Powerhouses of Awesome: Womensphere Summit 2012 Remarks, as prepared September 27, 2012

Good morning everybody!

Critical to the evolution of our global society, is the full and complete participation of women in every sector, in every sphere.  Indeed, since society can only be so great as the sum of all of its parts, we have no choice but to unleash the productive capacity and potential of every part of society, in particular, the power of women.

There is much good news—more women than ever are in the workforce, earning graduate degrees, rising to positions of leadership within their firms and their businesses, there are increasing numbers of women breadwinners, women entrepreneurs and investors entering the marketplace—and we are helping to change the way business is conceived and executed, reminding the world that capitalism should be about the prosperity of humanity, as opposed to merely a tool of greed and consumption…

We have achieved so much, but as some have pointed out, there are prospective fault lines in our progress.  I think we can, and must, work more closely together, if we are to unleash our individual and collective potential. Critically, we must endeavor to develop stronger relationships with each other and commit to nurturing and supporting our respective pursuits–to building an extraordinary, genuine community.

Consider that the inclusion of women and minorities in positions of power and leadership, while a net positive for society, is also one of the greatest disruptions we’ve ever experienced in the social order.  As we know, prior to the fuller inclusion of women and minorities in leadership positions, power had been held and shared, be it in corporations or government, among white men, who, for the most part, knew each other.

They went to the same schools, participated in the same fraternities, eating clubs and societies, lived together in the same residential colleges, golfed at the same clubs, talked shop with one another in the bathroom, even.  They easily met for nightcaps over which they discussed deals, or critical pieces of legislation.

By the time they started ascending to positions of responsibility, authority and leadership, they had the kinds of relationships that generated trust, loyalty; they had intimate knowledge of one another that fostered mutual respect, and made it possible to work together, to get deals done, to compromise where compromise might have been needed.

But those cozy, exclusive relationships were meant to be disrupted; and surely they have been with the entrance of women and minorities into positions of power and leadership….the difficulty though is that the newest leaders do not yet know each other well enough, we have not yet had the time to build a genuine community, to develop deep meaningful relationships with each other, or even with the previous generations of leadership, some of whom might approach the newest leaders with some amount of skepticism and suspicion.

And complicating matters further, the world has grown infinitely more complex, and the increasingly diverse occupants of power, who may no longer even live within proximity of one another though being called to work together, have not had the time to cultivate relationships that eliminate fear, and generate productive trust.

It is both poetic and ironic, that one of the greatest leadership challenges of the modern world, is overcoming the inadvertent cost of one of our society’s greatest successes, namely the increased, though not yet perfect, degree of inclusiveness that has record numbers of women running for Congress this cycle, that has enabled women like me to be and become partners in global law firms, a pregnant Marissa Mayer to get tapped as the Chief Yahoo!, for Hillary Clinton to be not the first, but the third woman to become Secretary of State….and so on…

The complexity of today’s world however, is not an insurmountable obstacle.  With that complexity there are a number of tools, some based in technology, some based in our humanity, on which we can rely to build stronger, more productive relationships among one another.

For example, we should engage with the power of the social web.  Social media, of course, cannot solve all of our problems, it cannot itself integrate women fully into businesses, law firms, banks, institutions of higher learning, government…and so forth….and of course it is no substitute for real, in person, engagement when that it is possible.

But social media is an exceptionally useful tool….a time saver, when used correctly, it allows for and enables a level of advocacy, interaction, and the possibility of relationship building in ways never before imagined.  Indeed, the once pervasive anonymity of the internet is rapidly dissipating….the barriers to social interaction have dropped dramatically, facilitating a kind of inescapable openness and with that, a prospect for vulnerability and responsible sharing that enables stronger relationships, dramatically increased trust levels, and the opportunity for coalition building and collaboration among people who may otherwise not have had the same opportunity for relationship building without it.

The social web enables busy professionals who may not live or work near each other, to continue to develop their relationships between meetings, conferences and events, to develop that essential trust, and to maintain the ties that are so incredibly important to critical problem solving and the achievement of business, social and legislative objectives…. No matter where they live, or where they are located.

Similarly, social media allows younger women to get to know me, and me to get to know them—this dramatically enhances my ability to successfully mentor and advise young women—and by using skype, google hangouts, and a variety of other tools, I’m able to spend more time, more effectively, when needed, with more young women mentees who are counting on us–looking to us–to help navigate their futures, to stand by and support them as they figure out who they are, and what they are capable of becoming.

