'Take a chance': Lessons from Simone Biles, Melinda French Gates, Nina Garcia and other USA TODAY Women of the Year

I'm USA TODAY editor-in-chief Nicole Carroll, and this is The Backstory, insights into our biggest stories of the week. If you'd like to get The Backstory in your inbox every week, sign up here.

Here's the thing about successful women: So many have achieved great things because of adversity, not despite it.

They've faced challenges or setbacks that made them fight harder, dig deeper. They've used those learnings, that grit, to achieve great things in their fields or their communities. 

That's certainly true for USA TODAY's Women of the Year. We've been sharing their stories throughout March, Women's History Month. We've compiled their insights into a special video show, and next week you can hear them in a series of podcasts.

USA TODAY’s Women of the Year honorees. Top: Janet Murguía, Melinda French Gates, Rosalind Brewer. Middle: Kizzmekia Corbett, Simone Biles, Kamala Harris, Nina Garcia. Bottom:  Roopali Desai, Rachel Levine, Cheryl Horn, Linda Zhang, Heather Cox Richardson.

Here are some of my favorite lessons from this year's honorees: 

What is your definition of courage? 

Melinda French Gates, global advocate for women and girls:

"Knowing you're going to step into something really hard and you do it anyway. Whether that's a difficult meeting or a courageous conversation or using your voice. For me, it's been using my voice on some things that maybe weren't that popular or people weren't going to like me or have a different opinion.

"Like the first time I spoke out about contraceptives. I believe in them, we use them in the United States, but I'm also Catholic. And the Catholic church doesn't necessarily condone condoms or contraceptives. So I had to learn to just go ahead and use my voice on what I knew to be true, because I had heard it from so many women around the world where I'd be meeting with them and they'd say, 'Are you kidding? Why can't I get contraceptives at this little health clinic anymore? Don't you see, I have too many kids. It's a life and death situation for me. I can't feed my kids.'"

Kizzmekia Corbett, helped develop the COVID-19 vaccine, saving millions of lives:

"Faith's little sister. Courage is the strength to do what faith says you have to do."

Rosalind Brewer, CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance:

"I really think about doing the right thing when no one is listening, when you don't have an audience, when it's just you, and you're not influenced by, you know, will I get a promotion? Will I show up on social media? Did I say the right thing?"

Simone Biles, most accomplished female gymnast of all time and mental health advocate:

"I think it would be believing in yourself, and no matter what you do, you stand on your own. For me, I've always been very outspoken, and I've always tried to stay true to myself between either fame, gymnastics, awards, whatever that is. But I've always firmly believed in standing on my own. And if I ever put my mind to something, then going after that, not changing who I am, having courage to speak up, speak out, even if you're the only one doing that. Because it can be very daunting, especially with social media nowadays."

USA TODAY's Women of the Year: Meet all the honorees

What advice would you give your younger self?

Cheryl Horn, advocate for missing Indigenous women in Montana:

"Love yourself more. You grew up as a brown girl with dreams and hopes. You have to do things that you can feel good about because teenage years are the most crucial years of a girl's life. If I could do that all over, I'd tell myself, 'You're stronger than you think and the road ahead is so great. It's all up to you. Today isn't the rest of your life.' ... This is just one little page in your whole book of life.' "

Linda Zhang, chief engineer behind the all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning:

"I think I would tell myself not to sweat so much about the small things. I think one of the things as far as getting older is that perspective and really understanding that there's a lot of things that when you're young you stress out about that really at the end of the day, it's just small potatoes. And to focus on the big stuff, focus on what makes – in this case – me happy and to go after it."

Nina Garcia, editor-in-chief of Elle magazine:

"Say yes to the opportunities that come your way. I think sometimes we are so scared to take a chance on something that makes us feel nervous or uncomfortable because we don't know how to do it, right? An opportunity might come back and you're like, no, I don't know how to do that. I'm going to say, no.

"I think say yes because those are the opportunities that really make you grow. Those are the opportunities that are worth examining. Those that make your stomach have butterflies and then make you nervous and doubt yourself. Say yes, say yes. That's an opportunity to learn."

DO YOU KNOW AN INSPIRING WOMAN? Nominate her to be among the next USA TODAY Women of the Year

Do you have a guiding principle or mantra?

Heather Cox Richardson, author, historian and professor of American history at Boston College:

"Not a mantra, but there is a guiding principle for sure. And that is that I believe fervently in human self-determination. I firmly believe that humans have the right to decide how they are going to live their lives, and that democracy is the system of government that is most likely to enable us to do that. Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Do people make good decisions all the time? Absolutely not.

"But I believe we have the right to make those decisions. And that what is most important to me is preserving people's right to make their own decisions about their own lives based in reality, and to try and support democracy as part of that system to enable people to have self-determination."

Janet Murguía, president and CEO of UnidosUS, the largest national Hispanic advocacy organization in the U.S.:

"My guiding principle is a word in Spanish. It's called 'adelante,' and it means keep moving forward. Keep pushing forward. For me, internally, it means never give up. You just can never give up.

"And I think it reflects, ultimately, my sense of optimism and belief in a bigger, brighter future, and the fact that we have to work toward it. My dad had a saying that he shared that I often recall. In Spanish, it's 'el sol sale para todos.' He says the sun shines for everyone, but you have to be determined and you have to work to get out there and seek what you want."

Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

"I think that the guiding principle would be compassion for others and to help others to serve and to help others. And that's what I have really always tried to do in all aspects of my life, to consider other people and to do the best that I can to help them."

Roopali Desai, Arizona attorney who defended the integrity of the 2020 presidential election: 

"Pay it forward. I think that I always try to think about doing something because it's the right thing to do, with the idea that it will make things better for all of us later, versus having a transactional approach to the work I do. I'm sure there are many times where I could have called in a favor to be able to get elevated into a position or a job or a client, but I don't do that. I really try to make decisions about the cases I'm working on, the boards that I sit on, the activities that I participate in based on whether it's the right thing to do and whether it will result in positivity or goodness down the road."

Women of the Year honorees:Diverse stories, similar threads connect them all

Make a statement:Shop our exclusive Women of the Year merchandise collection

What do you want to tell American women? 

Kamala Harris, first female vice president of the United States:

"Know you are not alone. Know that you are supported and know that your voice is strong. It's strong, and don't let any circumstance diminish that or take your power from you. You are powerful. You are powerful.

"And when we all stand together ... that's when we are our best selves. And so let's continue to know we are not alone. We are all in this together. And keep doing what you do, because you have an incredible amount of courage. You have an incredible amount of conviction. You are dedicated. And so know that that is the sign of strength.

"The measure of strength in my opinion is based not on who you beat down, it's based on who you lift up. And I know you're lifting up people every day.

"You are strong."

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Nicole Carroll is the editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. Reach her at EIC@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter here. Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe here.