How I Got There

I grew up with the American public, and everybody knows I worked hard for my success. When I started, my goal was just to have a job. I was 19 and I couldn't believe I was on TV. My first job paid $10,000 a year. I wanted to "make my age," and when I was 22, I was making $22,000. I remember being in the bathroom at the television station in Baltimore and my friend Gayle and I were jumping up and down and going, "Oh, my God, can you imagine if you're 40 and you're making $40,000?" But after I had my own show in Chicago, I understood that I had a power base that could be a force for something good. I decided that I was going to try to operate from the center of myself and do good in the world, which gives a response in kind.

I think that the show's been successful because I'm always aiming for the truth. I relate to the core of everyone's pain and promise because I've known pain and promise. I understand that the common denominator in the human experience, from the thousands of people that I've talked to, is that everybody just wants to be heard. Having that understanding and that connection has really given me wings to fly because I know that I can talk about anything to anybody with a sense of respect and integrity.

I'm very conscious and cautious about what I do in my personal life and what I put out into the universe through the airwaves because I realize I'm speaking to millions of people in 118 countries who all have their varying ways of interpreting what I have said. Where I am on the show is always where I am personally, and where I am right now is in a space where I realize that I have less time remaining on earth than I have had--unless there's going to be some miracle that's going to give me another 50 years. The realization of that is exciting and constantly stimulating.

Success is a magnifying glass on your personality. Who you are just becomes more intense. The real beauty of having material wealth is that you don't have to worry about paying the bills and you have more energy to be concerned about the things that matter: How do I accelerate my humanity? How do I use who I am on earth for a purpose that's bigger than myself? How do I align the energy of my soul with my personality and use my personality to serve my soul? My answer always comes back to self. There is no moving up and out into the world unless you are fully acquainted with who you are. You cannot move freely, speak freely, act freely, be free unless you are comfortable with yourself.

All the women leaders I have met led with a greater sense of intuition than men. I am almost completely intuitive. The only time I've made a bad business decision is when I didn't follow my instinct. My favorite phrase is: "Let me pray on it." Sometimes I literally do pray, but sometimes I just wait to see if I wake up and feel the same way in the morning. For me, doubt normally means don't. Doubt means do nothing until you know what to do. And I'm really, really, really attuned to that.

I tell women all the time that you have to fill up yourself so that you have enough to give to other people. Running on empty does not serve you or your family or your work. If I go too long without a break, I start to feel it. It's like an engine running out of gas. I just physically don't have what it takes to be as up, clear and connected with the audience. So I have to give myself rejuvenation time. For me, that's walking through the woods with my dogs. That is sitting under the oaks reading or doing absolutely nothing. I have to replenish my well; it's essential for me.

Right now, I'm incredibly excited about my work in South Africa. I'm going to change the future for thousands and thousands of girls because I'm going to give them an education. I'm going to go out into the villages, into the rural areas, the forgotten places, and find the girls who have the potential to excel and be leaders in the world. I'm going to create a leadership academy. I believe that the future of Africa depends upon the future of its girls and women. That's the only thing that's going to turn that continent around.

I feel blessed to have a platform that allows me to reach millions of people every day with my show and my magazine. I'm often inspired by the work we do. Recently on our show, I asked viewers to help me track down child predators. Within 48 hours, we had captured two of the men we featured. As a victim of child molestation, this was big for me and for millions of others. When you can use your voice in a way that really speaks to people, it resonates. Whether it's a school or a book or just an idea. That's what fun is. That's what living really is. Living with a capital L.

VERA WANG

I knew the world I wanted to be in, but I wasn't sure I could break into that world. My mother was an incredible clotheshorse, so I grew up loving fashion. I lived in Paris during my junior and senior years at Sarah Lawrence. When you're in Paris, you can't help but notice fashion. I wanted something to do with fashion. I would have done anything. I would have swept floors. I would have licked envelopes. I just wanted to be part of it.

In the summers, I worked for Yves Saint Laurent--as a salesgirl in the boutique on Madison Avenue. I met Frances Patiky Stein, an editor at Vogue. She told me to give her a call when I got out of college. I did and I got a job. She felt I had a special something. On my first day at Vogue, I wore Saint Laurent and my nails were painted black or red, which was very much the rage in Paris at the time for young women. The editors looked at me and said, "Go home and get changed because you're going to be doing dirt work." I came back wearing jeans. It was a dream come true.

