What’s the formula for a ‘powerful’ woman? Like me, you might envisage a woman with unnerving confidence, high ability and steely ambition packaged in the sharpest of power suits...
What’s the formula for a ‘powerful’ woman? Like me, you might envisage a woman with unnerving confidence, high ability and steely ambition packaged in the sharpest of power suits.
Well this is certainly not the view I have of myself and yet last week, I was designated ‘powerful’, at least for 3 days, as a representative of female entrepreneurs at a gathering of the world’s most powerful women. Before I’d even packed (ok, then maxed out my credit card on) my power suit or put on my steely, ambitious face in readiness, I started pondering the question- what is ‘power’ in a woman and why do so few possess it in real terms?
Don’t shoot me, but I’ve never really considered myself a feminist or felt much disadvantage due to my sex. It’s possibly too soon on the path to true female empowerment, but I’ll admit that I have frequently actually felt advantage e.g. when attracting ‘lady geek’ PR in the press which my male co-founders can’t or when choosing a red dress to stand out in a business crowd of grey-suited men.
At 34, perhaps my generation has been the first to benefit from a more equal playing field, and certainly I’ve been blessed with an upbringing encouraging such a mentality, but the fact remains that something happens during our careers to seriously limit the numbers of us on the highest rungs of our professions.
Well, fear not. There are a terrifyingly successful group of women thankfully flying the flag for all of us and offering a hand up the ladder.
Every year, Fortune invites an exclusive group of around 400 of the most ‘powerful’ women in the world to a conference in California. Chief execs of Fortune 100 corporations, political advisors, military leaders, authors, financial experts and supermodel business professionals. And amongst them this year – me – and nine other entrepreneurs, hand selected as Fortune’s Top female entrepreneurs for 2012.
My selection came as something of a surprise, as Blippar – our rapidly growing mobile visual discovery platform – whilst enjoying huge success since launch last summer and client wins including Justin Bieber, Tesco, Maybelline, Warner Bros & Heinz, is arguably only taxiing the runway in comparison to some of the other entrepreneurs’ soaring businesses (in Rashmi from Slideshare and Victoria from Wildfire’s cases, recently acquired in multi-million deals by Linkedin and Google) but hey, who am I to argue with the esteemed selection panel…?
The stunning cliff top setting of the Ritz Carlton in Laguna Niguel, CA played host to the power suits and stilettoes over 3 days and two nights of a packed agenda; there was yoga at dawn, facials and make-overs, gift bags, celebrity chefs and white wine at sunset. But make no mistake, there was no ‘fluffiness’ here.
The conference subject matter was heavy weight and challenging; we listened to the indomitable Patty Sellers (Fortune editor) and her team grill a selection of some of the most high-achieving women in the world today, including Ginni Rometty and Irene Rosenfeld the CEOs of IBM and Kraft. It was interesting to see so many consistent philosophies shared by the diverse personalities on stage– in particular, an appetite for risk, a proactive attitude to learning through failure, and the requirement to act decisively and swiftly.
Some of my favourite soundbites: ‘Sooner rather than perfect’, Ursula Burns, CEO, Xerox. ‘Impatience is a virtue’ and ‘Nothing trumps hard work’, Irene Rosenfeld, CEO, Kraft ‘Failure is not to fail. If you are not failing you are not innovating’, Wendy Clark, Coca Cola and ‘I don’t hate my competition because they are helping me build communities’, Christine Day, CEO, Lululemon.
We laughed (even this audience isn’t above the ‘size does matter’ gag); we cried, listening to the story of Brenda Barnes, the previous CEO of Sara Lee now recovering from a debilitating stroke; And again on hearing Edna Adans’s story, devoted to combatting high maternal mortality rates in Somali-land and the shockingly widespread practice of female genital mutilation in the region. (And then again…close enough, on seeing the photo taken of me next to Christy Turlington- NOT a body-confidence affirming experience – duly cropped for circulation.)
But it was the dinner and corridor conversations that proved most enlightening. This was far from a sales-y environment; I recognised early that it would be inappropriate to whip out my phone to demo off a 5 dollar bill. Instead I listened. I had a unique, humbling opportunity to sit and chat with delegates across diverse fields of which I have zero experience– in finance, energy, academia or industry.
The chat was open and honest. Questions such as family choices and work-life balances (or lack thereof!) arose frequently. Within our group of ten entrepreneurs there was an 8-month pregnant woman, and two who had started their businesses whilst their children were babes in arms. Indeed the majority of the women at the event seemed to be mothers and to have risen rapidly in their careers whilst raising families – although with sacrifices.
So it turns out there’s no ‘formula’ for female power. They came in all types – familiar and warm, hard and poker-faced; charismatic and fun-loving, nervy and introverted; designer-clad in pearls, hippy skirts and sandals. Certainly as a group, they seemed no more serious or ball-breaking than my girls down the pub – but it was obvious that they were united in their drive and had unwavering confidence in their ability.
Taking a deep breath, I realise that they have comprehensively redrawn the line of success against which I judge myself. Whilst I fear hugely for my overall career satisfaction in potentially never meeting their bar, it can be no bad thing that I’m no longer satisfied with being a rapidly growing fish within in the pool of mobile marketing professionals – I need to be a player on the global business stage and come back here not as an entrepreneur of a fledging start-up, but as a leader of a successful global business. I might need another new suit.