Eight Women's Paths to Power

Both my parents are literary people, so I don't come from a scientific background. When I took the French baccalaureate, about half the students taking the scientific exam were women. But when I got to the Ecole des Mines [science and engineering university], we were only 10 percent women.

I studied science by accident. I hated physics and only got an 8 out of 20 on the physics portion of the baccalaureate. But I had an excellent physics professor who made the subject interesting and challenging and it made me want to study more. I don't feel I was judged for being a woman when I studied science because the grade said it all. It's a neutral scoring system.

I had the impression that the generation before me had fought very hard for women's status. I have two younger brothers and we were all raised equally, so I thought society was set up the same way. However, when I moved into the business world later, I learned that things were not what I thought. My first boss said to me at my job interview, "A woman's place is in the home." But he saw that I produced good results and even had good things to say about me. So at a meeting a few months later, I said, "Perhaps you've changed your opinion about a woman's place," and he said, "No. You are not a woman." That was 25 years ago. Today I don't think anyone would dare say such a thing. But saying and thinking are two different things.

I don't have an ambitious nature. My parents didn't challenge us. We were very loved and rather free. Growing up with love and freedom instills confidence in oneself but also teaches us to have confidence in others. If I got a bad grade at school, it was my problem. So I learned to assume responsibility and consequences at a young age.
When I was 25, I didn't see myself as a CEO at all. But I like challenges and I don't like to fail. When I do fail, I think it's very important to analyze what went wrong. We tend to try to forget our failures and want to sweep them under the rug. I do the opposite: I'm a big believer in doing an autopsy on our failures.

I try to be completely transparent within my company and to create collective energy and enthusiasm. I work in the energy business, so it's appropriate. I'm wary of places where people are clones of one another. I like to have a team with diverse backgrounds, ages and education … people who think differently, which make opinions rich. I never put two people on the same task and never encourage in-house battles. It serves no purpose. I don't believe in absolute consensus, either; it takes too long and there is too much to do. Decisions are made by executive committee. There are no hidden agendas.
My company is growing all the time and it's very international, so I travel a lot. In the last few weeks, I've been to Japan, New York, China, Finland … but it's important to be at the headquarters, too. I have two young children, so I try to limit my business trips to four days. If I have to be away longer, I try to take my family along by scheduling it during school vacation. I'm not from the school of having a nanny raise the children, so when I'm in Paris I try to get home early enough to have quality time with them.

The question of balancing children and career is always posed to women, but men have children, too, so it's an issue for men as well. Areva now has seven in-house day-care centers for employees. It's a project I started back in 1999 and I'm rather proud of it. We also have a gym and a butler to run errands for employees. Providing such services is a win-win situation: the employee is happy and more available for work. I don't like to waste time because I like to be home in the evenings. I've worked at companies where people took long lunches and left the office late because it gave the impression that they worked a lot. I don't like that. I like to make every minute count.

I was born into a Dalit family in Delhi and grew up with eight siblings in a modest home in a crowded neighborhood.

My father worked as a low-paid clerk, and my mother, an uneducated woman, toiled hard to run the family.

We would often spend our holidays in our grandparents' village in Uttar Pradesh. During these trips I became acutely aware of the oppression that the Dalits in India faced. When I was in eighth grade, I began noticing that our relatives' huts were always in the most neglected and impoverished part of the village. Invariably, the Brahmins and upper castes would occupy the best houses and plots of land.

This is so outrageous and unjust, I thought. I knew I was one of them, but in the anonymous city I didn't face such violent discrimination as these poor, illiterate villagers. My heart ached, and I asked my father if I could do something to help. My father told me that without a proper education, I would not be able to do anything to help our people.

So my own education became my priority; education for the weaker sections remains my priority today. I graduated from Delhi University and took a job as a teacher. I was full of energy and enthusiasm. During the day I would work as a teacher, and in the evening I would study law. Soon I acquired a law degree and started preparing for the entrance examinations for the civil service so I could make things happen for the poorer people.

By this time a respected leader named Kanshi Ramji had set up an organization of government employees who are Dalits or members of religious minorities He knew very well that Dalits must be aware of their rights enshrined in the Indian Constitution. I was already going into various localities to educate poor Dalits; Kanshi Ramji heard me addressing some meetings and perhaps got impressed. My parents had big dreams of my becoming a top government administrator. But Kanshi Ramji told them their daughter had leadership qualities and they should let her join politics so that top bureaucrats would one day take orders from her.

That is when I had to make a big decision. In 1984, I plunged full time into politics. Kanshi Ramji, leader of the new Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), or Majority Society Party, took me under his tutelage. My parents were apprehensive, because there were clear dangers to my safety; we were shaking up an old, entrenched social and political order that fattened some and impoverished large masses.

What steeled me in those trying days was the ill-treatment of Dalits. I knew that for this condition to change, we had to launch a social revolution--to organize those on the bottom rungs of society to stand up for their rights. As a single woman and a Dalit I faced slurs, neglect, insults, even physical threats. Unlike many Indian leaders, I was not handed down political privileges. I had to struggle very hard for every inch of political space I occupy today.