Vogue is a seductive place because of what you get to see and what you're privy to; it's a world that I can't even explain. I thought I would do it for a year or two and I ended up staying 16 years. During that time, I rose to be one of the youngest editors ever in the history of Vogue. By 23, I was a senior editor, and then I became European editor for American Vogue in Paris.

I think I always had an eye and Vogue made that eye even sharper. An eye is a new way of viewing something old. Everything's been done in fashion. It's how you bring newness to the concept. I mean, a white shirt is a white shirt, but how do you wear it? Those are the things that editors are always searching for, particularly in a picture because you only have so long to capture the magic of fashion.

When I was almost 40, I got married and started my own business. I started with bridal because I'd had so much trouble finding my own wedding dress. You have to have a platform to begin with and then build upon the platform. You have to have something that pays the rent and that can grow at your own pace. I had bridal.

When I started, I was scared. I had worked as a design director for Ralph Lauren and I saw how hard it was to get product made, shipped on time and sold. I knew the chances for success were very slim because it's more than about talent. It's also about timing. It's about reaching your customer. It's about having allure for the press. I remember signing a lease for the store thinking, this is my death warrant, because how am I going to pay this rent? It did not take off right away. I built up my business client by client.

Now I feel like I'm always on the job. Sometimes, my daughters have dinner here with me in the office. They leave for school at a quarter of 7 and I'm usually sleeping, because when I get home at night, I work. I design in bed, from about 11 to 2. That's when I have creative time to myself. In the day, I'm juggling clients. My husband's a great, great partner--as a husband and a father. He's also a workaholic. If I didn't have somebody who was really into his own profession, there's no way he'd put up with a wife like me. I don't drink caffeine but I like to have a cocktail at night. I love apple martinis.

Women do lead differently from men. I try to share a tremendous amount with my staffers. I feel everything: the tribulations of business, the responsibility to people who depend on me to feed their families. Those things are always in my decision-making processes. Art and commerce are often conflicting concepts. You have to make compromises because the most cutting-edge things are not necessarily what sells. You have to find a balance; it's a very difficult thing to do.

KAREN HUGHES

One of the things I say when women ask me for advice is: make the ground rules very clear. It's hard to accept a job that requires you to be at the office 15 hours a day if you intend to really only be there 10. It's one of the things we discussed when I came to work at the White House. I picked up the phone and called the president-elect and said, "You know, I'm always going to work very hard and long hours, but I also need to spend time at home." My most important responsibility is to my family and to the child I chose to have. My job is going to have to allow me to fulfill that responsibility, or I need to look at a different job. But there are two sides to this. You have to be willing to ask and you also have to have the kind of employer who's willing to consider and be flexible. My boss, the governor, and then, the president, believed in that, too. Ever since I first worked for him, he has always said if you're a mom or dad, that's your No. 1 obligation in life. I've been very blessed to have employers who were willing, at different points of my career, to give me a lot of flexibility and a lot of opportunities, like bringing my son along on the presidential campaign. As you can imagine, when you're running for president and one of your key people comes and says, "By the way, can I bring my child along?" it's got to give you some pause. But to his credit, Governor Bush immediately said that's a fabulous idea. It was really one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire career to have my son travel with me.

It would, however, have been easy for me as a senior woman to do what was right for my own family and not to say much about anybody else's. But I felt an obligation to speak up and let others know that it was OK for them to make their family a priority, too. I used to try and take a "midweek moment," where I would try to leave the office a little earlier one afternoon a week. When a reporter heard about it and ended up doing a story, I thought it would send a signal to women who were more junior that they could make the same choices.

When I came to Washington, I thought of myself only as a member of the president's staff. But I think my decision to move home to Texas because my son was unhappy in Washington caused people to view me as a leader, particularly on the issue of work-family balance. I remember a mother stopping me in Austin and introducing me to her daughter and saying, "I want my daughter to grow up and be like you." It made me feel I had an obligation to try to live up to that.

After I left the White House, I wasn't planning on coming back to Washing-ton. I promised my family that I would spend the rest of my son's senior year at home in Texas and make home-cooked meals. I'm not sure I did great on the home-cooked meals--but I tried.

