The least powerful woman
Last week, I had the privilege of attending Fortune’s Most Powerful Women dinner in New York.
Now, before you declare that the most obnoxious and unlikely sentence ever written, let’s be clear. I wasn’t exactly invited. Alas, my evil plans for power accrual have been stalled by the remodel of my underground lair.
I didn’t crash the party, either. Rather, my awesome (and far more powerful) boss couldn’t make it at the last minute, and she graciously allowed me to go in her place. How lucky am I?!
But then the plane ticket purchasing high subsided. And it hit me: I was about to be the Least Powerful Woman at a Most Powerful Women dinner. By about 20 rungs. And let’s be real here, I’m probably not even on the same ladder.
Oh. Em. Gee.
Panicked, I immediately began: a) scouring the interwebs for an outfit so perfect it would compensate for all other deficiencies, and b) preemptively drafting a series of self-deprecating tweets to have on hand. Ya know, the standard coping mechanisms.
Why the freak out? It’s not like I’m totally unaccustomed to hanging out with a more powerful set. The Valley is filled with brilliant people, and I’m often the least impressive and intelligent person in a room. I legit love that.
But it’s different when it’s an invite-only event, and the people invited have all earned the right to be there. Would they (politely) question my right? Would they even want to talk to me at all? And if not, could I overcome my chronic networking paralysis and summon the courage to talk to them? Standing in a corner and praying to be hit on for the sake of conversation was unlikely to work, given the obvious lack of Y chromosomes. Er, not that I’ve ever done that.
Well, the big night arrived. And the women milling about during the cocktail hour were, as expected, crazy impressive in every way imaginable. Some I knew by name, others I had to surreptitiously google later in the bathroom. You’ll have to take my word for it, though, because it doesn’t seem right to namedrop anyone here.
Except maybe when it comes to Martha Stewart. I think she’s fair game. And she was positively regal. As soon as she entered the room, the volume dropped and every head turned. And even though my commitment to the domestic arts has dropped precipitously since the age of eight, I just had to meet her.
Which never would have happened, if the powerful woman I was chatting with at the time hadn’t pulled me across the room, depositing me firmly in front of the Queen of Homemaking herself.
“Martha, this is Ashley,” she said.
“Hello dear,” Martha cooed. “Are you an intern?”
Staring into Martha’s impossibly tan, impossibly smooth face (holy skincare regimen, isn’t this woman sixty-something??), I was so nervous I almost said yes. Whatever you want me to be, Martha.
I did, I think, manage to get out one word.
Martha nodded politely, and my escort provided a few more helpful details about my identity. And then Martha was gone, her earth tone-clad body gliding through the crowd.
(I think I made a good impression.)
The dinner portion of the evening was fantastic. Everyone was chatty and friendly and interesting. The speakers were truly inspiring, and amazingly humble. They’d overcome some crazy shit, and many of them – despite their near-omnipotence – seemed to have far more balanced lives than I.
They also killed – or at least challenged – some assumptions of mine. I’ll admit to being wary of the effect that power can have on women. Rising to the top ranks in Corporate America seems to require a pretty substantial degree of aggression and ego (not to mention pantsuits, barf). The same goes for men, but these traits are already in line with the accepted male stereotype. I guess I just don’t like the idea of femininity and power being inversely related, which is one of the reasons why I’m such a Sheryl Sandberg fangirl.
So anyway, I did it. Great success, as Borat would say.
To celebrate my survival, I headed straight into another terrifying situation: karaoke-ing. Eek. And who happened to be getting his sing on in the East Village, but the one and only Adrian Grenier (sans any sort of entourage).
Funnily enough, I wasn’t even fazed. Perhaps I’d accrued some power at the prior event. And by power, I mean booze, natch.