And lastly social media allows us to share information about opportunities with a broader cross section of women than may be immediately available to us in our contact lists.  To wit, every single time I hear about a job opportunity, which frankly appears to be more than a few times a week, I post and share it….last May, when many student mentees were looking for jobs, I was able to help countless women connect with employers for positions they love, by the way, but would no doubt not have known about, had it not been for sharing.

We’ve got to make a commitment to bring other women along with us.  We might not always be able to say “yes”….but our answer does not have to be simply “no.”  When I first started gaining public recognition for my work, showing up on a list here, obtaining a small honor there, suddenly, my once quiet phone was always and constantly ringing off the hook: “Binta, can you speak here, can you serve on my board, can you be on my committee, on my commission….”  Binta, Binta, Binta, can you, can you, will you, will you….It was as if I was the only woman, the only young woman, the only young black woman, anyone had ever heard of….

I won’t lie.  At first, the invitations were flattering.  But then I realized, I could not possibly say “yes” to all of the opportunities crossing my desk.  Ah, the complexity…and perversity, of choice… especially when confronted with the obvious limitations of our individual humanity.  We have to, as Barnard College President Debora Spar so persuasively wrote in a piece published by the Daily Beast earlier this week….we have to get comfortable with being imperfect, with saying no…and moving on.

But it wasn’t just that I couldn’t possibly say “yes” to everything—I was also mildly annoyed by some of the overtures, it simply could not be that I was the only qualified, young woman capable of fulfilling various demands and needs.

So my answer became “No, I cannot….but….my friend Stephanie can, Sarah can, Valerie might, Jennifer would be interested, Julie is amazing….”  We all have powerful networks of qualified friends, who might not yet be on people’s lists, but who are extraordinary and capable and ready for the challenge….and whether we’re aware of various opportunities or not, we have a responsibility, I think, to help other women out, to bring them along with us.

As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is so oft quoted, there is indeed a special place in hell for women who do not help other women…. And in a world that I believe is requiring us to move away from models of zero-sum, non-productive, jarring, destructive competition, towards collaboration and cooperation, we have no choice BUT to help our sisters get to where they are capable of going.  One thing I know with certainty?  There is space, indeed there is the need, for multiple women at every table—be it in the kitchen, or the boardroom.  Today, we know better than to subscribe to the obvious fallacy of scarcity, that might have once caused us to bitterly compete against one another—thinking there was space for only one woman to succeed.

We must also avoid the habits of mind that sometimes cause us to think we are not capable, that we are not good enough—habits of mind that diffuse our individual and collective power, that allow us to doubt and question ourselves to the point of paralysis.  The math is in our favor, the time is ripe, the ascendance of women as full participants in every sector of society all but certain…but that doesn’t mean it’s just going to happen….no, on the contrary….the forward progress of women requires, in addition to helping and supporting one another, that we never ever allow ourselves to give up or to give in to those fears and insecurities that can plague even the most confident and resilient of us….the forward progress of women, and achieving parity where parity is needed and optimal, requires us to have the confidence to assert ourselves, defeating obstacles when they emerge.

The world needs, and is desperate for our collective ingenuity, talent and energy.  We don’t have to ask that the odds be in our favor, because one thing is certain—they are.  Let’s continue to use today and everyday to build coalitions of amazing women, nurturing, supporting, helping one another, breaking down barriers together, carrying each other on our shoulders, and lifting one another as we climb—let’s each of us, in our own way be “powerhouses of awesome,” working together to weave a web so strong that when we fall, we bounce back achieving even greater heights, empowered by the strength and the prevalence of our extraordinary selves, by the strength of our humanity…because then, I have no doubt, we will have achieved that remarkable project of creating the needed, positive change the evolution our global society so urgently demands.

Thank you. Enjoy lunch!

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Early Influences….MLK Day Musings

When I was a girl I never really noticed my gender or, for that matter, my race. And I never ever thought of myself as somehow inferior or different than anyone else. Not really.  My parents, both of whom grew up during legalized segregation, simply didn’t see either characterization as impediments, reasons or excuses to do anything other than achieve….and so I was never allowed the luxury of deeming myself oppressed, or worse, inferior….and didn’t know and didn’t learn that by virtue of gender or race, or the combination of the wrong gender and wrong race that the world might somehow see me as less than. Instead, I was raised to believe that with hard work, discipline, passion and a commitment to inquiry and excellence, I could do and achieve whatever I wanted.