I started to think about what I would do once my son went to college. Then the president and the secretary of State said they wanted me to work on public diplomacy. I said I couldn't start until later in the year, after my son left. But I compromised on that. When I was in Washington for the Inaugural, I had breakfast with my son and asked him what he thought about it. He said, "I think you ought to do it. You really care about it and it's really important to my generation." That just really hit me. It is important to his generation.

TAMARA MELLON

I have always been independent. When I was 17, I set up a stall in London's Portobello Road market to sell my old clothes to make money. I have never wanted to be dependent on my father or on a husband. It gives you freedom if you are financially independent. My father was my best friend and mentor in life. I didn't go to university so I really learned everything from him--simple lessons like make sure you have more coming in than going out and make sure that your rent is no more than 10 percent of your turnover on a shop lease.

The toughest challenge when I started out was getting factories to take us on. We were a start-up, young girls making shoes, and most factories wanted to take orders for 10,000 pairs of black kid shoes. We were doing something very different, using a lot of different colors and fabrics. We moved very quickly--for our first collection I opened a store in London and then a year later I opened three stores in America.

When I was at Vogue, I could never find what I was looking for, and Jimmy was a cobbler who had a workshop in the East End of London and he was making handmade shoes for private clients. I would send him ideas of things I wanted, he would make them and then I would photograph them and I would give him a credit in the magazine. So his name became known and I thought that was a good platform to start a business from--a name that has already had credits in Vogue. But Jimmy's talent lies in making shoes, not in designing a full collection, so we divided the responsibilities, where Jimmy would just see his private clients and do the bespoke business and I was responsible for everything else: ready-to-wear, wholesale, opening the shops, PR, production. Jimmy ended up selling his shares, and we bought his name. Today he just sees his private clients. Sandra Choi, his niece, and I do the designing together, which we have done since the inception.

Being a woman has been key on the creative front--at the end of the day, I totally relate to our customer because I am the customer as well. I know exactly who she is, what she wants to wear, how she wants to wear it. On the business side, it was incredibly difficult because when I was dealing with banks or leases on shops, I still found the world to be quite sexist. Now that I have a track record it has changed a lot, but you really notice it when you are a start-up.

The toughest challenge is to be able to let go of control as the business expands, to disengage. In the early days I did absolutely everything, and now we have departments. My vision is, I would love to be able to accessorize a woman completely: cosmetics, sunglasses, jewelry, lingerie, swimwear, that kind of thing. Our company is worth about $200 million. We are aiming to have 50 stores within the next couple of years; once we have 50 we are going to sit down and see how many more we want to build over the next few years.

Being a working mum is incredibly difficult; you are always guilty. I used to stay really late at work but now I have to make sure that I leave at 6 p.m. because my daughter goes to bed around 7:30 and if I am not home, I miss her. It is a constant juggling act. I think that being a working mother, the time you spend with your daughter is actually good quality time because you are really dedicated to her when you are with her. I hope in the future she will be proud of me.

WILINA LIM WEI-LING

I was born in Indonesia but I came to Hong Kong because this is where my husband is from. We met at university in Australia. I got the opportunity to join the Hong Kong Department of Health in 1981. Then in 1988, the head of the Government Virus Unit retired. As a specialist in medical microbiology, I was considered suitable to take up the post. It was a new scope of work for me and I found it challenging and interesting. I have been doing this for 17 years now. One good thing about virology is that it involves constant advances. It keeps my enthusiasm going because there is always something new.

I have a team of 45 technical staff, eight science staff, three medical staff. Most of my staff are women. I don't know what happens to the men. I guess they go into finance. In my time in medical school, only 15 percent of my class were women. Now it is different. Half the students in medical school are women. There are a lot of women working in Hong Kong, and in the government we have a lot of women heading departments or bureaus.

One big advantage is that here we can have help at home. That takes away a lot of pressure. My children are now grown up, but when they were young, if I had to stay late at the office, I knew someone could pick them up from school at 6:30. I didn't have to worry. I am very grateful to my household help. My husband, who is an engineer, is also very supportive. During busy times, he knows I'll be home at 11 p.m. or 12, and he takes care of himself.

In Hong Kong we've had H5N1-type avian flu, SARS, we don't know what's next. What we have found is that it is important to be able to cope with the sudden surge of lab work. We have had to deal with this since we had the avian-flu outbreak in 1997 that infected 18 people and killed six. That was a terrible experience. Usually we process a few hundred specimens a day. In 1997, suddenly the samples were coming into the lab by the trolley.

