Skip to content

List of 40 Risk-Takers

We asked our readers for the names of people currently and in history they would consider exemplary risk-takers. Following are thumbnail biographies of the submissions, plus a few others we added in to round out the list.

Muhammed Ali

A boxer, known as one of the best athletes of the 20th century. Ali was an Olympic gold medalist and heavyweight boxing champion. He was also an activist and philanthropist who spoke out against the Vietnam War and raised funds for Parkinson’s research after being diagnosed with the disease in 1984.

Neil Armstrong

An astronaut and the first man to set foot on the moon in 1969. Armstrong trained as a pilot for the Navy, eventually entering the NASA astronaut program. After his career as an astronaut, Armstrong taught as a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

A Neo-Expressionist artist who first gained attention from his graffiti artwork around New York City. His collaborations with Andy Warhol in the 1980s brought more popularity to his work. Basquiat is credited with showcasing the Latino and African-American experience through his artwork.

Warren Buffett

A businessman, philanthropist and one of the richest people in the world. Buffett formed Buffett Partnership Ltd. in 1956 and oversaw its growth before eventually acquiring and merging with the company Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett has a net worth of around $84 billion and has so far given away around $28 billion to charity.

RuPaul Andre Charles

David Shankbone – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2998367

RuPaul Andre Charles is an American drag queen, most famous for his reality competition show, RuPaul’s Drag Race. RuPaul is considered the most commercially successful drag queen in the United States. His fame and television shows have given exposure to the LGBTQ community through queer representation.

Cesar Chavez

An American union leader, labor organizer, and Latino American civil rights activist. When he was young, Chavez and his family toiled in the fields as migrant farmworkers. Devoting his life to improving treatment, pay and working conditions for farm workers, he co-founded the United Farm Workers Union.

Marie Curie

A Polish physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel prize and is the only woman to win the Nobel prize twice. She developed the theory of radioactivity and techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes. She also discovered two elements, polonium and radium.

Ellen DeGeneres

Rose to popularity as a standup comedian when she starred on her own sitcom, Ellen. In 1997, she came out as gay, and became an advocate of LGBTQ rights. Despite a supportive audience and an Emmy Award, Ellen was canceled in 1998, but was reinstated in 2003. Since its inception, the show has won a slew of awards, including a record 11 Daytime Emmys.

Frederick Douglass

This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration

Born into slavery in Maryland, Frederick Douglass was leader in the abolitionist movement. He became one of the most famous intellectuals of his time, advising presidents and lecturing to thousands on a range of causes, including women’s rights and Irish home rule. His first autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was a bestseller in the country.

W. E. B. Du Bois

An African American rights activist who co-founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Becoming the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895, he publicly opposed the “Atlanta Compromise,” that asserted that vocational education for blacks was more valuable than social advantages like higher education.

Amelia Earhart

The first female pilot to fly over the Atlantic Ocean in 1928 and the first woman to fly solo over the Atlantic in 1932. Earhart was only the 16th woman to receive a pilot’s license. Her celebrity as a female aviator helped progress the cause of women in aviation.

Gertrude Ederle

Source: Wikimedia Commons

An American Olympic swimmer who became the first woman to cross the English Channel in 1926. She completed the swim in 14 hours and 31 minutes, beating records set by the previous male swimmers. For years “America’s Queen of the Waves” was a sports star and her record remained unbroken until 1950.

Dwight Eisenhower

The Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe during WWII and the 34th president of the United States. He advocated for the peaceful use of atomic energy, arranged an armistice that calmed South Korea’s border and worked with the crises that were facing Lebanon at the time. Eisenhower served two terms, elected by a landslide vote each time.

Thomas Edison

An inventor and businessman, most famously known for being the inventor of the first practical incandescent light bulb and the phonograph. Edison contributed to the industrial revolution of the late 1800s and is credited with helping build America’s economy during the time. Over the course of his life, Edison patented over 1,000 of his inventions.

