miles above earth — on a SpaceX Crew Dragon Capsule in November, he settled in for a six-month stay to become the first Black astronaut to live and work on ISS for an extended period of time. (Of the more than 300 NASA astronauts who have been sent to space, only 14 have been Black Americans.)

“It is bittersweet, because I’ve had some amazing colleagues before me that really could have done it, and there are some amazing folks that will go behind me,” Glover, who is serving as pilot and second-in-command on the crew, told The Christian Chronicle in a November story. “I wish it would have already been done, but I try not to draw too much attention to it.”

Before becoming a NASA astronaut, Glover was a commander and test pilot in the U.S. Navy, where he flew 2,000 hours in over 40 aircraft and 24 combat missions. Glover got his bachelors in general engineering from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California and received multiple related graduate school degrees including a masters in flight test engineering from Air University and a masters in Systems Engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School.

It was Glover’s fifth grade science teacher at Allison Elementary in Pomona, California., Mr. Hargrove, who inspired Glover to pursue STEM (an area where Blacks in the U.S. are under-represented, and Black and Latino students drop out of STEM degrees at higher rates than their white peers).

“My interest in math encouraged him to suggest that I consider engineering. At the time…I didn’t know any engineers,” Glover told Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Josh Dobbs during a Jan. 15 interview from aboard the ISS. “[B]ut Mr. Hargrove’s belief in me still continues to resonate with me today and is one of the reasons I chose engineering as a profession.” —Catherine Clifford

Amanda Gorman, 22, youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history

Poet Amanda Gorman.

Photo credit: Getty; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

Storied careers were on full display at the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Joe Biden, from politicians to entertainers with decades of experience under their belts. But the breakout star of the event was Amanda Gorman, who at 22 years old became the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. 

Gorman recited her poem “The Hill We Climb” that called for Americans to “rebuild, reconcile, and recover” from deeply rooted divides and racial inequities, particularly during a time of unprecedented illness, death, political strife and calls for racial justice across the country. Gorman finished writing her poem shortly after the Jan. 6 riots at the Capitol Building and drew inspiration from the speeches of American leaders during other historic times of division, including Abraham Lincoln and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The young poet, author and activist grew up in Los Angeles and began writing as a way to cope with a speech impediment; by age 16 she was named the Youth Poet Laureate of LA, and at 19 she became the first National Youth Poet Laureate while studying sociology at Harvard.

Gorman, who writes about race and gender, was invited to the swearing-in ceremony by First Lady Jill Biden and follows in the footsteps of inaugural poets Maya Angelou and Robert Frost. During her reading, Gorman wore a ring with a caged bird, a gift from Oprah for the occasion and tribute to symbolize Angelou and her autobiographical work “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”

“Here’s to the women who have climbed my hills before,” Gorman tweeted. —Jennifer Liu

Click here to read the full text of Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb.”

Raphael Warnock, 51, Georgia’s first Black senator 

Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock.

Photo credit: Getty; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

In Jan 2021, Reverend Raphael Warnock defeated incumbent Senator Kelly Loeffler in a contentious and highly publicized runoff election. His victory created a path for Democrats to gain control of the Senate and made Warnock the state of Georgia’s first Black senator as well as the first Black Democrat Senator from the South since the Reconstruction Era. 

Warnock, 51, grew up in Savannah, Georgia, graduated from Morehouse College cum laude in 1991 and in 2005 he became the youngest senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church — where Martin Luther King Jr. was once a pastor — since the church was founded in 1886. 

In a live-streamed victory speech, Warnock reflected on the historic nature of his election as well as on his mother, who in the 1950s picked cotton and tobacco. 

“The 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator,” said Warnock. “The improbable journey that led me to this place in this historic moment in America could only happen here.” —Abigail Johnson Hess

Rashida Jones, 39, MSNBC president and first Black woman to run a major cable network

MSNBC President Rashida Jones

Photo credit: MSNBC; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

“Journalism is such a complicated industry,” Rashida Jones said at a 2015 conference at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. “If you really want to be a next-level journalist that’s coloring the history of our world, that’s the only reason you should be on this path.”

