The power of women

In May, 32 top corporate America female executives - all participants of the Fortune Summit - spent three weeks mentoring rising stars from 20 developing countries.

By Patricia Sellers, Fortune editor-at-large

Women exercise power horizontally. I've said this often -- in speeches about women leaders, in Arianna Huffington's latest book ("On Becoming Fearless"), and at Fortune's Most Powerful Women Summit, an annual event that I chair. Not that women aren't gaining clout vertically. These days a businesswoman must oversee some $6 billion in annual revenues to make it onto Fortune's annual Most Powerful Women list. That compares to around $1 billion when we started ranking corporate women in 1998.

But unlike the guys, who tend to view power as "up the ladder," women typically define power as "influence." This horizontal slant on power is largely why corporate women feel stretched, compromised and unsatisfied with success -- and why so many, even at the height of their power, call it quits. (Read "The Survival of Pattie Dunn" about one former Most Powerful Woman.)

2006 was the year of the Most Powerful Woman CEO. In fact the top seven positions on the 2006 list are held by chief executives. (Special report)

The horizontal slant also spurs women leaders to reach beyond the jobs they're hired to do. Want proof? In May, 32 top corporate America female executives - all participants of the Fortune Summit - spent three weeks mentoring rising stars from 20 developing countries. Avon CEO Andrea Jung hosted Archana Surana, a bold entrepreneur from India. ADM chief executive Pat Woertz hosted Phurbu Tsamchu, who owns Tibet Snow Leopard Carpets Ltd. and runs an orphanage for 30 children in Tibet. Other mentors included the most senior women at Avaya, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley, General Electric, Wal-Mart, Raytheon, Exxon Mobil, Nielsen, Herman Miller, Pitney Bowes, ING, State Farm, Motorola, and law firms Skadden Arps and Latham & Watkins.

Many mentors went way beyond their assigned duties. Time Inc. CEO Ann Moore took Mei Jingsong, a manager at Sina.com in Beijing, to meetings in Boston and to the swishy Time 100 party. Some mentors -- Solera Capital CEO Molly Ashby, UnitedHealth Group exec Jacqueline Kosecoff, Wells Fargo EVP Kathleen Vaughan -- invited their mentees to their homes for weekend stays. Xerox chief Anne Mulcahy took Rashmi Tawari, her mentee from India, to Cleveland for customer and employee meetings, arranged a reception in her honor with Rochester's Indian community, and made sure that Rashmi got to know Xerox's other women leaders such as President Ursula Burns and Chief Technology Officer Sophie Vandebroek. "Rashmi was a gift to Xerox," Mulcahy told me at the end of the program, explaining that her mentee gave her helpful insights into Indians' views of Xerox.

The best successes sometimes happen spontaneously. So did this mentoring program. The idea sparked in August 2005 when I was visiting Assistant Secretary of State Dina Powell in Washington, D.C. Telling me she was brain-dead from an overnight flight back from the Middle East, Powell dispelled that notion by interrupting me mid-conversation and shouting, "I have an idea!" Her idea was to start a mentoring program together. Fortune, through its Most Powerful Women Summit, could recruit the mentors; the State Department could work with its embassies around the world to supply the mentees. I instantly liked the idea. Ten minutes later, Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes walked into Powell's office. "Great idea," Hughes said, after hearing our 60-second pitch. "Do it."

Talk about powerful women reaching out horizontally. Before we at Fortune even knew it, the hard-core Republicans inside the State Department had recruited a group to help us launch the Fortune/U.S. State Department Mentoring Partnership: Vital Voices, which is chaired by Melanne Verveer, Hillary Clinton's former chief of staff. Vital Voices is a prominent not-for-profit that empowers women throughout the developing world.

The grand scheme of this Mentoring Partnership is to do just that: empower women beyond the 32 stars who spent the month of May in America. Carrying the power home is more difficult for some than for others. During her visit, Dana Nazmi Mattar, who runs an ad agency in Gaza, learned that her home was bombed. Her husband is safe and staying with friends, but Dana, six months pregnant, knows it's too dangerous to return. So she has gone to Bahrain, where her mentor, JWT New York President Rosemarie Ryan, has set her up in JWT's local office. Meanwhile, other mentees plan to launch mentoring and microfinance programs in their home countries. Says Rashmi Tawari, the Xerox mentee, "I feel empowered, so now I can empower other women."

This column originally appeared in The Huffington Post.  Top of page