My parents, even when I did not realize or appreciate it, even when they might not have been able to afford it, provided me and my siblings with absolutely everything we needed as children: a loving, stable, intellectually curious home, rooted in our devout practice of Catholicism (as taught to us by Jesuits)….they provided us with the material comforts they could afford, lots of books, but also a heavy, heavy investment in our academic and cultural educations….

I was already aware as a young child that my parents were doing something for me, investing in me and my siblings in ways that other parents simply could not….this imbued me with a sense of justice and a desire for some sort of equanimity–it broke my heart that I got to do things other kids did not get to do or could not do because they or their parents had somehow been stripped of  their own humanity (whether because of society or their own doing)….I suppose that to me, passing through the poorest parts of Washington D.C., on my way to symphony rehearsals and passing through utter poverty in the deep south where I spent every summer until I turned fourteen….seeing that others were forced in many cases by circumstance: by the circumstance of birth, the circumstance of oppression, the circumstance of lack of opportunity or the circumstance of being raised to somehow believe that you are inferior or not entitled to every opportunity and success….I realized then that I would need to build a life that would allow me to bring opportunity to more people.

As I grew older, and I began to understand my parent’s commitment to justice as well as the good works of my maternal and paternal grandparents….I also began to understand deep, deep within my bones, that service, dying to self, endeavoring to elevate others and using whatever skill, power or influence I might attain to improve the lives and prospects of others, would also be essential to any success I might achieve; sitting on a pedestal by yourself is not success (if anything, it is a personally unacceptable form of failure)–it is only when we sit up there surrounded by many that we have truly succeeded on an individual and societal basis….and so a habit of service and promoting and encouraging the positive actions of others became ingrained very early on….

And while I do not believe in redistributive policies or government handouts of any kind–to me those actions can be as destructive and violative of our human dignity as structures that explicitly strip away our humanity (fundamental to our humanity is the ability to create and fail, and we cannot create or fail ourselves when someone is doing it for us) …. I do believe we must consciously engage in actions and pursue policies that will lift all boats, that will grow the pie.  Quite practically, if we don’t lift all boats, we cannot expect to prosper genuinely and permanently–it is simply impossible to move forward with anyone left behind.  It will not work.

If we want to grow our economy, if we want to change the world,  we can only do so by including more people, by growing the pie, not slicing it up differently….we can only do so by recognizing, respecting and promoting the fundamental dignity and humanity of every single person.  Those who have otherwise been left behind will only produce at their maximum potential if we respect their human dignity, rights and genuine aspiration.  Truly, if there is anyone who sees themselves as anything less than human, how can we expect them to achieve the fullest expression of their humanity?  How can we expect a woman who believes she is inferior to make a contribution?  It just isn’t possible.  So by creating conditions that allow for equality of opportunity, that recognize our basic humanity and dignity, we also create conditions that allow for, indeed stimulate the further creation of wealth and societal well being.

I Remember….Reflections on the Tenth Anniversary of September 11, 2001

Ten years ago today–though already well into our twenties–we were still kids….innocent, earnest, falling in love, at the very beginning of our careers and lives.  Some of us had just begun to live on our own, had just begun to make our own money, had just gotten engaged and in some cases married.  We didn’t appreciate then that much more of our lives and our potential lay ahead of us than behind us….

We had graduated from elite colleges and elite graduate programs into a prosperous, peaceful, seemingly certain and safe, forward moving world, highly innovative, and packed with extraordinary opportunity….we were working at elite firms like Cravath, Goldman or McKinsey, or had started our own companies, some of us making millions upon millions upon millions in the process.  We barely noticed it when the internet bubble popped…we just kept going.  We partied a lot, were not always serious, had a lot of fun while working very hard….we were young, just kids, and most of us had never known, seen or experienced true suffering, let alone the evidence of extreme hate.

It was pouring rain the evening of September 10th.  But that didn’t deter me and two of my best friends from going out to celebrate one of their birthdays.  Over a delicious sushi meal, we talked about their new husbands, and my then new boyfriend–the man whom I was so sure I was going to marry (and am quite glad I did not).  We planned triple dates and vacations and other outings.  We talked about our careers and the families we hoped to have.  Rain soaked yes, but there could not have been a more magnificent night, such a celebration of our youthfulness and our future….we had no way of knowing then that in some ways, that perfect night with such dear friends, would punctuate the end of our innocence and naivete.