In her eight years at MSNBC and her 21 years in the business, that’s exactly what Jones has been doing. On Feb. 1, Jones started her new role as president at MSNBC, making her the first Black woman to lead a major cable network. 

Jones was previously senior vice president of news at MSNBC and NBC News, where she oversaw breaking news coverage, like the coronavirus pandemic and 2020 election. Jones set rating records for two town-hall specials and helped oversee the second presidential debate, during which NBC correspondent Kristen Welker became only the second Black woman to moderate a presidential debate solo. (The first was ABC News journalist Carole Simpson in 1992.) 

Jones has also helped to bring more diversity to MSNBC’s daytime and weekend schedule, like extending Nicolle Wallace’s show, “Deadline: White House” in favor of Chuck Todd’s “Meet the Press Daily” (which moved to another time).

“Rashida fully understands and supports the importance of representation, diversity, and inclusion,” said Dorothy Tucker, president of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) in a statement. “Her promotion is bigger than our industry, it’s the kind of story Black and Brown children everywhere need to see, so they can know what’s possible.” —Taylor Locke

Sandra Lindsay, 52, first American to get the Covid-19 vaccine outside of trials

Sandra Lindsay, critical care nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New York.

Photo credit: Northwell Health; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

“I volunteered myself,” says critical care nurse Sandra Lindsay of becoming the first person in America to get the Covid-19 vaccine outside of a trial on Dec. 14 in Queens, New York.

Lindsay, who emigrated from Jamaica in 1986 and became a nurse in 1994, oversees five critical care nursing units at Long Island Jewish Medical Center. She’s seen how dangerous and erratic the virus can be, so she jumped at the chance to get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

“I didn’t know I was going to be the first in New York state, never mind the United States,” she tells CNBC Make It. 

Lindsay just wanted to lead by example for not only her staff, but also as a Black woman. Black people have been disproportionately impacted by Covid-19 due to racial health disparities and have historically experienced biased treatment by the medical community, which has led to distrust, including of vaccines. A survey published in December by Pew Research Center found that only 42% of Black Americans surveyed said they would get the Covid vaccine, the lowest of any racial or ethnic group.

“It was good that people see me as a Black woman taking it. I’m well aware of what has happened in the past. But I’m not afraid…what I’m afraid of more is getting this virus.” 

Lindsay says since getting the vaccine, she has gotten letters from around the world thanking her for her bravery. But Lindsay says she volunteered for the same reason she became a nurse: She just wanted to help people. —Jade Scipioni 

Nicholas Johnson, 23, Princeton’s first Black valedictorian

Nicholas Johnson, Princeton’s first Black valedictorian

Photo courtesy of: Nicholas Johnson; Phot Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

In May 2020, Nicholas Johnson was announced as Princeton University’s first Black valedictorian in the school’s 275-year history. 

“Being the first Black valedictorian in Princeton’s history feels incredibly empowering, in particular given the university’s historical beginnings and its ties to the institution of slavery. Princeton’s first nine presidents were themselves slave owners, as were many of the institution’s professors during those early years,” the 23-year-old tells CNBC Make It. “The fact that today we have a Black valedictorian goes to show how much work has been done, but also how much work still needs to be done.”

Johnson credits role models such as Princeton professor William Massey for helping him achieve this academic accomplishment. 

The Montreal, Canada native graduated from Princeton in Spring of 2020 and is now earning a doctorate in operations research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Operations research is the study of how to make good decisions with limited information, largely using tools from mathematical optimization,” he explains. “After I finish this program, I envision following an entrepreneurial path, one in which I really leverage my skill set to tackle important problems in health care and finance.” —Abigail Johnson Hess

Cynthia “Cynt” Marshall, 61, first Black woman CEO in the NBA

Dallas Mavericks CEO Cynthia Marshall.

