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Serena Williams, Kylie Jenner, Sundar Pichai: 20 people who changed the 2010s

They shaped the decade in fields like politics, technology and business, changing the course of the world in many ways

Published: Jan 4, 2020 07:23:44 AM IST
Updated: Jan 6, 2020 02:22:45 PM IST

Serena Williams, Kylie Jenner, Sundar Pichai: 20 people who changed the 2010sImage: Getty Images

Serena Williams
Tennis player
The winner of 23 major single tennis titles, including 11 single Grand Slams, Serena Williams has been ranked World No 1 eight times between 2002 and 2017, making her one of the greatest players of the game. In the past decade she has displayed her business acumen by investing in 34 start-ups, through Serena Ventures, while also starting her self-funded direct-to-consumer clothing line called S by Serena in 2018. Known for her sartorial choices on court, she became the centre of further attention when it was learnt that she was 8 weeks pregnant when she won the Australian Open in January 2017. Through her posts on social media and interviews, Williams has been candid about discussing issues such as postpartum depression and other medical difficulties.

Serena Williams, Kylie Jenner, Sundar Pichai: 20 people who changed the 2010sImage: Danny Moloshok / Reuters

Kylie Jenner
She shot to the limelight in her teens with the reality television show Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Jenner turned entrepreneur in 2013 with a clothing line co-created with her sister Kendall for the retail company PacSun, called Kendall+Kylie. The success of her beauty brand Kylie Cosmetics, launched in 2015, led to Forbes counting her as one of the youngest ‘self-made’ billionaires in the world. Jenner recently sold a major stake in the company for $600 million, leading to Kylie Cosmetics being valued at $1.2 billion. With over 154 million followers on Instagram, she is also among the top 10 ‘most followed’ celebrities on the social media platform.

Serena Williams, Kylie Jenner, Sundar Pichai: 20 people who changed the 2010sImage:Brandon Wade / Reuters

Sundar Pichai
CEO, Alphabet, parent company of Google
In December 2019, Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google since 2015, took over the additional reins of the parent company Alphabet, capping a decade of unprecedented success. The Madurai born, IIT-Kharagpur and Stanford graduate will take home $2 million (more than ₹14 crore) in annual salary starting 2020, and a staggering $240 million (over ₹1,707 crore) in performance-based stock awards over the next three years. The elevation for Pichai comes at a time when Google is facing intense scrutiny from lawmakers and activists over anti-trust issues, and privacy and data tracking policies.

Serena Williams, Kylie Jenner, Sundar Pichai: 20 people who changed the 2010sImage: Lam Yik Fei / Getty Images

Joshua Wong Chi-fung
The 23-year-old serves as the secretary general of Demosistō, a pro-democracy organisation in Hong Kong. Joshua Wong Chi-fung came into the limelight during the Umbrella or Occupy Movement in 2014 when he protested against restrictive electoral reforms. He was even included in Time magazine’s list of most influential teens that year. In August 2017, the Nobel Peace Prize nominee was jailed for six months for storming the government headquarters compound at Tamar Park which sparked a 79-day protest. During the 2019 Hong Kong protests, he convinced US politicians to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

Colin Kaepernick
The American football quarterback, who is currently a free agent, played six seasons for the San Francisco 49ers in the National Football League (NFL) till 2017. In their third pre-season game in 2016, Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the US national anthem to protest against racial injustice and systematic oppression in the country. He did that throughout the season. Kaepernick even filed a grievance against the NFL and its owners, accusing them of conspiring to keep him out of the league. In February 2019, he reached a settlement with them and withdrew the complaint.

Serena Williams, Kylie Jenner, Sundar Pichai: 20 people who changed the 2010sImage: Shutterstock

Mark Zuckerberg
Co-founder and CEO, Facebook
It was a decade that belonged to the Facebook CEO and co-founder. Mark Zuckerberg became controversy’s poster child for various reasons. From listing Facebook in 2012 to buying Instagram and WhatsApp, he attracted headlines for professional reasons. But he was also the recipient of a lot of outrage following a battery of scandals and accusations: Mishandling user data in the Cambridge Analytica Scandal and his role in influencing the 2016 US Presidential election. Zuckerberg was criticised for not fact-checking political advertisements and an alleged psychological experiment conducted on non-consenting users.  

Felix Kjellberg (PewDiePie)
Felix Kjellberg, popularly known as PewDiePie, is a Swedish YouTube star whose claim to fame is his comedy and video game commentaries. Kjellberg set up his YouTube account under the name ‘PewDiePie’ in 2010, and uploaded his first video, called Let’s Play, about the game Minecraft. A student of industrial economics and technology management at the Chalmers University of Technology at the time, he quit academics a year later. By 2013, his channel was the most subscribed on YouTube, a title he held until 2019 when he lost it to the YouTube channel of music company T-Series. Even as he has faced flak over insensitive and racist language usage, as on date, Kjellberg’s channel has over 102 million subscribers.

