Inspirational women in business and politics

Jay Directo | AFP | Getty Images

In 1911, March 8 entered the calendar as "International Women's Day," an occasion aimed at celebrating female achievement and working women around the world.

The official theme for 2015 is "Make it Happen" and includes a push for more women in senior leadership roles.

To mark the occasion, CNBC asked a selection of businessmen and women with a range of roles and responsibilities which women inspired them.

Written by Alexandra Gibbs, special to CNBC.com, on March 6, 2015

Helen Keller, Deaf-blind political activist

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Born 1880, died 1968.

Born in 1880, Helen Keller was a U.S. writer and political activist who lost her hearing and sight as an infant. She was the first deaf-blind individual to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Keller helped found the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920 and received the prestigious U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964.

"Helen Keller was a writer and a fighter, which were the two things I admired most in people, men or women, when I was young. Helen was a political provocateur, activist, essayist and lecturer. Reading her 1932 essay "Put your husband in the kitchen", you'd be excused for calling her a prophet. She expanded for me the idea of what a woman with bite and belief could achieve in the world."

- Steph Feeney, Amsterdam-based director of strategy at 72andSunny, a design and advertising agency.

Natalie Jaresko, Finance minister of Ukraine

Natalie Jaresko, Ukraine's finance minister
Chris Ratcliffe | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Born 1965.

Ukraine has been mired in violence and turmoil since the crisis with Russia started in 2014. But that has not deterred Natalie Jaresko from accepting the position of the country's minister of finance at the end of last year.

Since taking the position, Jaresko has managed to work out an international financial aid deal of around $40 billion to help with Ukraine's financial crisis.

She holds a Bachelor's degree in business from De Paul University, Chicago, and a Master's degree from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

"Ukraine has a huge number of problems and it is impressive that she accepted such a difficult job. She has had her hands full, but remains driven, and clearly on a mission to help turn the country around. She is a tough cookie, so if anyone can turn it around, she will."

- Timothy Ash, Head of emerging markets (excluding Africa) at Standard Bank.

Angela Merkel, German Chancellor

German Chancellor Angela Merkel holds a tapping proof BlackBerry mobile device
Julian Stratenschulte | AFP | Getty Images

Born 1954.

Angela Merkel has led Germany since 2005, taking the lead in internationally important issues like the euro zone sovereign debt crisis, the West's sanctioning of Russia and the fight against ISIS and Islamic extremism.

Merkel, who speaks limited English and was raised under the communist regime of the former German Democratic Republic, is frequently ranked as the world's most powerful woman. She is listed by U.S. business magazine Forbes as the fifth most powerful person in the world.

"She is authentic, thoughtful and resolute with incredible gravitas. She's excellent at balancing competing agendas, whilst being articulate, charismatic and very credible. Merkel is a figure of ongoing stability during what has been a challenging political era. This can be demonstrated in the way she's managed to keep the EU together throughout the financial crisis, whilst keeping her own nation on board."

- Paul Devoy, Head of Investors in People, a U.K. non-departmental public body.

Christine Lagarde, IMF Managing Director

Christine Lagarde
Getty Images

Born 1956.

Christine Lagarde is the first female managing director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which aims to secure financial stability across the world and currently has 188 member countries.

Additionally, Lagarde was France's Trade minister during 2005 and 2007, which was followed by her role as the minister of finance from 2007 to June 2011.

She is currently ranked the fifth-most powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine, and the 33rd most powerful person overall.

"What inspires me most about Christine is two things: she has achieved so much in industries that are traditionally male-dominated: law, politics and finance. Her high profile role at the IMF has really put her in the public eye, with all the intrusion that it brings. Also, it is that she is French and therefore working in a foreign language, and trying not to be too French in her professional approach (as she admitted herself)."

- Adeline Ginn, General counsel at Angel Trains and founder of Women in Rail, which aims to help women who work in the rail industry.

Angela Ahrendts, Apple Senior Vice President of Retail and Online Sales

Angela Ahrendts
Leon Neal | AFP | Getty Images

Born 1960.

Angela Ahrendts has worked as the vice-president of retail and online sales at Apple since 2014, following an eight-year stint as CEO of U.K. luxury fashion brand Burberry. Ahrendts is currently ranked the 49th most powerful women worldwide by Forbes magazine.

"Ahrendts reinvigorated Burberry and is galvanizing Apple retail. She's known for her inexhaustible curiosity, fierce work ethic and ability to transcend conventional binaries: she takes risks, innovates and cultivates emerging markets. She's humble, empathetic, but no one doubts that she's the boss. She is an exec to admire: her judgement, values and corporate style are a general model, not a gendered model."

