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Elinor Steele

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Cooperation, Not Competition at the WIE Symposium

Posted: 09/24/10 05:54 PM ET

This week started in an extraordinary way with the Women: Inspiration and Enterprise (WIE) Symposium. It proved to be a unique opportunity to meet and hear from some incredible women who have inspired others to make the world a better place through their words and deeds. I also was looking forward to meeting young attendees, many of whom would comprise the next generation of female leaders, and I was not disappointed.

From the moment I entered the room, there was a powerful sense that something important was happening. The conference began with the three hosts -- Sarah Brown, wife of the former UK Prime Minister and a tireless worker on the issue of maternal health; designer and philanthropist Donna Karan; and Arianna Huffington -- taking the stage to discuss the need for women to support one another. Arianna talked about how failure is not the opposite of success, but a stepping stone. And Donna discussed how a community can help "create calm from chaos." The overall atmosphere was intimate and warm. At one point, returning to my seat after a break, Donna had joined the audience and was sitting in the chair next to me. Everything about the symposium felt inclusive, not exclusive.

Later, we heard from women who are using social media tools to change the world. Mobile technology has given women the power of control. Many times in villages of emerging countries, it is a woman who will own a cell phone and, therefore, the control. In her new book, "Third World America," Arianna discusses how to accelerate social media and explains how government and technology are coming together on the local level creating what Newark Mayor Cory Booker calls "a forum where people can come together to connect, talk, mobilize and create a larger sense of community."

Over the course of the day, the different panel discussions were punctuated by testimonials from White Ribbon Alliance (WRA) Young Advocates from India, Uganda, Yemen, Rwanda and Tanzania. Their remarkable stories of strength, confidence and achievement were uplifting and inspirational. They were lawyers, journalists, children's advocates and pharmacists. These young advocates, all amazing women, gave me tremendous hope for the future. They are truly making a difference in the world.

While awareness is the first step toward making a difference, it can also make me feel a bit overwhelmed. With so many problems to solve, where can one person begin? Diane Von Furstenberg offered a simple but effective idea: start your day by doing one little thing for someone else, even if it's just sending a nice email. As Sheila Johnson, CEO of Salamander Hospitality, put it, "Giving of yourself makes you aware of how to make a difference." And, if all else fails, Diane said ... just fake it!

What I would add to that is that hearing how others have made a difference also makes you aware of how easy a small gesture can be. Last week, I mentioned the Chain of Confidence Facebook page I manage for Tupperware, which connects women around the globe in an effort to enlighten, educate and empower one another. Every day, I'm struck by the personal stories of women who overcame difficult circumstances -- poverty, abusive relationships, lack of education -- and turned themselves into successful women and businesswomen. But they didn't stop there. They turned around and shared the knowledge and confidence they gained to lift up their families and communities creating a ripple effect.

Where the first half of the WIE conference was global in nature, the second half was about the power of the individual. Speakers discussed wellness and holistic living, finding your own spiritual path and how important it is to be your own physical health advocate. Next we met powerful women in business. We heard from leaders of JP Morgan, Ann Taylor and Hearst. The biggest takeaways for me are that women in business shouldn't be afraid of what makes them unique and we should not limit ourselves or our own imagination. Women are natural connectors and nurturers. As Mary Callahan Erdoes of JP Morgan said, "It's OK to promote a family culture in business."

I'd argue that it's not only OK, it's critical. Because of the way we're wired, we women are most successful when we're connecting, instead of just competing. "Win-win" may be a business school cliché, but sometimes the clichés have real meaning behind them.

I was profoundly touched by the tenderness and sincerity of Ashley Judd, champion for girls and women, who teaches girls in remote parts of the world to access their innate resilience. And Melinda Gates' charge that "it is up to us to keep hope alive for women everywhere" resonated to my very core.

Ultimately what I got out of WIE is that women should not be afraid to dream. Every woman I met today overcame the doubters and the self-doubt that lurks inside all of us. It's only by supporting one another, connecting with one another and sharing the confidence we gain with each little success along the way that all of us can achieve success ... and make a difference in the world.

 

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