Visionary Leadership Award Recipients

The Visionary Leadership Award honors a leader whose trailblazing work impacts the world. The award luncheon and its associated events occur outside the two-week Festival, and proceeds from the award luncheon support The Jean Handley Fund for the International Festival of Arts & Ideas. The award luncheon and associated events connect the Festival's ideas programs to every day impacts on the community.

2022: Sahraa Karimi, Independent Film Director & Screenwriter

A university lector, independent film director and screenwriter from Kabul, Afghanistan, Sahraa Karimi immigrated to the Slovak Republic at Age 17 as a refugee. Here she received her PhD Degree in the field of Cinema (Fiction Film Directing & Screenwriting) from the Academy of Music and Performing Arts, Film and TV Faculty. Karimi then returned to Kabul and established her own Film Production Company, Kapila Multimedia House, to support Afghan independent filmmakers and artists.  She was forced to leave Afghanistan due to the sudden and unexpected fall of Kabul and the return of the Taliban to power and is currently a visiting- professor at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematographia  (Rome National Film School) in Rome, Italy.

2021: Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, Healthcare Hero & Equity Activist

Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, Associate Dean of Health Equity Research at Yale School of Medicine, has spent her life and research focusing on improving health and heath care equity for structurally marginalized populations through supporting healthcare workforce diversity and development, developing patient reported measurements of healthcare quality, and identifying regional strategies to reduce the global burden of non-communicable diseases. She was a co-chair of the Biden-Harris Transition Team’s COVID-19 task force and will co-chair the Biden-Harris administration’s COVID-19 Equity Task Force.

2020: George Takei, actor and activist

Pioneering actor, social media superstar, Grammy-nominated recording artist, and New York Times bestselling author George Takei has appeared in more than 40 feature films and hundreds of television roles, most famously as Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek, and has used his success as a platform to fight for social justice, LGBTQ rights, and marriage equality.

2019: Rosanne Cash, activist, author, and Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter

Rosanne Cash, one of America's pre-eminent singer-songwriters, has released 15 albums of songs that have earned 15 Grammy Award nominations and 4 wins. She is an advocate against gun violence and is a longtime board member of PAX and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. She wrote an op-ed piece on gun control for the New York Times following the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas. Rosanne is also a board member of the Content Creators Coalition (C3), a membership-based, artist-run nonprofit advocacy group representing creators in the digital landscape. In 2014, Cash represented artists in testimony before Congress on intellectual property rights and digital music licensing.

2018: Claudia Rankine, bestselling author and National Book Award-winning poet

Claudia Rankine is the author of plays, video collaboration, and five collections of poetry, including the National Book Award-finalist Citizen: An American Lyric, which was the only poetry book to be a New York Times bestseller in the nonfiction category. Among her numerous awards and honors, Rankine is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim and MacArthur Foundations and the National Endowment of the Arts. She is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and is the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University.

2017: Majora Carter, strategy consultant for Revitalization, real estate developer, and Peabody Award-winning broadcaster

Majora Carter has set new standards of excellence with projects in her South Bronx community, while expanding her reach through philanthropic pursuits and business interests that have all pointed toward greater self-esteem and economic potential for low-income people everywhere. A MacArthur Genius Fellow, Carter is responsible for the creation and successful implementation of numerous green-infrastructure projects, policies, and job training and placement systems.

2016: Sheryl WuDunn, business leader, award-winning journalist, and human rights activist

Sheryl WuDunn, the first Asian-American reporter to win a Pulitzer Prize, is a business executive, lecturer, and bestselling author. She is a senior managing director with Mid-Market Securities, an investment-banking boutique. She has worked at the New York Times in management roles in strategic planning and circulation sales; as editor for international markets, energy, and industry; as an anchor of the Discovery-Times; and as a foreign correspondent in Tokyo and Beijing. She is co-author of A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity and Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.

2015: Angélique Kidjo, singer, songwriter, UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador

Angélique Kidjo was named “Africa’s Premier Diva” by Time Magazine and was the first woman to appear on the list of “40 Most Powerful Celebrities in Africa” (Forbes). Kidjo, who was born in West Africa, combines the familiar sounds of Western music like Jazz and Gospel with traditional West African styles to create a sound that is totally new. In addition to her award-winning music career, Kidjo has served as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2002 and is one of the cofounders of the Batonga Foundation, an organization that empowers women and girls by providing access to secondary and higher education.

2014 : Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films

Sheila Nevins is president of HBO Documentary Films, for Home Box Office, responsible for overseeing the development and production of all documentaries for HBO, HBO2 and Cinemax. As an executive producer or producer, she has received (as of 2014) 26 Primetime Emmy Awards, 31 News and Documentary Emmys, and 37 George Foster Peabody Awards, including a Personal Peabody in 1999 in recognition of her work and ongoing commitment to excellence. During her tenure, HBO's critically acclaimed documentaries won 23 Academy Awards, and she has supervised the production of more than 1,000 documentary programs. Nevins holds a BA from Barnard College and an MFA from Yale University School of Drama in Directing.

2013: Charlayne Hunter-Gault, award-winning journalist and activist

Charlayne Hunter-Gault is an award-winning journalist with more than 40 years of experience. Beginning her journalism career as reporter for The New Yorker, Hunter-Gault went on to be national correspondent for PBS, chief correspondent for CNN and Johannesburg bureau chief and correspondent for NPR. She is also the author of three books: To the Mountaintop: My Journey Through the Civil Rights Movement (2012), New News Out of Africa: Uncovering the African Renaissance (2007) and In My Place, a Memoir of the Civil Rights Movement (1993), fashioned around her experience as the first black woman to attend the University of Georgia.

2012: Jill Abramson, first female executive editor of the New York Times

Jill Abramson was the first female executive editor of the New York Times. She joined the paper in September 1997 and was managing editor from August 2003 until August 2011. Abramson worked at The Wall Street Journal from 1988 to 1997 and won the National Press Club Award for national correspondence in 1992 for political coverage of money and politics. Abramson received a BA in history and literature, graduating magna cum laude, from Harvard College in 1976.

2011: Zainab Salbi, founder of Women for Women International

Zainab Salbi is the founder of Women for Women International, a group dedicated to helping women survivors of war to rebuild their lives. A survivor of war herself, Salbi started Women for Women International in response to the rape and concentration camps in Bosnia in 1993. Since then, the organization has served more than 270,000 (as of 2010) women in eight conflict and post-conflict areas of the world, from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda to Afghanistan and her native country of Iraq.