Photo credit: Getty; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

“I need to make sure I’m not the last,” Dallas Mavericks boss Cynt Marshall tells CNBC Make It about making history in 2018 as the first Black woman CEO in the NBA. 

It’s exactly why Marshall launched the Mavs Take Action initiative in June 2020 after the nationwide protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd: to combat systemic inequities. 

“We need an action plan,” says Marshall.

Marshall — a former AT&T executive who was hired by billionaire Mavericks owner Mark Cuban to clean up the workplace culture after an investigation revealed 20 years of sexual harassment and misconduct issues — says the Mavericks organization has pledged a minimum of 10,000 employee volunteer hours and $5 million to support local communities via education, scholarships, mentorship and public policy.

“I have to make sure that I’m mentoring others and helping others to mentor people like me so that we’ll have a second, third, fourth and fifth” Black, female CEO in the NBA, she says. 

Marshall says four things lead to her own success: dreaming big, having focus, prayer and taking action.

“I don’t care where you are, what your zip code is, have big dreams,” says Marshall. —Jade Scipioni 

Click here to learn more about Cynthia Marshall’s journey to becoming CEO of the Dallas Mavericks

Cori Bush, 44, Missouri’s first Black Congresswoman

Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush.

Photo credit: Getty; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim

On January 3, Rep. Cori Bush became the first Black woman sworn into Congress to represent Missouri, serving the state’s first district that includes the St. Louis area. 

The nurse, pastor and longtime community leader became politically active following the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer. 

The Black Lives Matter activist’s road to Congress kicked off with a long-shot campaign for the Senate in 2016 and an unsuccessful 2018 run to unseat Democratic incumbent Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr., who represented the district beginning 2001; prior to that, his father held the seat for 32 years.

But 2020 was different. Amid distress caused by the pandemic, Bush gained momentum with a campaign that prioritized progressive policies including universal basic income, a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All, criminal justice reform and the Green New Deal. 

Her progressive platform comes from personal experience and a reminder that “I am the people I serve,” Bush told days before Missouri’s August primary. “I have lived low-wage. I’ve been unhoused, living out of a car with two children. I have lived uninsured … I’m a victim of violent crime. I’m a survivor of sexual assault and domestic violence. So I’ve been through so many things that have happened here in this community that haven’t really been addressed by our congressperson even though he’s been in that seat for 20 years.”

Bush earned strong support in St. Louis and from Black voters to unseat Clay in Missouri’s Democratic primary, and was elected into her history-making role in November. —Jennifer Liu

Alicia Boler Davis, first Black woman named to Amazon’s senior team, the inner circle that advises Jeff Bezos

Alicia Boler Davis, VP of Global Customer Fulfillment at Amazon.

Photo credit: Getty; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

Alicia Boler Davis has viewed the world like an engineer from the time she was a child fixing broken appliances around the house in Detroit. By high school, she took part in a program with the General Motors Institute and launched her engineering career designing cars for the company. Over 25 years with GM, Boler Davis became the first Black woman to run a manufacturing plant at the company, the senior vice president of customer experience and later executive vice president of global manufacturing.

Boler Davis joined Amazon in 2019 and in August 2020 made history in her appointment as Amazon’s vice president of global customer fulfillment, when she became the first Black woman to join Amazon’s prestigious S-team, a group of executives that advise CEO Jeff Bezos. Her achievement may be a turning point for the company’s diversity efforts: Though Amazon’s workforce consists of roughly 27% Black employees, just over 8% of managers are Black. 

Employees hope Boler Davis’ position of influence will result in more inclusivity in leadership and in addressing allegations of racism at Amazon’s fulfillment centers. Indeed, Boler Davis was known for building strong relationships with the hourly workforce at GM, whom she said contributed to many ideas and improvements in how things were done — a relationship she hopes to bring to Amazon, she told Fortune in November 2020.

