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How women redefine power

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On May 9, 200 women leaders gathered at the Forbes Women’s Summit.  This wasn’t a conference about advancing women. It was a conference about women advancing the world, and in doing so, redefining the rules of power. With video appearances from Oprah Winfrey and Sheryl Sandberg and live discussions with Janet Napolitano; designers Donna Karan and Tory Burch; Helene Gayle, CEO of CARE; and Ellen Kullman, CEO of Dupont, among others, we heard stories of how women are redefining power.

10 ways women are redefining power

For women, power lies less in hierarchy and more in the ability to affect change. It lies less in the money and resources we have, and more in our resourcefulness and ability to mobilize others. Here are just some of the stories that most resonated for me during the Forbes Women’s Summit. Power is:

  1. Connecting with purpose. Imagine being a prosecutor in the state of New York.  You have an “Aha” moment where you realize that you are responsible for putting many women criminals in jail who are themselves victims of lack of opportunity.  Joi Gordon left her job and joined Dress for Success. She is now the CEO, creating opportunities for others and powerfully pursuing her purpose.  “For me real power is aligning who you are — your personality — with what you were meant to do — your purpose and your calling,” Winfrey said at the summit.
  2. Solving a problem. Power is noticing a problem, deciding that you’re the one to solve it and the time is now. Maggie Doyne decided to take a gap year before going to college. She spent it in Nepal and discovered that the country has 1 million orphans. She connected with one young girl she saw breaking stones in a quarry and decided she was going to make a difference for this child — to help her be educated. She asked her parents to wire the $5,000 in life savings she had. She now runs an orphanage and a school for orphan children in Nepal.
  3. Finding your voice. Each of us has a song and a message. Whether we tweet it or sing it is up to us. Lourds Lane, musician and creator of Broadway musical “Chix 6,” told the story of how she found her voice in breaking the rules.  She describes growing up in an abusive household and finding refuge in music as a child prodigy.  At the age of 7, while performing for a large audience, she decided to take a leap —  literally, off the stage and into the audience. She felt the joy of the music and how it connected her to the audience. She says, “I feel the most joy when I stand with and for people. … By standing in a space that is larger than yourself, you are the world.”
  4. Connecting with others. We can connect with others through our shared passion for what we believe in, now more than ever through technology. In his book “Tribes,” Seth Godin writes about how finding a sense of community is part of our DNA. The Internet and other connection technologies have exponentially affected these connections, giving us access to more people than ever before. Susan Wojcicki of Google told the story of a recent video chat Google facilitated with President Barack Obama where a woman asked why her husband hadn’t gotten a job. Obama answered, “Why don’t you send me the resume and we’ll see!”
  5. Using your platform to elevate others. Each of us has a platform, even if we don’t realize it. Our platform lies in our resourcefulness. Designer Donna Karan spoke at the summit about how helping people look good on the outside wasn’t enough for her. She wanted to help them feel good on the inside. She is using her platform to solve a problem she is intimately familiar with: cancer.  Her Urban Zen nonprofit helps patients, doctors and caretakers get holistic care for the whole person.  Our platform may not be as big as Karan’s, but we each have one.  Mine is in my ability to spread ideas that resonate for me. What’s yours?
  6. Making an ask. There is power in making an ask, asking for a favor, asking others to step up. This power lies in our willingness to practice humility and vulnerability. It lies in the power of understanding that we can do nothing alone, and having faith that others will help if we can just have the courage to ask.
  7. Coming up with a better idea. Imagine something that costs $10 and solves the problem of education in developing countries. A solar-powered lamp created by 83-year old Eva Haller allows children in the developing world to read in the evenings. The alternative is kerosene lamps that are bad for young lungs and the environment.
  8. Changing the conversation. Twins Miki Agarwal and Radha Agarwal have created an underwear company for women called THINX. Their tagline is “Change your underwear. Change the world.”  Their underwear is stain resistant and prevents those “embarrassing moments” that occur during a menstrual cycle.  For every purchase, they enable a woman to make a difference for a girl in Africa by providing her washable reusable pads. Girls in many parts of the world miss seven days of school because they don’t have sanitary protection. These young entrepreneurs are changing the conversation by speaking up about the shame that women experience during this time of the month in many societies around the world. Many aren’t allowed to sleep in their own homes.
  9. Having inner authority. Tory Burch talked about the importance of developing a thick skin. “I did hear — and tried not to listen — to a lot of negativity. … Creating this company was an incredible experience. The negativity and the noise was really just a sidebar.”
  10. Within all of us. Each of us has the power inside us. It shows up in a choice we make to stand up, be counted, have our voice be heard, decide today’s the day we will solve the problem that bothers us, or lend a hand to those who are doing it. We choose in the purchases we make. We choose in the messages we spread.  We choose in the problems we solve.

Here’s the play by play of the summit on

My belief: our ultimate power lies in our decision to step into our inner power. How do you define power?

Henna Inam is CEO of Transformational Leadership, a company focused on helping women achieve their potential to be transformational leaders. As a former C-suite executive with Fortune 500 companies, her passion is to help leaders be successful, deeply engaged and create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth and engagement. Connect @hennainam on Twitter and at her blog.