We are very lucky in Hong Kong that we have a big lab and we have the resources. We have helped process avian-flu samples from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia. Testing is very expensive and people need to be trained. What we do is rotate everybody to different labs to acquire the essential techniques used in virology. That way, if something happens, we can quickly move all the people who are working on, say, hepatitis, to flu.

For me, my greatest achievement is that during difficult times like bird flu and SARS, no one from my team said: "I don't want to work." No one called in sick and they all worked hard. During the outbreaks, we communicated very quickly with all the staff and explained what kind of safety measures were necessary. They all felt that what they were doing was important and they were proud to be able to contribute to the community in a difficult time. It is important that they worked well together.

MARIA OTERO

I was born and raised in la Paz, Bolivia, one of nine children. I now consider myself a Latina, but coming to terms with that took a lot of work. When I was about 12, my father, who was a lawyer, was offered a position at the Inter-American Development Bank. Just like that, my parents informed us that we were moving to Washington, D.C. It was difficult when we first moved here. My parents bought a relatively small house; every room became a bedroom. My grandparents followed us, as did a couple of uncles. It was like living in La Paz. I spent most of my high-school years desperately trying to assimilate.

In my sophomore year at the University of Maryland, I fell in love with Romantic poetry and decided to become a literature professor. But at that time, in the early 1970s, there was a lot of political turmoil in Latin America. My older brother raised my political consciousness. He was studying economics at George Washington University and becoming increasingly involved in politics. But I really wanted to bury myself in the bubble of the humanities.

I had an identity crisis. Was I Bolivian or American? I struggled with this and ultimately decided to give up literature, to abandon doing my dissertation and my Ph.D. and to study political economics. I really wanted to spend my time on something I cared about even more. I started economics from scratch and then went back to Bolivia for a couple of years because I really had to determine who I was. Living in Bolivia as an adult and preparing myself to then come back to the United States and do more graduate work in economics was very significant. That helped me accept that I could be both Bolivian and American. By the time I moved back to study at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I felt everything was open to me. I was studying with wonderful professors and I learned so much about Latin America. I knew this is what I wanted to do with my life.

After working around the world, I decided I wanted to focus on helping women empower themselves through work so they can be leaders in their own lives. I started looking for a group that did that and found ACCION International, which puts small amounts of capital in the hands of poor people with businesses. Most are women.

By this time I had been married for five years and had two little boys. My husband, Joe Eldridge, had worked in human rights all his life, so living in Central America in the mid-1980s was appealing to him. My sons, Justin and David, were 3 and 1, and spoke Spanish because of me. So we moved. Many times I would get on the back of the little scooters and visit people who lived with poverty as their constant companion. After almost three years, we came back with three children, with our daughter, Ana.

Bill Burris, ACCION's president and my mentor, asked me to open an office in Washington. For years after that, I was the No. 2 person at ACCION, but I never really aspired to be president because we were very rooted in Washington, and ACCION is headquartered in Boston. Then, I was nominated by the board to become president and move to Boston. My kids, then teenagers, said no, so I proposed running it from Washington. To their credit, the board gave me a chance to do that.

Being a woman makes me a better manager. We reinforce each other. In some ways, being able to develop a management-leadership style that is based on forming a team is very much in line with the way I interact with my sisters or other women. We're all in it together.

LAURENCE PARISOT

When I was born in the Vosges, France was booming, thanks to the postwar reconstruction. Back then, people believed in the future. My grandfather had a furniture-making business and, under my father and uncles' management, it became a leader in the field. I literally grew up smack in the middle of the family business. Our house was surrounded by offices and workshops, and furniture-making wood was stacked right outside our door. I loved growing up in that atmosphere. People thought about what they were doing, they were creative and hardworking, and they took pride in what they did. When I was 6, I put together an album of articles and photos that included clippings on JFK, Charles de Gaulle and the Berlin wall, among others. My father told me years later that the album gave him a hunch that I was probably going to end up doing something bigger than run the family business.

As a child I used to walk around wearing a NASA baseball cap. Neil Armstrong was my hero. I loved knowing that the most incredible things were possible. To this day, I reject all fatalism. If man is capable of going to the moon, we're certainly capable of accomplishing much simpler tasks here on Earth.