“It can be hard being the only one. Whether you’re carrying it around on your shoulders or not, it’s the reality,” she said. Boler Davis has already spoken at Amazon’s employee affinity group meetings and inspired other GM alums to join the e-commerce giant: “I think I’m off to a good start.” —Jennifer Liu

Noah Harris, 21, first Black man to be student body president at Harvard

Noah Harris, Harvard’s first Black male student body president.

Photo credit: Noah Harris; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

In November 2020, Noah Harris, a junior from Hattiesburg, Mississippi became the first Black man elected to serve as Harvard’s student body president in the school’s 384-year history. It’s a title Harris says he is grateful to have earned. 

“It’s an honor to have that title and to recognize that there are so many amazing people who have come before me,” he tells CNBC Make It. “And for it to happen within the last year, with the year of racial reckoning that we’ve had and all that’s going on with the pandemic, it just makes it that much more special.”

When asked about the Black leaders he feels paved the way for him, Harris points to Fentrice Driskell, who was the first Black woman to serve as Harvard’s student body president and currently serves in the Florida House of Representatives — as well as W.E.B. Du Bois. 

“Du Bois was the first Black individual to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard. Of course, he is one of the most amazing leaders in Black political thought in history. And so to have him literally paved the way for people like me is pretty special,” says Harris. 

After graduation, the junior hopes to attend Harvard law but for now, he says “I’m really just trying to make my fellow students proud.” —Abigail Johnson Hess

Click here to read more about Noah Harris’ journey to becoming student body president at Harvard

Mellody Hobson, 51, first Black woman to serve as chair of Starbucks board

Mellody Hobson, co-CEO and president of Ariel Investments and chair of Starbucks board.

Photo credit: Getty; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

In December 2020, Mellody Hobson, president and co-CEO of money management firm Ariel Investments, was named chair of Starbucks board of directors. When she officially steps into the role in March, she will be the first Black woman to hold this position. 

The youngest of six children, Hobson was raised by a single mother in Chicago and credits her financially poor upbringing for driving her into the career she’s in today. 

“It’s no accident I am in the investment management business because as a child I was desperate to understand money,” she said during the 2020 Center for Financial Planning’s Diversity Summit in November. 

Hobson, who graduated from Princeton University in 1991, first joined Ariel Investments as a college intern and spent nearly two decades as the firm’s president before being named co-CEO in 2019. In addition to being the incoming chair of Starbucks board, Hobson serves as a director on JPMorgan Chase’s board and is a chairman of After School Matters, a Chicago non-profit that provides local teens with high-quality, after school programs.

Known for her philanthropic work, Hobson and her foundation, the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation, donated an undisclosed, large gift to her alma mater in Oct. 2020 to establish a new residential college at Princeton. Hobson College, tentatively scheduled to open in the fall of 2026, will be the university’s first residential college named after a Black woman.

“My hope,” she told the university, “is that my name will remind future generations of students — especially those who are Black and Brown and the ‘firsts’ in their families — that they too belong.” —Courtney Connley 

Sydney Barber, 21, U.S. Naval Academy’s first Black female brigade commander

Midshipman Sydney Barber, U.S. Naval Academy’s first Black female brigade commander.

Photo credit: U.S. Naval Academy; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

In the U.S. Naval Academy’s 175-year history, there has never been a Black woman to serve as a brigade commander. But all of that changed this January when Midshipman Sydney Barber stepped into the role. 

“I would compare my job to a student body president at a civilian institution,” she tells CNBC Make It, explaining that she oversees roughly 4,000 midshipman at the Naval Academy. 

Barber, who grew up in Lake Forest, Illinois, says she was inspired by her dad, who graduated from the academy in 1991, to attend the institution. 

