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Fearless in Vegas: the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit

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Here I am in Las Vegas at Fortune Magazine's Most Powerful Women Summit (okay, it's actually Henderson, Nevada about 20 minutes outside Vegas).

This morning began (at least for me, there were heartier souls doing Pilates at 6 am) with "The Big Get-To-Know-You." We spent an hour going around the room, with everyone introducing themselves. As woman after woman, from MTV CEO Judy McGrath to actress Sarah Jones, stood up and said what they did, I found myself imagining these confident, fearless women as little girls -- and wondering at what point they decided they were not going to be held back by the fears and the stereotypes and the self-limiting beliefs that plague so many women.

This morning's session ended with a video tribute to Ann Richards, who had participated in all the previous Summits -- this is the 8th year Fortune has held the annual confab. In the video clips that were shown, Richards was, as always, touching and powerfully honest about her life, her battle with the bottle, and losing the Texas governorship to George W. Bush. After her defeat, people would regularly come up to her and, somewhat gingerly, ask her what she was doing now. Richards joked that she often felt like telling people she'd become a televangelist or a dental hygienist. Of course, she just went on being herself and impacting the world in hundreds of different ways -- just without holding elected office.

Her message to women who are reluctant to step out, to speak up, and to make their mark: Embrace failure. Take a risk. Make the tough choice. You only have one life.

Talking to a number of the women before and after the morning session, I was struck by how many of them had faced serious professional setbacks -- only to bounce back, undaunted. Indeed, usually even stronger and more fearless than before.

Exhibit A was Susan Lyne, who joked abut how she had come to this conference one year as the president of ABC's entertainment division, the next year as someone without a job, and the year after that as the president and CEO of Martha Stewart's multibillion-dollar company.

Exhibit B was Nina Jacobson. "Exactly ten weeks ago," she told me, "on the day my partner was in labor with our third child, I was fired as head of production at Disney. Now I have the time to do all the things with my kids I didn't have time to do before." And who knows what she'll be doing by the time next year's conference rolls around? She certainly won't be licking her wounds -- and that's the distinguishing characteristic of so many of the women I've met here. They work, they succeed, they fail, they fall down (or are tripped!), and get up again. And they take career ups-and-downs as one of life's givens -- not a black mark of shame.

I also had a funny encounter with Catherine Kelly, the publisher of the Michigan Citizen, a family-run black newspaper that offers hard-hitting coverage of the local political scene in Detroit. She reminded me that we had met a few years ago when she was selling handbags at Barney's in Los Angeles, and had helped my daughters and me pick one out. Her L.A. interregnum had been a time for finding herself, she told me, of working on her fearlessness muscle before heading back to Michigan to take over the paper her parents had founded. A paper that is bucking the downward trend of larger mainstream papers and is in fact increasing its circulation. "I think people like the fact that we are doing nitty-gritty journalism," Kelly said.

The conference continues through Friday with panels, conversations, screenings, salons, and special events -- including a poker night where you can get pointers from poker champs Jennifer Harman and Esther Rossi. Tomorrow morning, I'm moderating a discussion on the Internet's future with Marissa Mayer from Google, Mary Meeker from Morgan Stanley, and Padmasree Warrior from Motorola.

The tone for the event was set at the opening dinner last night, where Nora Ephron read the hilarious chapter about "maintenance" from her best-seller I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, and brought the house down when she got to the part about how, after looking at a bag lady, she realized: "I am only about eight hours a week away from looking exactly like that woman on the street -- with frizzled flyaway gray hair I would probably have if I stopped dyeing mine; with a potbelly I would definitely develop if I ate just half of what I think about eating every day; with the dirty nails and chapped lips and mustache and bushy eyebrows that would be my destiny if I ever spent two weeks on a desert island. Eight hours a week and counting."

And for soul maintenance we were treated to four mentors and the young women they are mentoring as part of a program run by Vital Voices and the State Department -- including Time Inc. CEO Ann Moore and Eva Wanjiku Muraya, her mentee from Kenya; Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy and Farah Agha, her mentee from Pakistan, Avon CEO Andrea Jung and Marina Malykhina from Russia, and power lawyer Linda Addison and Hauwa Evelyn Shekarau from Nigeria.

The common theme that emerged from all the mentors was that they had gotten more out of the experience than the mentees. It is, after all, a hallmark of fearlessness and fulfillment to live a life that moves beyond a singular focus on ourselves and expands to include others -- and causes we are passionate about.

Now, off to learn whether a full house beats a royal flush (Isn't a full House what Denny Hastert was looking to keep until the Foley flap royally flushed the GOP's prospects? I really do need those poker pointers!)

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