I recently had the honor and pleasure of spending five days at The Odyssey Business Retreat in Florida. It was held at The Ritz Carleton in Naples and was for female executives and business owners. To say it was posh is an understatement — the food, the accommodations and the ambiance were amazing.
As much as I appreciated the royal treatment we all received, what really meant the most was having the opportunity to get to know other women in business. The chance to hear about their successes, learn about their struggles and create lasting friendships made the experience extraordinary.
We were graced with the wisdom of women who paved the way in business for the rest of us. Women like Ann Fudge, the retired CEO of Young & Rubicam Brands, and one of Fortune Magazine’s top 50 most powerful women in American business. During a panel discussion about “Passing the Torch,” Ms. Fudge told us that, as leaders, our responsibility is to leave a legacy, but she cautioned us to consider what that legacy should be.
Often, we believe our legacy should be a personal list of accomplishments, but she shared with us that our value is what stays after we’ve gone. True leadership, according to Fudge, is to make sure that the people who replace you are even better than you are.
It was such a powerful message for me to hear from a woman of her caliber. Being a woman in the business world isn’t easy, and sometimes those who’ve already made it aren’t inclined to bring others along. Hearing people like her say it’s not just something we should do, but something we’re obligated to do, gives me inspiration and affirms my belief in helping
I had the opportunity to meet Cookie Johnson, the wife of our own local basketball hero Magic Johnson. Johnson sat on a panel with actress Holly Robinson Peete. Their panel was called “Rocks Do Crumble,” and they discussed ways that women can realistically scale back in their lives. As the title implies, no matter how strong we are, each of us will crumble under the weight of too much responsibility.
Johnson has had her share of personal struggles, but has faced them with poise and dignity. So much more than Magic’s wife, she is an astute business woman who designed a line of high end denim jeans called CJ by Cookie Johnson. When I asked her why she decided to go into the clothing business, she said she could never find a pair of jeans that fit her well, so she designed some that are made for “real bodies.” Johnson, like most successful women, saw a problem and created a solution. She is a down-to-earth and kind person who attributes her success to her unwavering faith. Whether wearing her mother, wife, entrepreneur or philanthropist hat, she begins each day knelt in prayer.
Holly Robinson Peete showed her business acumen most recently on Celebrity Apprentice. She is an outspoken autism advocate, radio personality and author. She spoke candidly about the realities of having autism in her family. Her professional successes don’t shield her from the heartbreak she feels when her autistic son gets dirty looks from strangers in public who don’t understand his condition.
The 500 women in attendance were from all over the United States, representing various industries and age brackets. No matter who I spoke with, the one thing in common is that they were all fighters. Success had not been handed to any of them, and some of the obstacles that they overcame were astonishing. Stories of personal health crises, losing children, divorce, glass ceilings, discrimination and being downsized were common. There were many who grew up as children in homes that literally had nothing — no food and no clothes of their own.
Once or more in their lives, each had to make the decision not to let her past or her present define her future. It was refreshing to be in the presence of so many inspiring ladies. To find that no matter how great their success, fundamentally they were just like me — a woman with a vision and an unflappable determination to succeed.
My hope for each of you is that you have women in your life who inspire and support you. Women smart enough to understand that our collective success will take our collective effort. Accomplished women who know that working hard and playing hard are equally important. Women who are strong enough to pull you up with them and also be there to catch you if you fall. I also hope that, like me, each of you aspire to be that woman to other women in your life.