“My dad is someone who always believed in me early on and so he will say that he wasn’t surprised [by my position],” says the 21-year-old mechanical engineering major. “But, he started crying first of all on the phone just because he was so proud of me and the opportunity that came ahead.”

Barber explains that like many other Black attendees who walked through the academy’s doors before her, her dad experienced racism during his tenure as a midshipman. Knowing her dad’s experience and the experience of countless other diverse leaders, the 21-year-old says she’s “extremely humbled” by her new opportunity and she doesn’t take the responsibilities of her role lightly. 

“Ms. Janie Mines is another one of my mentors. She’s the first Black female graduate of the Naval Academy,” Barber says. “She’s someone that I speak to often. And she talks about how, at her time at the Academy, she wasn’t even acknowledged or recognized by her peers being that it was a predominantly White male institution.” Mines, who graduated from the academy in 1980, currently manages her own business as an author and executive management consultant. 

“So, I kind of take this as an opportunity to carry on their legacy,” says Barber. “I realize that they blazed the trail for me, and with that I feel a responsibility to continue blazing the trail for those who are coming after me.” —Courtney Connley 

Jesse Collins, 50, first Black executive producer of the Super Bowl halftime show

Jesse Collins, executive producer of the 2021 Super Bowl halftime show.

Photo credit: Getty; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim

Roughly 100 million people tune into the Super Bowl and its halftime show in a given year. In 2021, the most-watched TV concert headlined by The Weeknd will have Jesse Collins at the helm, making him the first Black executive producer of the Super Bowl halftime show.

Collins began his 20-year career in TV writing, which eventually led to producing and becoming founder and CEO of his eponymous entertainment company. He’s known for producing some of the most memorable moments in awards show history, including his Emmy-nominated work for the 61st Grammy Awards in 2019, as well as scripted series, competition shows and news specials like last summer’s “John Lewis: Celebrating A Hero.”

In May 2020, Jesse Collins Entertainment signed a multi-year deal with ViacomCBS Cable Networks to provide production services for BET, CMT, Comedy Central, MTV, Paramount Network, TV Land and VH1. Through the agreement, Collins will produce theatrical films for the first time.

He sees his work as bolstering the current renaissance of Black art, he told Indiewire in June — a movement he aims to make long-lasting.

“This is not some affirmative action type of situation because at the end of the day, we are great storytellers, great actors, actresses, directors,” Collins said. “And we’re creating content that’s reaching audiences previously ignored, and a lot of it is crossing over. So, from a business standpoint, it’s going to make sense, and I think that we might look back at this 20 years from now and say, ‘This was a pivotal moment.'” —Jennifer Liu

Nia DaCosta, 31, first Black woman to direct a Marvel film

Nia DaCosta, director of the upcoming “Captain Marvel 2” film

Photo credit: Getty; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

When Disney’s Marvel Studios tapped Nia DaCosta last year to direct the upcoming “Captain Marvel” sequel (due to hit theaters in 2022), she became the first Black woman director to tackle the Marvel Universe.

Marvel is big business: Nearly two dozen previous Marvel Studios superhero movies collectively grossed over $22.5 billion at the global box office, including $1.1 billion for the first “Captain Marvel” movie.

Yet when Marvel handed DaCosta the keys to its billion-dollar franchise, the 31-year-old had only released one movie in theaters.

In 2015, DaCosta raised roughly $5,000 in a Kickstarter campaign to fund a short film, called “Little Woods,” about two North Dakota sisters who have to cross the Canadian border illegally to obtain medicine for their mother. DaCosta later expanded that into her first feature film in 2018, winning the Tribeca Film Festival’s Nora Ephron award for the best woman writer-director and catching the eye of Academy Award-winner Jordan Peele.

Calling DaCosta a “bold new talent,” Peele hired her to direct and co-write his much-anticipated horror sequel “Candyman.” Of DaCosta’s work on the movie, which will be in theaters in August 2021 after being delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, Peele said: “She’s refined, elegant, every shot is beautiful. It’s a beautiful, beautiful movie.”