Initially we needed an aggressive approach to rally the poor Dalits. Political parties dominated by upper castes got alarmed by the rising masses. Their opposition cut short each of my first four stints as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. It became clear we needed to broaden our base.

[So] we organized village-level amity meetings for the poor irrespective of caste or religion. Our efforts were met with calumny, attacks and lawsuits, but we struggled on, and prevailed in elections this May. For the first time in 17 years, a majority government led by a Dalit is in place in Uttar Pradesh. Our aim now is to replicate the winning formula in other states and prepare for the bigger struggle to capture power in New Delhi.

This has been a great season for me. I'm enjoying myself so much. I'm working hard and seeing good results. There is pressure, but it's a positive pressure. I like to feel that. It's all about breaking records and making history. I'm happy to be in this position. I like competition and I like to win. When you lose, you get that feeling that hurts so much. Then you do whatever it takes to win next time. It's a passion.

Everything has been a process. You get better with time. My parents believed in what we wanted to do and didn't put any pressure on us. I started playing in tournaments when I was 7. When I was 8, I started playing international tournaments.

It always helps to have a technique. In golf, it's all about visualizing. The more you practice, the more comfortable you feel. But you always learn. It's never good to feel too comfortable.

I love being on the golf course, but now I travel so much and go to so many tournaments that I really look forward to going home and recharging. I am who I am because of my family and my friends, and it is very important to be home with them. And then I go back to tour.

What I most enjoy is representing my country. I'm very proud to be Mexican. I think I have the potential to be a role model for others, especially in Mexico. It's a great opportunity and I like the responsibility. I'm trying to do things in the right way, and hopefully others can follow and dream and become professionals in the future. Every time I go home, I try to spend time with kids, to motivate them.

I have a foundation, and at first I thought I would help kids with cancer and other disabilities. But soon it was clear to me that education was the only thing that would make a real change. So many kids in Mexico don't go to school. I decided to concentrate 100 percent on education with a school. It's 230 kids from first grade to sixth grade. We give them breakfast in the morning and then they go to class.

I think I play golf for a reason. It seems like the more I play, the more I can help. I love to give back. Seeing those kids happy at school makes me feel even better than winning a tournament.

I was very lucky to have liberal parents. They had moved from mainland China and settled in Hong Kong to run a small business. Times were tough in Hong Kong in the early '50s.

Both of them worked hard. They had some time for me, but they weren't watching me every minute. I was brought up not by nannies--because we were not rich--but by relatives who came from the mainland. But they made it very clear that they would do their best to provide the means for my education. They gave me space but also assurance.
I had a very happy childhood.

During high school the only thing I wanted to do was to become a teacher. I worked very hard towards that. When I graduated from teacher's college I was assigned to teach at junior-high-school level.

The reason I became a doctor was because my boyfriend, David, went to Canada to study science and then applied to medical school. I realized if he went to medical school he would have no time for me. So I asked him if he had any objections to me applying as well--we could do it together.

I had a very hard time during my first year. I didn't have a science background, and David was helping me a lot. Every night he would give me private tutoring. Of course, after a year--and a lot of hard work--it got easier, and by then I was doing better than he was in some subjects.

After we got married, we agreed that only one of us--meaning him--could have a rigorous career. David worked hard setting up his private practice, and for a while I took a stable job for the Hong Kong government, stayed at home and refused any promotion. That was an important part of my life. But the time came for my career to move.
My biggest challenges have been managing the SARS and H5N1 avian-flu crises. Those were both risk-management situations that needed a cool head.

During the 2003 SARS epidemic, I was brought to tears on more than one occasion because people were falling ill and dying. We were battling the epidemic together, and to see your colleagues, your friends, falling victim to SARS was sad. But I don't think crying is a sign of weakness. Not at all. Empathy is important. People knew that I understood, that I had a heart; I wasn't just a cold technocrat. Women shouldn't be afraid to use their emotional qualities in a public setting. They can be a strength.

Women still have an uneasy relationship with power and the traits necessary to be a leader. There is this internalized fear that if we are really powerful, we are going to be considered ruthless or strident—those epithets that strike right at our femininity. We are still trying to overcome the fear that power and womanliness are mutually exclusive.

I may have had an easier time dealing with this fear because my first taste of leadership came in a situation in which I was a blissfully ignorant outsider. It was in college, when I became president of the Cambridge Union debating society. Since I had grown up in Greece, I had never heard of the Cambridge or Oxford Union and didn't know about their place in English culture, so I wasn't weighed down.

The same thing happened when my first book, "The Female Woman," came out. I was 23 and my U.S. publisher, Random House, scheduled my first interview with Barbara Walters on the "Today" show. This didn't faze me since I had no idea who Barbara Walters was, and had never heard of the "Today" show.

It might look like I've had a number of careers. But the heart of it has always been communicating. A big part of my personal evolution has come from responding to the way our world is changing. I first fell in love with what was happening online when I recognized its power to empower people who might otherwise be locked out of the national conversation.