Bill Gates

A computer programmer who founded Microsoft, the world’s largest software business, with his business partner Paul Allen. Becoming one of the wealthiest people in the world in the process, Gates eventually stepped down from his position as chairman of Microsoft in order to focus on philanthropic pursuits at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Alex Honnold

Bengt Oberger – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84791574

A professional rock climber and is the first person to free solo – climbing without a rope – the 3000 ft tall El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. He starred in the Emmy-nominated film “Alone on the Wall” and is the founder of the Honnold Foundation, an environmental non-profit.

Grace Hopper

An American computer scientist and United States Navy rear admiral. She was one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer. She invented the first computer compiler, a program that translates written instructions into codes that computers read directly.

Steve Jobs

An inventor, entrepreneur and the co-founder of Apple Computers. Jobs left the company in 1985 to start Pixar, but eventually returned to Apple in 1997 and created revolutionary products like the iPod and iPhone. Jobs began his battle with pancreatic cancer in 2003, eventually succumbing to the disease in 2011.

Katherine Johnson

NASA; restored by Adam Cuerden – http://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/thumbnails/image/1966-l-06717.jpeg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47431407

A mathematician and computer scientist. She calculated and analyzed spacecraft flight paths for the U.S. space program and was the first woman in her division to receive credit as the author of a research report. Johnson and the West Area Computing Unit, an all-black group of women who did calculations for the engineers in the program, did work that helped put astronauts on the moon.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Nobel Foundation, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9719576

A pastor and Civil Rights activist in Montgomery, Alabama. His non-violent activism, eloquent speeches and role in the Montgomery bus boycott created strong enthusiasm and made him a symbolic leader of the movement. King was assassinated in 1968, but his progression toward racial equality left a lasting impression on America.

Evel Knievel

An American stunt performer and entertainer who attempted more than 75 ramp to ramp motorcycle jumps. Becoming an international icon for his motorcycle stunts in 1960, Knievel took on colorful challenges like jumping over a box of rattlesnakes a caged cougar a row of buses and the Snake River Canyon.

Lewis and Clark

In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out to explore the lands west of the Mississippi River that comprised the Louisiana Purchase. This marked the beginning of the 8000-mile-long journey, the Lewis and Clark expedition, out of which came out invaluable information about North America. Their journey was riddled with challenges like harsh weather, starvation and disease.

Abraham Lincoln

The 16th president of the United States. During his time as president, Lincoln brought about the emancipation of slaves and helped preserve the Union while the Civil War raged. His life was cut short before he could work on reuniting the nation when John Wilkes Booth, a Confederate sympathizer, assassinated him in 1865.

Ada Lovelace

Alfred Edward Chalon – Science Museum Group, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28131684

Considered to be the first computer programmer, introducing and writing instructions for many of the foundational concepts on which the field of computer science was based. Her notes did not get much attention while she was alive, but they were rediscovered and republished in the 1950s. Lovelace has received many posthumous acknowledgements for her discoveries, including having a computer language named after her.

Nelson Mandela

A South African anti-apartheid revolutionary who was also the President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. As the country’s first black head of state, Mandela’s government fought institutionalized racism and fostered racial reconciliation. In his struggle to end apartheid in South Africa, he spent 27 years of his life in jail.

Harvey Milk

Ted Sahl, Kat Fitzgerald, Patrick Phonsakwa, Lawrence McCrorey, Darryl Pelletier – http://digitalcollections.sjlibrary.org

One of the first openly gay elected officials in U.S. history, elected in 1977 to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Milk was a political advocate for the LGBTQ community in San Francisco, initiating anti-discrimination measures that helped protect gay rights.

Lin Manuel Miranda

Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80814003

An American actor, writer and performer, best known for his musical, Hamilton, which tells the story of Alexander Hamilton through a black and Latino cast and hip-hop and rhythm and blues numbers. Hamilton was nominated for a record-breaking 16 Tony Awards, and Miranda personally was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and 11 Tonys for the musical.