Coming off “Candyman,” DaCosta had to mull over the idea of directing another big film like “Captain Marvel 2” when she heard she was being considered for the job, she told The Wall Street Journal. But by the time Marvel made the offer, it was “an immediate yes.” 

“I’m a huge Marvel fan, have been since I was a kid,” she told the Journal, “and I’ve always wanted to direct a Marvel movie.” —Tom Huddleston Jr.

Aicha Evans, 51, first Black woman to run a self-driving car company

Zoox CEO Aicha Evans.

Photo credit: Getty; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

When Aicha Evans agreed to become the new CEO of autonomous vehicle start-up Zoox in 2019, she made history as the first Black woman to run a self-driving car company. In 2020, she sheparded Zoox to a $1.3 billion sale to Amazon.

Now Evans is working with Amazon to realize Zoox’s vision of an autonomous ride-hailing service with its own fleet of fully self-driving electric cars.

Evans, who was born in Senegal and has a computer engineering degree from The George Washington University, previously spent 12 years at Intel. She’s “had to overcome a lot” as a Black woman in tech, she told the Financial Times — it’s an industry (along with the auto industry) known for poor representation of women of color. 

But Evans has also seen opportunity, especially in her ability to bring a different perspective and different ideas, she said.

In joining Zoox, Evans was drawn to the opportunity to “challenge the status quo” with an “autonomous mobility system built from the ground up,” and at a time when the auto industry is at an inflection point with self-driving technology.

“It’s one of those times where you get to catch the wave during the transformation and reinvention,” she told Automotive News. —Tom Huddleston Jr.

Jason Wright, 38, first Black president of a National Football League team 

Washington Football Team president Jason Wright.

Photo credit: Washington Football Team; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

In August 2020, Jason Wright became president of the Washington Football Team, making him the National Football League’s first-ever Black president. At 38, Wright is also currently the youngest president of an NFL team. 

He came into the position with intimate knowledge of the league, having spent seven years as a running back with the Atlanta Falcons, Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals. 

Wright understands business as well: In 2010, he left the NFL to earn his MBA at the University of Chicago. From there, he spent seven years at McKinsey & Company, where he specialized in turning around struggling corporations. With the Washington team, one of his biggest challenges will be to fix the franchise’s culture, which includes handling allegations of sexual harassment and leaving behind the legacy of the team’s racist former name. It’s a tall order, but Wright is optimistic.

He spent his earliest days on the job meeting with employees, gathering facts and developing a plan of attack. He’s committed to making changes and says the team’s owner, Dan Snyder, has given him the leeway to do what he sees fit. That includes creating a human resources department and making the “psychological and emotional well-being” of his employees his No. 1 priority. 

For Wright, this position is “an opportunity to bring together my two worlds in a really unique way,” he said on Good Morning America. “The fact that I happen to be Black and the most qualified person for this is a boost.” —Emmie Martin

Dana Canedy, 55, first Black person to head a major publishing imprint

Dana Canedy, SVP and publisher of the Simon & Schuster trade imprint.

Photo credit: AP; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

In her own words, Dana Canedy’s career path “represents the inclusive progress that many people think is now in peril in America.” She became the first woman and the first person of color — not to mention the youngest — administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes when she took the helm of the century-old institution in 2017. And last year, she became the first Black publisher of a major imprint when she was named senior vice president and publisher of the Simon & Schuster trade imprint. 

Before overseeing Pulitzers, Canedy was a reporter for the New York Times for two decades and won a Pulitzer Prize herself in 2001 for “How Race Is Lived In America,” a year-long project that examined everyday race relations. “When I left my childhood home seeking to write about the country and the world, I had no idea that some of my most meaningful work would involve reporting on race and class,” Canedy wrote in 2017 after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA, turned deadly. “And yet, they are subjects that keep emerging as a powerful theme.” 

