One way to give women a foothold in Fortune’s coverage was to start the list, which has become a standard cheat sheet for who’s who of women in business.
“I said, we have to rank them,” Sellers says, recounting a decisive meeting early on with then-No. 2 editor Rik Kirkland and Callaway. “It’s the only way that guys will read this thing, because guys are into stats and status and size and rank.”
What emerged was a process of gathering as much objective criteria as possible about these female moguls: how quickly a woman had ascended the ranks, how many career moves she’d made, her earning capacity, the number and nature of boards she sat on, the titles she had held, and her company’s heft in its industry and the broader economy. Ultimately, the rankings could never fully escape the subjective, but Sellers and Callaway were determined to get the concept of power as close as possible to quantifiable.
Today, rankings of women are pervasive. But at the time, it was a bold statement about women in business — and one that slammed right into the question: What is and isn’t sexist?
Initially, some women criticized the rankings as too male. Others saw the first Most Powerful Women cover as, well, too feminine. It showed then-Lucent executive Carly Fiorina curled up on a couch in a soft sweater and equally soft lighting.
“The internal debates raged again about whether we were defining our own brand of tokenism,” Callaway says. “And we decided, no. It was okay. It was okay to be a woman. That was the point of this measurement, and we would let her look feminine on the cover.”
Out of those struggles emerged the second biggest jewel in the Fortune crown. The conference got its start a year later in 1999. The multimillion-dollar franchise brings in money from sponsorships, advertising and tickets; next year, the ticket price will jump to $7,500 for three days.
That first year, about 200 women gathered at the Hudson Theatre in New York’s Times Square on a more expectedly cold October night. On the same day, it so happened, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia went public. Sellers was on stage with Fiorina — who had gone from relatively unknown Lucent division chief to Fortune cover star to HP’s top executive — when Stewart came through the door.
“Martha walked in, in like this big furry coat,” Sellers recalls, “and I remember saying on stage, ‘Martha Stewart became a billionaire today.’ And it was just kind of a cool moment, you know?”
Over the years, there have been many others: Stewart taught a yoga class. Cyndi Lauper sang “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” while standing atop a table where tech titan Meg Whitman was sitting. Nora Ephron pressed Nancy Pelosi on how it felt to be called “Madame Speaker.”
‘Love . . . Warren’
Back under the big tent at this year’s event, Sellers addresses the crowd with the effusive warmth of someone greeting old friends. This year she has co-chairs, Fortune’s Nina Easton and Stephanie Mehta, yet Sellers still offers the first brimming words of thanks and welcome.