- Tabitha Goldstaub, Co-founder of Rightster, a video-marketing company

Margaret Thatcher, Fmr. UK Prime Minister

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 2010
Dan Kitwood | Getty Images Europe

Born 1925, died 2013.

In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first and, so far, only female U.K. Prime Minister. She remained in power for 11 years—the longest reign of any U.K. Prime Minister since the 1900s—and changed the face of British politics with her staggering strength of will and radical economic policies.

In 1991, she was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"As a Brit growing up in the 1980s it was impossible not to look to her. Described as 'The eyes of Caligula and the lips of Marilyn Monroe' by Francois Mitterrand, whatever one thinks of her politics, her sheer force of will was utterly extraordinary. It was the first time in my life I found a role model for such power and strength in conviction, and in a woman. She weathered the questioning and the undermining, and she did it in her own way – unashamed – leading 60 million people through a decade of radical change."

- Jonny Westcar, London-based managing director at Brand Union, a global branding agency.

Madonna, Singer & businesswoman

Axelle | Bauer-Griffin | Getty Images

Born 1958.

Born in 1958, Madonna Ciccone holds the Guinness World Record for "Best-selling female recording artist," having sold more than 300 million albums worldwide.

However, Madonna is not only a seven-time Grammy award-winning singer, but also an entrepreneur, having established a clothing line called Material Girl and co-founded charity Raising Malawi and a chain of gyms called Hard Candy Fitness.

"Her mastery of brand marketing, changing and repositioning her brand to stay current or actually ahead of trends has meant she's been a defining part of pop culture. She was at the forefront of the explosion of the 'pop-star as mogul and icon' trend of the 1990s to now. She's been strong, soft, masculine, feminine, androgynous, and everything in between. Using her celebrity for both further infamy and for integrity in equal measure shows an innate understanding of her cultural worth as a woman in media."

- Matt Bennett, Co-founder of Wolfpack, a creative agency

Sophie Raworth, British journalist

Jeff Overs | BBC News & Current Affairs | Getty Images

Born 1968.

Born in 1968, Sophie Raworth works as a journalist and presenter for the world-renowned BBC, which she joined as a reporter in 1992 for the broadcasting service's Greater Manchester Radio.

Raworth has been on the scene reporting from the likes of the Queen's Golden Jubilee, and the Royal Wedding of Prince William & Kate Middleton. She is one of the main presenters' of the BBC News at One programme.

She also made a cameo appearance in Die Hard's fifth film installment: 'A Good Day to Die Hard', in 2013.

"The BBC's Sophie Raworth is not only an outstanding journalist, newsreader and presenter, but has a rare natural ability to connect with people of all ages and backgrounds. Her confident, knowledgeable and warm personality ensures she always gets the best from whomever she is interviewing. She is a role model for women and men alike in the media and beyond."

- James Brooke, Managing director of Rooster PR, a public relations agency

Alice Bentinck, Tech entrepreneur

Anthony Harvey | Getty Images for TechCrunch/North America | Getty Images

Alice Bentinck co- founded Entrepreneur First in 2011, billed as the first U.K.-wide startup accelerator program for graduates. After finding that women were not applying for the program, often due to a lack of technical skills, she co-founded Code First: Girls, which offers free training and events in web development and entrepreneurship for women.

"Alice is hugely inspirational both for her entrepreneurial ability and also her passion. She once said 'Be a founder, not a follower', which rings true for us at eHarmony."

- Romain Bertrand, Managing Director at dating website eHarmony.co.uk

Debbie Smith, Advocate for sexual assault victims

Credit: Debbie and Rob Smith | H-E-A-R-T: The Debbie Smith Act

Born 1955.

In 1989, Debbie Smith was raped by a masked stranger in Virginia, U.S.; despite giving DNA evidence her attacker was not identified until six years later. Since then, Smith has campaigned for the elimination of delays and backlogs in DNA testing in the criminal system, and founded H-E-A-R-T, an organization that supports rape victims.

In 2004, the U.S. federal government initiated the "Debbie Smith Act," which conducts DNA analyses of backlogged DNA.

"Debbie Smith has worked tirelessly to solve the nation's rape-kit testing backlog. Thanks to her work, and the federal law named in her honor, thousands of victims have gotten justice and their rapists have been locked up. America is a safer place thanks to Debbie. We are inspired by her, and grateful for all she does for sexual assault survivors."

— Scott Berkowitz, Founder of RAINN, a support network for victims of sexual assault

All Women Worldwide

Credit: Women for Women | Democratic Republic of Congo / International Women's Day

"Women who stand up to help their families and communities move forward, recover, and rebuild after war and conflict inspire me every day. Their courage, strength, and resilience reminds me of the power every woman has to change the world."

- Jennifer L. Windsor, CEO of Women for Women International, a nonprofit humanitarian organization