What she has done is find ways to connect women and to empower them in the process. These people are, on the surface, hyper-connected. Brimming Rolodexes. Stacks of business cards. Corporate entourages. E-mails and phone calls at all hours. And yet they board planes, drag luggage through airports, sit in board meetings, take calls from shareholders, and often feel — despite all the activity around them — “I do this alone.”
“Be first and be lonely,” said Ginni Rometty on stage at this year’s event. She was recently named IBM’s next chief executive, which will bring the number of Fortune 500 female CEOs to 18. High-powered men experience this, too. After all, Rometty was quoting outgoing IBM chief Sam Palmisano.
Even so, the grand irony is that these women often buck feminine stereotypes — say, demureness or domesticity — only to be labeled female everywhere they go. They’re asked, “What’s it like to be your company’s first female CEO?” Or, “Do you think our female customers will like this?” They become emblems of womanhood while, in many ways, living what is still culturally viewed as a man’s life.
“There was a point in my career that I thought, ‘If I don’t curse a lot when I’m talking to people, maybe I’m not a leader.’ Because it’s what I knew,” says Josette Sheeran, executive director of the U.N. World Food Program. “For women, I think the toughest thing is figuring out how to assert their authority in a way that’s true to themselves.”
The conference, then, has something of this at its heart. What Sellers, with Fortune, has created in this event is a place to be a woman and, for at least a time, not the woman. For three days, the voices of society that say they’re not like other women and the voices of the C-suite that say they’re not like other executives synergize. The conference’s spa treatments, beaded conference badges, pink flowers, tote bags — they seem frilly at first, but then perhaps that’s the point. This is, after all, the power set paraded around as “women in business.”
Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, recounted to the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta how Sellers chastised her years ago for not wanting her public calendar to show she was attending the summit. Sellers’s advice: Own it. “This is not women getting together to talk about women’s issues,” Sellers says to me. “This is the most prominent women leaders around the world getting together to talk about the big issues of the day.”
Sandberg is not the only one to overcome reservations. “A lot of the women that we’ve featured over the years haven’t necessarily embraced being called out like that,” Callaway says. “They’re uncomfortable with the word ‘power.’ ”