Serena Williams, Kylie Jenner, Sundar Pichai: 20 people who changed the 2010sImage: Al-Furqan Media / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi
Leader, now deceased, of Isis
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the self-styled “caliph” and among the world’s most wanted, unleashed a reign of terror through the larger part of the decade by torturing and killing millions and generating billions of dollars from oil trade, extortion and kidnapping through the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), the militant organisation he led. At its peak, Isis controlled a territory of 88,000 sq km, stretching all the way from western Syria to eastern Iraq, and orchestrated terror attacks all across the globe. On October 27, Baghdadi, who reportedly had a $25 million bounty on his head, killed himself during a raid by US Special Forces in Syria.

Serena Williams, Kylie Jenner, Sundar Pichai: 20 people who changed the 2010sImage: Shutterstock

Donald Trump
President, United States of America
Donald Trump, the 45th president of the US, is also its third to face impeachment. But this isn’t the first time the 73-year-old, who will face trial for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, has made the headlines for the wrong reasons. Ever since his accession to presidency, Trump has split the country down the middle with his foreign policy, hard line on immigrants, efforts to erase the legacy of his predecessor Barack Obama and his fractious relationship with the liberal press and the civil society that includes a recent insult to teen climate activist Greta Thunberg. Despite a restive stint, Trump is likely to seek a second term as the US braces for the presidential elections in November 2020.

Serena Williams, Kylie Jenner, Sundar Pichai: 20 people who changed the 2010sImage: Shutterstock

Emilia Clarke
English actor Emilia Clarke became a household name over the past nine years, thanks to her portrayal of Daenerys Targaryen in the runaway hit TV series Game of Thrones (GoT). She has been nominated for several Primetime Emmy Awards and Screen Actor Guild Awards, winning many along the way. She has also acted in several movies, including the surprise hit Last Christmas in 2019. Following the end of GoT in early 2019, Clarke wrote in The New Yorker about suffering a subarachnoid haemorrhage caused by a ruptured aneurysm in 2011, soon after starting to shoot for GoT. She has been actively championing the cause and has started an NGO called SameYou to provide treatment for people recovering from brain injuries and strokes.

Serena Williams, Kylie Jenner, Sundar Pichai: 20 people who changed the 2010sImage: Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Jack Ma
Co-Founder, Alibaba Group
Known for his rags-to-riches story, Jack Ma—who started out as an English teacher earning $12 a month—is the founder of one of the world’s largest ecommerce businesses. He set a record for the world’s biggest initial public stock offering, by raising $25 billion, when he listed Alibaba in 2014. The company is China’s largest digital marketplace—accounting for 80 percent of all online sales in the country—and makes Ma the country’s richest person. Although he is known for his modest lifestyle, in 2015 he reportedly bought a house in Hong Kong’s most expensive neighbourhood, for $191 million, breaking the record for the most expensive home (by price per square foot) in Asia. In September 2019, Ma stepped down as Alibaba’s executive chairman, and was succeeded by CEO Daniel Zhang. Through the Jack Ma Foundation, formed in 2014, he has pledged more than $44 million to the Zhejiang University Hospital and to rural Chinese teachers.

Serena Williams, Kylie Jenner, Sundar Pichai: 20 people who changed the 2010sImage:Michael Regan / Getty Images

Lionel Messi
The footballer earned the moniker GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) in the sport this decade. The Argentinian forward holds a record number of the Ballon d’Ors, an annual award presented by France Football, which was merged with FIFA World Player of the Year between 2010 and 2015. Messi won the award for four consecutive years since 2009, and in 2015 and 2019. In 2012, at the age of 25, he created history by becoming the first player to score five goals in a single Champions League game. Messi is also Argentina’s top scorer currently with 68 goals, which is almost double that of Argentinian legend Diego Maradona.

Mukesh Ambani
Reliance Industries Chairman and Managing Director Mukesh Ambani’s biggest and most visible impact in the last decade has been in the telecom sector, with the launch of Reliance Jio in 2016. Jio changed the way people in India use the internet with its affordable mobile d  ata plans and cheap handsets. Now, Ambani is taking steps to upgrade Jio to 5G. Reliance Industries [owner of Network 18, which publishes Forbes India] also has an expanding presence in the retail industry, with over 10,000 stores for electronics and fashion, apart from petroleum dealerships. With a net worth of $51.4 billion, Ambani has topped the Forbes India Rich List for 12 consecutive years.

Serena Williams, Kylie Jenner, Sundar Pichai: 20 people who changed the 2010sImage: Shutterstock

Elon Musk
Co-founder and CEO, Tesla
The serial entrepreneur, known best for pushing electric vehicles into the public imagination, thanks to his Palo Alto-based automotive and energy company Tesla Inc, was ranked the world’s most innovative person (along with Amazon founder Jeff Bezos) by Forbes in 2019 for revolutionising concepts around transportation, on earth and in space. The past decade has seen him launch a few more companies, along with envisioning a high-speed transportation system called Hyperloop. In 2018, however, he faced some controversy. In July that year, he got his company to build a rescue pod for 12 Thai school children stuck in a flooded cave, but lashed out on Twitter against one of the rescue advisors who criticised the pod. In the same year, he settled with the Securities and Exchange Commission for making alleged false statements about a plan to take Tesla private, and had to step down as chairman of the company.

