Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For empowering girls to play sports—and encouraging everyone to be themselves on and off the court

They were the social media posts heard around the world: Tennis phenom Naomi Osaka announced in late May 2021 that she was bowing out of the French Open to protect her mental health. In a brutally honest post, she shared that she suffered from crippling bouts of depression. And yet she was still expected to face the gauntlet of reporters, who often had no qualms about asking insensitive questions. "I’ve often felt that people have no regard for athletes’ mental health," she tweeted. "I’m just not going to subject myself to people that doubt me."

It wasn’t the first or the last time the young athlete has used her platform to take a stand. In 2020, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake in the United States, she withdrew from the semifinal round of a tournament. "Before I am an athlete, I am a Black woman," Osaka tweeted. "And as a Black woman I feel as though there are much more important matters at hand that need immediate attention, rather than watching me play tennis." A few weeks later, at the U.S. Open, she wore seven different face masks, each emblazoned with the name of a Black person whose death came to underscore systemic issues of racial injustice.  

Osaka’s advocacy work extends to another matter of social justice: growing girls’ participation in sports. She launched Play Academy in 2020, in partnership with Nike and the nonprofit Laureus Sport for Good, to offer girl-centric athletic programs to budding athletes across the United States, her dad’s native Haiti, and her mother’s native Japan, where Osaka was born. 

She’s flexing her fashion cred, too. In January, Osaka unveiled a new collection of gender-neutral clothing in partnership with Nike, her third collaboration with the brand. And this wasn’t just about slapping her name on a project: Osaka photographed, styled and curated the collection. Last September, she also rolled out her Kinlò skincare line of plant-based products for "melanin-rich skin," and shortly after joined forces with Victoria’s Secret as the brand aims to be more inclusive. 

"I remember going into [Victoria’s Secret] stores when I was a kid and wondering why none of the women on the wall looked like me," she told Women’s Wear Daily after the announcement. "Now, as a collective, we can inspire the next generation from all different backgrounds, cultures and sizes. That represents such progress to me."