The Main Event

At an exclusive gathering, Ms. W. tells women how she prepares for boardroom showdowns

Who: Oprah Winfrey
What: Simmons Graduate School of Management's 22nd Annual Leadership Conference
When: May 5, 2001
Where: Boston
Speakers: Oprah Winfrey, talk-show host and owner, Harpo Inc.; Maya Angelou, poet and author; Candice Carpenter, founder of iVillage; Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian; Madeleine Kunin, former governor of Vermont; Deborah Tannen, linguist and author

Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou headlined at the nation's top daylong conference of fairer-sex execs, now in its 22nd year. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin earned the day's most enthusiastic ovation with her yarns about Jack Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Abe Lincoln (the subject of her latest book). This had nothing to do with business, of course. Apropos management, these were the hot topics:

Personal warm-up
Even Oprah harbors anxiety when it comes to big meetings. For inspiration, she contemplates the example of the late Katharine Graham, the legendary Washington Post Co. executive who died in July. "When it's me at a boardroom table surrounded by 15 white guys, I think of a photo of Katharine Graham in her book Personal History," she told the crowd. "It's a picture of her sitting at that table, as head of the Washington Post, surrounded by all white guys." Winfrey said she always thinks of herself as "walking into a room bringing with me Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman and all the women who never made it into a boardroom. And I'm ready for the meeting."

No apologies, please
Madeleine Kunin, Vermont's former governor, once interviewed two candidates, a man and a woman, to run a state agency. The man told Kunin he was the right person for the job. The woman did too but also called attention to the fact that she lacked certain qualifications enumerated in the job description. On inspecting the rÉsumÉs, however, the governor discovered that the woman actually had more relevant experience than her competitor did. Kunin's message: women undermine their chances of getting good jobs simply because they lack confidence. (FYI: Kunin hired the woman.)

In an afternoon workshop, Deborah Tannen, author of You Just Don't Understand and The Argument Culture, picked up on Kunin's tale. "I would be willing to bet that the man was not more confident than the woman," Tannen said. "That was just what he was trained to do in a conversation." While men are trained to be aggressive in asking for a job, women are trained to address shortcomings before they ever come up. Such gender-specific cues are important for managers to identify, Tannen said. If a male employee offers advice with confidence, consider whether you're being swayed by a superior idea or simply by his more forceful style, she said.

Life chapters
"Balance is the new form of self-torture," joked Candice Carpenter, iVillage's founder. "If you grew up with a picture of Twiggy on the wall, I think balance is the same sort of thing: you can try to attain it, but it's just not happening." Instead of searching for equilibrium between career and personal life, Carpenter thinks, women should devote some "chapters" of their life to work and other chapters to other pursuits. "People in Silicon Valley think it's completely weird to work every day of your life," she said. "Now that I've experienced [time off], I kind of agree with them." Carpenter resigned as iVillage's CEO in July 2000.

Women and venture capital
Carpenter also took a stand on women and their relationship with the capital markets. "I know people are going to hate me for saying this, but I think the reason women only get 4% of venture capital isn't the VCs; it's the women," she said. "We could increase our share solely through our own actions. We need to get involved in informal networks of lawyers and accountants so that our ideas arrive on a VC's desk in the right way. And we also need to be comfortable asking for a lot of money. VCs need to put their money to work. Since they need to fund some idea, why not my idea?"

Mike Hofman is a senior staff writer at Inc.

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