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Xi Jinping
President, China
Since his ascendancy in 2012, Xi Jinping has consolidated his grip on China, making him one of the most powerful leaders in the country and also the world. Soon after his election, Xi launched sweeping anti-corruption reforms jailing about 266,000 party members, including political rivals. While the 60-year-old put brakes on China’s market-oriented reforms that led to an economic slowdown in the country, the ruling Communist Party, in 2018, removed a constitutional clause limiting his stint to two terms, allowing him to continue beyond 2023. With the trade war with the US and the protests in Hong Kong raging, XI will have a critical role to play in world politics in the coming decade as he did in the past.

Serena Williams, Kylie Jenner, Sundar Pichai: 20 people who changed the 2010sImage: Shutterstock

Taylor Swift
Pop star
Multiple Grammy-winning artist Taylor Swift ended 2019 on a high. Her seventh album, Lover, was the year’s only record to sell more than one million “pure” copies—that is, CD, vinyl and downloads, not including streams—in the US. She also made history at the 2019 American Music Awards for the most all-time wins (29), shattering the record of the late Michael Jackson (24). After losing control of her first six albums to music mogul Scooter Braun, who snapped up the rights through a private equity deal, Swift has persuasively argued about artists’ rights to own their own music. By criticising the “toxic male privilege” in the music industry and publicly taking swings at tech giants Apple and Spotify in the past, the pop star has empowered a new generation of artists to voice out and fight for their rights.

Serena Williams, Kylie Jenner, Sundar Pichai: 20 people who changed the 2010sImage: Amit Verma

Mary Kom
MC Mary Kom made history last year when she became the first in boxing history to win eight medals at the world championships. Over the years her sporting triumphs—medals at the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and numerous other international events—have moved the focus away from cricket—India’s obsession—and onto boxing. Importantly, the Manipuri boxer’s bronze medal win at the 2012 London Olympics and her teary-eyed apology for not winning gold won hearts back home and shone the spotlight on the relatively isolated and fragile north-east Indian states. From working in the fields to support her family to struggling without a proper kit in the early years of her training and being taunted for playing a “masculine sport”, Kom has repeatedly fought biases—and the system—to emerge an inspiration. She now has her eyes set on the 2020 Olympics.

'Many old-style conglomerates will be out of the Nifty in this decade'

Virat Kohli
India’s Tests and One-day cricket captain Virat Kohli is also ICC’s highest ranked batsman thanks to several years of accumulating runs with brutal consistency across all formats of the game. In June 2019, he became the fastest to 20,000 international runs (Tests + ODIs and T20Is combined), beating modern greats Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. Being one of the few cricketers who insists on representing India across all three formats, Kohli is believed to have a complete range of shots which suit all pitch conditions, which has helped him amass runs across cricket playing nations. In 2018-19, Kohli became the first Indian captain to ever win a Test series in Australia, beating them 2-1. In 2011, he was also the first Indian to score a century in his first World Cup match against Bangladesh. Kohli received the Arjuna Award in 2013, the Padma Shri under the sports category in 2017, and the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna in 2018. Beyond cricket, he is the co-owner of the Indian Super League team FC Goa and the co-owner of the International Premier Tennis League franchise UAE Royals.

Serena Williams, Kylie Jenner, Sundar Pichai: 20 people who changed the 2010sImage: Pavel Golovkin / Pool / Reuters

Narendra Modi
Prime Minister, India
Narendra Modi had a thumping election victory in 2014, and swept to power again in 2019. The charismatic leader was re-elected following his bold first term in office and a non-corrupt, predevelopment narrative. He brought in the much-needed GST in 2017, but its implementation has resulted in some pain for the economy in the near term. Modi’s promise of bringing more jobs and “acche din” to the people has yet to pan out and, as 2019 came to a close, the leader had to contend with public uproar over the Citizen (Amendment) Act that allows illegal migrants of all faiths, except Muslims, from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan to claim Indian citizenship, and confusion on the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). At a rally in Delhi in December, Modi said that an NRC was not in the works.

Kim Jong-un
North Korean leader
Kim Jong-un took over the mantle of North Korean leadership following the death of his father Kim Jong-il, in 2011, and subsequently strengthened North Korea’s position as a nuclear power: Through the decade, the country is said to have conducted six nuclear and several missile tests. In that year, the US-North Korea acrimony reached its peak after one of its missiles was said to have had the US within its range; it invited the wrath of President Donald Trump and stringent UN sanctions. Since then, the two leaders have met thrice, once at the historic de-militarised zone, to dial down tensions, but as the 2020 deadline looms, there has been little progress.

(Compiled by: Naini Thaker, Namrata Sahoo, Naandika Tripathi, Pranit Sarda, Rajiv Singh, Varsha Meghani)

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(This story appears in the 17 January, 2020 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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