Jacki Zehner On Women, Money, and Changing the World  » Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Conference

October 17, 2013

Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Conference

31201b2Published on Linkedin Influencers on October 15, 2013

It is hard to explain the energy and inspiration that can come from attending a great conference. I recently returned home from the Women Moving Millions Annual Summit in New York City, an event that galvanized my mind to such an extent that I had trouble sleeping for days afterward because my brain literally would not stop thinking about everything that was discussed, debated, and examined.

When you bring together groups of people who are passionate about the same issues and ideas, it is incredible where the conversations can go, and after a few days of packed schedules and whirlwind panels and speeches, the impact of conferences is usually that you leave inspired, stimulated, connected to new people, and motivated to go out into the world and to just be better!

The challenge is to maintain that energy and motivation once the connection high has worn off and you have settled back into the rhythms of your daily routine. As I am a relentless note taker at conferences, I make sure I have time booked in my schedule to go through those notes post event, pull out the to dos, add the new contacts to my computer, and to just process. I also make an effort to capture what really worked at that event, and what did not, so I can bring those learnings back into my own event planning. The do’s and don’ts of events deserves it’s own blog entry, but my one big insight is that it is much less about the content, and much more about the connectedness.

There are so many amazing conferences out there, so how do you choose which ones to go to? First and foremost, pick ones that are aligned with your passions, have people attending that you want to meet, and who can advance your thinking and learning. Given my interest in women and girls’ advancement, my favorites include TEDWomen, being held this year in San Francisco, the International Women’s Forum Leadership Conference, happening later this week in Vancouver, and really almost anything to do with philanthropy.

One special conference I had the honor of attending while a partner and business head at Goldman Sachs was Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit, happening this week in Washington DC.

What began 15 years ago as a list of the Most Powerful Women (MPW) has now grown into a global community of leaders committed to helping women advance in leadership roles within business, government, education, philanthropy, and the arts. MPW now hosts numerous events, programs, and mentorships throughout the year, with their pre-eminent event being their annual Summit. This year the Summit is being held in Washington DC, October 15th-17th, and features an impressive list of speakers, including Sara Blakely, Warren Buffett, Glenn Close, Arianna Huffington, Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg, and Anne Sweeney.

I vividly remember the 2002 conference I attended. The headline speaker was Carly Fiorino who had just become Chairman and CEO of Hewlett Packard. You might remember that there was a lot in the press about her being the FIRST WOMAN to head such a large technology company. As the opening speaker Carly was careful and poised, and from what I recall did not address the controversy that was related to her not wanting to be identified as a “woman” CEO. Throughout the conference the room seemed to divide. On one side were women who felt strongly that there remained a lot of wood to chop regarding women’s advancement in corporate America, and those that wanted to distance themselves from that whole conversation. My favorite moment was when former Governor of Texas Ann Richards spoke, and I remember her saying something along these lines…”there has been a lot of talk about whether or not women have finally made it in corporate America. Anyone who thinks we have is either incredibly self-centered, or incredibly stupid.” Half the room erupted to their feet in applause while the rest stayed seated with their hands by their sides. It was quite a moment, and one that made it very clear to me where I stood.

While I agree that it is not always nice, or easy, or comfortable to be identified as the “woman” this, that, or any other thing (CEO, COO, trader, director), until women reach those roles in critical mass, those who have made it have a responsibility to ensure that barriers to access and success are removed. This goes for men too of course. People who have made it and have reached those senior levels are accountable for ensuring a healthy and inclusive culture. Does this put a lot of extra pressure on successful women? Yes it does. And ladies I thank you for owning that and just doing your best. The world will change if we change it, and once women are present in critical mass the pressure will be off. A big thank you to those male leaders who are visibly supportive as well. Truly. Thank you.

That was 2002, and more than a decade has passed since then. If you were just looking at the numbers one would have to say that not much has changed. Women remain just over 4% of the the CEO’s of Fortune 1000 companies. The numbers at the next level of seniority are not much better. What has changed is that there is less conversation around issues like work/life balance and “can a woman have it all?” That is a good thing. It is not that those issues have gone away, they have not, but the conversation about it has to be shifted. Now that we are all ‘”leaning in” let’s talk about the policies and practices within organizations that enable, or prevent, people from fully performing at work.

I just heard of a conference happening in February that is doing just that. Running February 10th-12th in Los Angeles, the Makers Conference aims to empower tomorrow’s leaders by bringing together current leaders from different industries to create an agenda for women and work in the 21st century. This conference is being produced by the team behind Makers, a television and digital video initiative that is a partnership between PBS and AOL, and was founded by the Emmy-award winning filmmaker Dyllan McGee. Kara Swisher, co-creator of All Things D, will serve as the conference’s emcee, and participants include Gloria Steinem, Sheryl Sandberg, Wendy Clark, and many more. For me, this is exactly what is needed; a discussion aimed at creating a set agenda and clear goals to level the playing field and work toward a true meritocracy where everyone can reach their potential and earn the success their hard work and talent deserves.

So happy conferencing and special good wishes to those attending and watching the Fortune MPW event. As I will be at the International Women’s Forum gathering in Vancouver I will be unable to report on it, but I will come back to you with an entry on the Vancouver gathering.

In googling Carly I came across this speech she gave in 2001, post 9/11. Thought I would share it.

Photo: TED Conference/Flickr

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