Canedy hopes to further explore those themes at Simon & Schuster and broaden the subject matter, authors and forms published (her own bestselling book “A Journal for Jordan” was published by Crown Publishers in 2008 and is being made into a movie directed by Denzel Washington). Though the industry faces many challenges, including its own racial reckoning, Canedy says she is excited about her new role and the possibilities it represents. “I’m somebody who lives with a lot of optimism, enthusiasm and passion,” she told the New Yorker in 2020. “And I don’t think there’s really anything that can rob me of that.” —Alicia Adamczyk 

Bozoma Saint John, 44, Netflix chief marketing officer and first Black C-suite executive at the company

Netflix Chief Marketing Officer Bozoma Saint John

Photo credit: Getty; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

Longtime marketing executive Bozoma Saint John made history in June 2020 when she was hired as Netflix’s chief marketing officer, making her the first Black C-suite executive at the company.

Known as one of the highest-profile marketing executives in the industry, Saint John joined the streaming platform after working at top-tier companies like sports and entertainment firm Endeavor, Uber, Apple and PepsiCo. During her three-year tenure as head of music and entertainment marketing at PepsiCo, Saint John made a name for herself by spearheading endorsement deals with celebrities like Beyonce, Kanye West, Nicki Minaj and the late Michael Jackson. 

As an outspoken advocate for greater diversity and inclusion in the C-suite and beyond, Saint John has used her platform to call on more companies to go beyond lip service when it comes to diversifying their workforce. 

“I want to see more corporations put their money where their mouths are,” she said on CNBC’s “Closing Bell” in June. “Of course talk is cheap. Money isn’t cheap. Money goes to fuel defense. It goes to fuel action. So I want more corporations to put their money where their mouth is.” —Courtney Connley 

Cheick Camara and Ermias Tadesse, 20, co-founders of BlackGen Capital, Cornell University’s first Black investment fund

Cheick Camara and Ermias Tadesse, co-founders of BlackGen Capital.

Photo credit: Cheick Camara and Ermias Tadesse; Photo Illustration: Gene Kim for CNBC Make It

Like many successful college students, Cheick Camara and Ermias Tadesse have taken full advantage of participating in many of the elite financial clubs and organizations at Cornell University. But when they looked around, they noticed they were the only Black and Brown members in the ranks of these clubs, which led the two juniors to launch the school’s first minority-owned investment fund, BlackGen Capital, in 2019. 

“We created BlackGen Capital as a means to expand access to financial literacy education, resources that can empower students to get internships and learn about investing and budgeting and things like that,” Tadesse tells CNBC Make It. 

To help Black and Brown students attain access to financial education opportunities and resources, BlackGen provides its members with a 10-week finance training program, as well as hands-on experience in pitching and managing investment ideas. The organization takes a long-term approach to investing, focusing on small-cap companies that exhibit high growth, Camara says. Profits from the fund are reinvested, as well as used to support BlackGen’s events and initiatives, which include giving back through philanthropy projects.

Within its first year, about 70% of BlackGen’s roughly 64 members have secured jobs and internships on Wall Street thanks to corporate sponsors that include Bank of America, JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley and Wells Fargo, Tadesse says. 

While BlackGen has already shown early success, Camara says they still have big goals. “The issue of diversity and lack of access to resources and opportunities is not exclusive to just Cornell University, but rather, it’s an issue that plays across the entire nation,” he says, adding their next goal is to establish chapters in universities and colleges across the country. —Megan Leonhardt

See also: 

‘Black Wall Street’: The history of the wealthy Black community and the massacre perpetrated there

Juneteenth: The 155-year-old holiday’s history explained

Merck CEO: I was one of ‘a few inner city Black kids’ who rode a bus 90 minutes to a better school—and it changed my life

Disclosure: MSNBC is owned by CNBC’s parent company NBCUniversal.

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