I don't think anything I've done in my life would have been possible without my mother. She gave me what I am hoping to give my daughters, which is a sense that I could aim for the stars combined with the knowledge that if I didn't reach them, she wouldn't love me any less. She helped me understand that failure was part of any life.

When I connect to my soul, project it into another character and then bring it to the stage or to a film—that has always been for me the great joy of acting. It's been as if my soul kind of leaps out of my body and is able to be free and dance around. And that's always this image I've had when I'm really loving the acting process.

There have always been long periods of time that I haven't actually worked. And those are devastating times. It's not like I was hungry. It's not like I was living out of my car. But emotionally if you're an artist, not being able to speak your language or to express yourself is like being in purgatory.

I did "Born on the Fourth of July." I did "Mr. & Mrs. Bridge." I did "Something to Talk About," and "Phenomenon." And then I didn't work for a couple of years. I'm sure that no small part of it is due to the fact that I chose to have children and get married. It was a monumentally unsexy thing to do, frankly. It's just not sexy for a young, hot actress to get married at 22 and start having babies. You're no longer available, and I think that for some people that may be something that gets in the way of some kind of mystique.

I had this dream that when I had my children I was just going to want to be with them, and I wouldn't want to work. It's taken me a really long time to embrace my ambition and accept it in a loving way as part of who I am instead of putting myself down for it. And if there's anything I could change about my life, it's that I wish I hadn't given myself such a hard time. The fact is that my kids have turned out great. Recently, when I was offered the role on my show, "The Closer," I got a lot of encouragement from my husband, Kevin Bacon. I wouldn't have taken this job without his encouragement, and I don't know if I'm proud of that or not.

I think that women as a group are so powerful. We're so right about so many things politically. We understand the bigger picture. We understand our impact on the environment, on the world. I would love us to be a more cohesive group. Politically, we're still forming—we don't realize how much power we wield.

My parents always allowed me to fail when I was growing up, and that gave me a lot of strength going forward. I lost high-school and junior-high elections when I ran for class president. I learned early in life to get up, dust yourself off and keep going.

And though I've loved every minute of my career, it hasn't always been easy. For every one hit on television, there are umpteen shows that never or only briefly see the light of day. I've had some great successes, but I've put on some failing shows. And it's very painful.

When you do succeed in this business, there's no better rush than having a hit TV show. When I was overseeing reality programming for ABC, I fought to bring "Dancing With the Stars" to the United States, and people thought I was totally out of my mind. I knew it was a big risk, but it was something I believed in so strongly. And luckily for me, it garnered record ratings.

While in college at MIT (the hardest four years of my entire life), I was taught how to look at a problem, figure out how to break it down and attack each part on its own with a disciplined approach.

I am now dealing with the challenge of coming into Lifetime and growing this company and growing this brand. Whether it's breaking down the marketing issues, the programming, the building of the right team or making our advocacy work for us, I break it down like I did in college.

I was gratified to walk through work the first day at Lifetime a few months ago. There were so many diverse faces. I think diversity is important not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's the right business thing to do. If we're targeting women, we're targeting the entire country; we need to reflect the entire female population, which is a diverse population.

Talking to people effectively is all about being encouraging. All the feedback, some of it negative, is meant to make them better leaders. When I have something bad to say to someone, I'm always thinking of the best way to say it. There are many times when I wish people would tell me when I could be doing something better.

It's amazing how comfortably you fall into a role, in my case a CEO role. I'm sort of blown away that I have this job, and I feel incredibly lucky.

I grew up in an unassuming family, where the primary focus was on hard work and education—our television time was limited, but as a treat we were allowed to watch old Hollywood movies. It was through film that I began to cultivate an interest in fashion. I loved the way the actresses looked—strong and beautiful, with perfect hair and makeup. These images piqued my interest, with their portrayal of equal parts glamour and strength.

When I was a child we went school shopping once a year, and got to spend $200 for an entire wardrobe at Mervyns department store. I was convinced that if given the opportunity, I could put better styles, silhouettes and fabrics into the stores I was compelled to shop in. My mother told me that this was the job of a buyer, and my new goal was born: I wanted to be a buyer for Mervyns.

In high school I worked at Contempo Casuals, which was the height of glamour at the time.

I started in stock (decidedly unglamorous), and within two years I was assistant manager. When I went to college in Washington, D.C., they transferred me and I continued working, while also attending classes.

After college, I moved to New York and started all over again as a personal shopper at a store in northern New Jersey. I slowly transitioned into personal styling, which opened a new world of opportunity.

Eventually, I was styling for music videos through my now husband, Damon Dash.

Damon saw me as someone who stood out in terms of style in the music industry and who was resolved in her opinions. He invited me to style the female artists on his label, which was during an exciting time of growth at his company, as he had decided to begin a clothing line. I couldn't have been happier about it.

After about six years I approached the owners about doing a collection beyond T shirts and sweats, which they all loved, but then Damon sold his portion of the company, so I left when he left. Eventually Damon backed me in my own line, which I've been doing for four years now.

I give women the means to express themselves and be who they are and who they aspire to be, and I think there is a real beauty in this.