Annie Oakley

A markswoman who become well-known for her sharpshooting. At the age of eight, Oakley started hunting and would sell the game she shot to help earn money for her family. She also defeated traveling-show marksman Frank E. Butler, whom she later married. At the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, she would shoot glass balls out of the air and shoot cigarettes out of her husband’s mouth.

Rosa Parks

A civil rights activist who was brought to fame when she refused to give up her bus seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. Her arrest for this act led to the Montgomery bus boycott, which lasted for 381 days and ended with the Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public transportation is unconstitutional. Parks continued to be an active member of the Civil Rights movement for the rest of her life.

Dolly Parton

An American singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, actress, author, businesswoman, and humanitarian. Best known for thoughtful narratives and distinctive vocals, she has won many major awards and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999. She has garnered nine Grammy Awards and has composed over 3000 songs.

Alice Paul

A women’s rights activist who campaigned for the 19th Amendment to the U.S. constitution that granted women the right to vote. In 1917, Paul and over 1000 “Silent Sentinels” picketed the White House and was later sentenced to jail for seven months. As a leader of the National Woman’s Party, she fought for the Equal Rights Amendment to attain constitutional equality for women.

Philippe Petit

A French high wire artist who gained fame for his high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, walking 1300 ft above the ground on a thin wire for 45 minutes. Called the “artist crime of the century,” his unauthorized feat became a news sensation. Petit has performed high-wore walks around the world including Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia.

Sacagawea

A Shoshone woman who captured an enemy tribe at the age of twelve. She was also the only woman on the Lewis and Clark expedition and served as a Shoshone interpreter for them. She was featured in a dollar coin issued in 2000 by the U.S. mint.

Sally Ride

An astronaut and physicist and the first woman in space during the Challenger shuttle mission in 1983, after earning a spot in NASA’s prestigious space program. Later, Ride became the director of the California Space Institute at the University of California, San Diego and a physics professor. She also started a company to inspire girls in the areas of science and math.

Joan Rivers

Roy Silver – The Historic Images Outlet, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54279003

An American comedian, actress, writer, producers and television host. In 1986, with The Late Show with Joan Rivers, Rivers became the first woman to host a late-night network television talk show. From the mid-1990s, she became known for her comedic red-carpet awards show celebrity interviews.

Sojourner Truth

An African American abolitionist and women’s rights activist best-known for her speech on racial inequalities, “Ain’t I a Woman?”, delivered at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Truth was born into slavery but later escaped to freedom with her infant daughter. She devoted her life to a variety of causes including prison reform, property rights and universal suffrage.

Harriet Tubman

Photographer: Horatio Seymour Squyer, 1848 – 18 Dec 1905 – National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9717226

Born into slavery in Maryland around 1820 but escaped to the North in 1849. Tubman used a complex system of safe houses called the Underground Railroad as a trail to freedom, and later decided to help other slaves escape the same way. She made 19 trips from the South from 1850 to 1860, guiding over 300 slaves to freedom.

Wright Brothers

Wilbur and Orville Wright were American inventors and pioneers who built the first fully practical plane. In 1903, the brothers made the first successful heavier than air aircraft, the Wright Flyer in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The two brothers, who never attended college, developed a shared passion for aeronautics and flying when their father gave them a small model helicopter.

Chuck Yeager

Made history in 1947 as the first person to break the sound barrier in flight. One of the military’s premier pilots, Yeager in 1953 was asked to fly a Russian MiG that had fallen into U.S. hands via North Korean defector, making him the first American to do so.

Malala Yousafzai

A women’s rights advocate born and raised in Pakistan. In 2008, the Taliban took control of her town and banned girls from going to school. Malala began to speak out about the issue, and in 2012, a member of the Taliban shot her in the head. Upon recovery, Malala established a charity with her father to give young girls opportunities to receive an education.