I woke up the next morning, as so many people did, in wonder at the most perfect, crisp fall morning.  The light, the air, the sunshine, the sky….; such a messy night gave way to such an extraordinary, hopeful day.  Exultant that choppy market conditions resulted in the cancellation of negotiations (which would have been held in a building across the street from the twin towers), I went for a run instead of going straight to work.  Such a perfect morning for a run.  I felt so alive, so energetic, ready to conquer the world.

I was just finishing up my five miler (one of my best timed runs yet) when I saw the explosion.  It was so eerie.  How could there be an explosion that high in the sky? Shouts of “did you see that?” Nobody knew what was going on.  So, I ran home…. what we’d just seen just didn’t seem right.

Turning on the television….more confusion.  Called my mother, assured her that I was not downtown–told her that of course I’d get in touch with and find my sister.  But I wasn’t worried about my sister yet–because, well, there didn’t seem any real reason to be concerned.  No one had said anything or even speculated about a terrorist attack; we didn’t know about the Pentagon or Flight 93–just some small plane that had lost its way.  My gut told me it was far more serious than that…but still, my imagination hadn’t yet caught up with reality.

A good, dutiful Cravath soldier, I got dressed, put on my new gray Armani suit….just picked up from the tailor.  Headed into the office.  Was getting breakfast and looking out our Worldwide Plaza cafeteria window while paying the clerk when suddenly the towers were no longer in the sky.

Stunned.  I went back to my office.

The buzz, the hum, the machinery came to a stop.  I ambled out of Worldwide Plaza in a state of utter confusion and disbelief…..and suddenly, deeply saddened. I’d not only had classmates, and spouses of colleagues who were working in the buildings when they fell, but a housemate–she was also in the towers….and later that day….we learned she and so many other friends hadn’t made it out.

I remember that walk home–worried about my sister and friends, worried about my parents…..seeing  expressions of such utter despair, uncertainty and creepy bewilderment on so many people’s faces; ….downtown office workers in expensive suits now coated in white debris, wondering if they’d ever be able to wash it out of their skin and hair…..the sound of the sirens that didn’t seem to stop….and the smell that had already begun to permeate the air throughout the city….

I’m glad I found my sister, and that other of my friends who were supposed to be down there, like Shea, were safe….Kafi, Debbie and I, along with a few other folks I gathered (like stray cats) in the street on my way home, holed up in my apartment for what seemed like weeks, but was actually just two or three days….watching the news, trying to understand, trying to reach our families….comforting each other.  Calling my mother, over and over and over again, assuring her we were okay…and that we would not do as we were raised to do–to go and try to help.  When not on the phone with my mother, I was on the phone with that guy….the one whom I and my family subsequently fell in love with….only to discover a few years later that a marriage to him would be one I’d regret.

It’s a day that will stay with me forever.  How can I ever forget?

The days after….they are much less crisp than the evening before and the day of….all I remember was anger, fear, sadness, that smell, those sirens.  An uncomfortable relief that my meetings downtown were cancelled that morning.  And then.  Quiet.

I’d never known deep anger or hatred in my life until that moment.  I would not have thought myself capable of such exceptional rage.  But more bizarre than such alienating, foreign feelings, was how quickly they dissolved into compassion and forgiveness.  How could I feel sorrow not just for my friends and the emergency workers, but also for the perpetrators of such horrific violence?

We could not (and I still cannot) comprehend what had happened.  How it was possible. Our sense of security vanished, friends and colleagues forever lost.  So much gone, but not our dreams.  Not our hope.

And maybe that’s what it was….that sense of hope, that there would be a tomorrow, which enabled me to forgive….perhaps it was suddenly understanding that hatred is contrary to hope….that hatred keeps you rooted so deeply in the past, paralyzing you and your capacity for judgment, rendering you incapable of forward movement.  Whereas hope on the other hand–it compels us to move forward.  Hope requires action.

Perhaps remembering is not as important as honoring the sacrifice of those who perished and responded, of those who went off to defend our freedom, our values, our nation….honoring them by moving insistently and deliberately into our future to sculpt the world we hope for and need.

Since September 11, 2001, I have not always moved with such insistence.  Successes aside, I have made numerous mistakes and poor decisions–many which I seriously regret.  My actions have not consistently conveyed courage, compassion or selfless, unconditional love.  I have, at times, unwittingly betrayed my own values.  But today’s anniversary, and the emotions which are still so very much at the surface for me, are an incredible reminder….we can be defined by our mistakes, our failings and shortcomings….we can be defined by our hatred and fears….or, we can move forward, ever insistently, ever deliberately, with great love, great hope and great joy, promoting human dignity, seeking always the fullest expression of our humanity and grace.