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Allessandra Bradley-Burns

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Women at the Aspen Ideas Festival

Posted: 07/02/2012 5:26 pm

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I am here as the Aspen Ideas Festival as a plus one and also for my work. Like some women here, I have travelled with children and my spouse. I came with the intention of seeking out stories about unexpected innovation and I will admit to a bit of mushroom hunting -- hoping that by facing each day without focus, I will be more aware of what pops up.

On my third day here, I ran a 10k trail run and found myself surrounded by a group of women cancer survivors who had spent the last 10 years running triathlons together. They began the race by reminding each other how lucky they were to be standing on the starting line at that moment. I live only 500 ft above sea level, so I admit that my initial thoughts were to not die somewhere along the 8,000 ft. elevated trail. I was startled and immediately appreciative of their perspective and support for one another. I did not learn much about their work, but I can tell you about their children and the cancers they survived.

One of my favorite vignettes from the Aspen Ideas Festival today was a moment that I shared early this afternoon with Katie Couric. It was not during her talk at the Women Philanthropists session or her panel on over-parenting and its perils. It was a moment of watching her hug her honey in the sunshine and then stand in the lounge at the Aspen Meadows with her arm around him as he engaged in conversation and she took a moment for thought to alight as she settled into being the plus one.

While at Aspen Ideas I have shared many a meal with smart, successful, beautiful women. I am surrounded by brilliant, take-no-prisoners ladies and yet, what keeps popping up for me is the way in which the women around me -- these powerful, media savvy, company and country-running women -- keep showing up as their most private selves. It is not our conversations about recent Affordable Care Act wins or energy policy or the economy that strike me the most. It is watching women hop up mid-chew to warmly greet one another. My table is often comprised of world renowned artists, county commissioners, writers, philanthropists, state senators and national leaders. And yet, our conversations become the common-ground experience of women getting up mid-meal to attend, to welcome and to soothe.

During my first day at Aspen Ideas, one of the most intriguing women I know dropped her purse and enveloped me in a soul warming hug. She is a former corporate executive, a philanthropist and a patron of the arts. Eventually we talked about upcoming elections and capitol gains policy, but first we dug into love, family and feelings. One of the women who plays a big role in corporate sponsorship of the festival spent twenty minutes talking with me about her 13-year-old daughter. She is incredibly smart and accomplished in her own right. I know her from when we were preparing for medical school. She was the one with straight As.

Late this morning, while I took a break from sessions and wandered over to the Aspen Block Party with my two 5-year-olds, I watched another festival organizer and Aspen Institute leader carry eight green bags of Clark's groceries back to her rental condo. Her family joined her here. While I have watched her engage with national leaders and Cuban inteligentsia and the brightest minds at the Brookings Institute, somehow there was a luminescence as she walked head down with the groceries.

As I ended my day by reading the copy of the Atlantic found in the Aspen Ideas Festival schwag bag, I came across the story by Anne-Marie Slaughter about whether or not women can have it all. When I was in my early twenties I was blessed to be on the receiving end of the wisdom of a woman named Vergie. She told me many things that have guided me as I have grown and grown my own family, but the words of hers that I think of most often are these: women can have it all, just not all at the same time.

I have tried out what this expression means for me at different stages throughout my life. At times it has meant leaving medical school to parent my children, focusing on a career goal and waiting to have another child, choosing to consult part-time instead of leading a company full-time. But this week in Aspen it showed up as the way that so many women leaders around me are breaking their days into moments for work, moments for family and friends and moments for self.

Today as I came back from that unexpected moment with Katie, I watched my own wife -- powerful, scary smart and a well known leader -- in my favorite AI festival memory of her so far: kicking the colorful balls on the Aspen Meadows lawn with two of our little girls. For a few moments she was not thinking about business strategy, immigration and economic policy or impact investing. She was being Mommy, and she was at her most beautiful.

This was not my intended story. I was raised by a single mother who rose the corporate ladder while raising two bright student-athletes. We volunteered and campaigned for Barney Frank and grew up to eat organic vegetables, head companies and leave others unapologetically in our dust. I thought at least one of my stories out of Aspen would be about the amazing, fierce, world-changing women who are participating here. And this story is about them, just not the side that I expected to witness or share.

 

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