At university, I studied political science, which was my real passion. My first job was as an analyst with [the pollster] Louis Harris France. I went to New York to meet Lou Harris, who really impressed me. He made me general director of his company a year later. In 1990, I moved to the public polling institute IFOP, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. The first year was very difficult: 80 salaried jobs were at stake, and I was dealing with unionized workers. Together, we were able to turn the company around without eliminating any jobs. I learned two important lessons from that experience. The first is that it's important to be truthful with people. When you have to share information with fellow workers, tell it like it is, give them the whole picture. As president of MEDEF [France's chief employers' association], I apply the same principle in my discussions with the major unions. The second is: be tenacious. When you set an objective, you must not give up. When things don't work out, it's often because we drop the ball too soon.

Economically, France is not in great shape. We need a real reform of the state and the only way that will happen is by collective action. The public sector is spending more than it can afford, which considerably weighs down development. The French need to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit. I am convinced it's the only way for us to grow as a country. We have French companies that are absolute gems, but that should be much bigger than they are. The MEDEF can play a big role in changing mentalities.

My commitment is certainly to serve companies, but it is first and foremost to serve France. We don't have a great economic culture in France. We have a culture of politics and of sociology, but not of economics. We don't have an entrepre-neurial culture at all. My priority is to change that cycle.

MARIN ALSOP

I remember hearing music before I could speak. My parents would practice every day. I could probably sing you all of the warm-ups my mother used to play on the cello. My earliest memories are of people playing chamber music at our house. I was hearing music all the time. It just becomes part of who you are.

When I was 7, I started going to a summer camp for violinists called Meadowmount. I also enrolled in the precollege program at Juilliard. What I liked about the violin was the physicality of it, the way you hold it. I liked the social dynamic of it. At camp, I started playing in string quartets. At Juilliard, I played in the orchestra for the first time, and that blew me away. I really loved the people aspect. I don't know if that's because I'm an only child, but I was always drawn to being in groups.

I fell in love with the idea of being a conductor when I was 9. I was at a young people's concert and Leonard Bernstein was conducting. It felt a little bit like what I imagine a calling would feel like. You just say, "That's what I want to do." I'm sure it was his charisma but there were other things, too, especially the idea of being part of a huge team. All through my childhood I would always end up being the captain of the team even if I wasn't a very good player. It's all about the thrill of being able to galvanize people to a unified endgame.

After I graduated from Juilliard, I started creating my own mini-galaxies. I had a string quartet, then a piano trio and then a string orchestra which I kind of led, and then a swing band. In the late 1970s, I met an arranger who used to play with Woody Herman's band. He wrote us some music. We didn't even know what swing music was. We were all at Juilliard. We played it like it was Mozart. He's still one of my dear friends and I only wish I had a video of him laughing the first time he heard us!

I started getting called to do a lot of session work and put together string sections for recording dates and commercials. It paid well and I decided to save all my money so I could start my own orchestra, Concordia. All my musician friends in the orchestra were extraordinarily helpful, and they had lots and lots of constructive criticism. Conducting's all body language. When a woman makes a gesture, the same gesture as a man, it's interpreted entirely differently. The thing I struggled with the most was getting a big sound from the brass because you really have to be strong. But if you're too strong, you're a b-i-t-c-h. As a woman, you have to be careful that it's not too harsh. It's a subtle line.

I applied to audition for Tanglewood five times before I got an audition. When I finally got an audition in 1988, I was just over the moon. One day they called me in and said, "We've decided that you're going to conduct the concert with Leonard Bernstein." I was stunned. Bernstein came to the conducting class. He said hello to all his friends and then he said, "Where's Marin?" I felt like the clouds parted and God was speaking to me. Bernstein was more than a teacher; he coaxed the essence out of people. There was one rather cathartic rehearsal day where he came up to me and said, "The conducting's fine but it really isn't moving me." It was so devastating. Then he said, "Let's give the orchestra a break and then you'll come back and do this again." He said forget about conducting now. Just be yourself and be the music. Then I came back in and it was the weirdest experience. I felt like I'd had a massage. I thought I had nothing to lose. I'm just going to try it. I remember in the middle of the piece--this makes me cry--he came up to me and whispered, "That's it." It was so liberating.

Tanglewood opened up opportunities for me. Once I was able to get some auditions, I could win the job. I didn't go into conducting to win a popularity contest. I became a conductor because I'm passionate about the music. And I'm passionate about people being the best they can be, and sometimes you have to push people to do that.

Join the Discussion