Girl talk, pearls of wisdom at Women to Watch gala

Among the Women to Watch honorees on stage in Washington, from left to right, are Rabbi Sharon Brous, Estee Portnoy, Ellen Stovall, Ruth Marcus and Jillian Copeland, Dec. 7, 2009. (Michael Bennett Kress)

Among the Women to Watch honorees on stage in Washington, from left to right, are Rabbi Sharon Brous, Estee Portnoy, Ellen Stovall, Ruth Marcus and Jillian Copeland, Dec. 7, 2009. (Michael Bennett Kress)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — “The CEO of what?” asked my friend Stewart, when I told him I was looking forward to an event in Washington honoring, among others, Laurie Ann Goldman, the chief executive officer of Spanx, Inc.

He didn’t get my enthusiasm.

Goldman’s innovative hosiery and undergarment company needed little introduction at the Jewish Women International’s 12th annual Women to Watch gala Monday afternoon at the Hilton Washington. She joined fellow honorees Rabbi Sharon Brous, Yanina Fleysher, Laurie Ann Goldman, Ruth Marcus, Julie Morgenstern, Estee Portnoy, JJ Ramberg, Melissa Arbus Sherry, Ellen Stovall and Jillian Copeland for a girl-power celebration, equal parts light-hearted chatter and insightful rumination. 

With accomplishments and contributions as wide ranging and diverse as their fashion accessories, the women on stage laughed and nodded in agreement and support. During an “Up Close and Personal” symposium, they shared secrets to their respective successes, as well as the challenges of balancing family and communal responsibility with professional drive.

“You don’t have your life that you live and your life giving back. It’s all the same thing,” said Ramberg, host of MSNBC’s “Your Business” and co-founder of GoodSearch.com and GoodShop.com.

Portnoy, the longtime spokesperson and business manager for Michael Jordan, mused that while she doesn’t regularly light Shabbat candles with the basketball legend, charitable giving has been an integral part of their work together.

“In my work with Michael, the most fulfilling things I’ve done with him have really fallen in the charitable areas,” she said. “I’m not always surrounded by Jewish people on the basketball court, but off the court we share those same values.”

But perhaps the most moving personal share came from Stovall, president and CEO of the National Coalition of Cancer Survivorship and herself a three-time cancer survivor.

Reflecting on what might be her legacy, she said it is helping other survivors deal with their illness — one person at a time — that has given her the most satisfaction.

“Having cancer [may have been] my identity,” she said, “but it’s not my legacy to be the ‘cancer lady,’ ” — it’s her family and friends.

The honorees focused on family and friends when one audience member asked, "What do you do for fun? How do you sit and giggle with your girlfriends?"

“With manis and pedis!” exclaimed Morgenstern, the time-management guru and frequent Oprah Winfrey guest who bikes regularly in Central Park (and recently took up gymnastics at age 47). Yet she also said it was only recently that she learned “fun is a vital part of an inspired work life.”

Following the symposium, the honorees were introduced individually by actress Mayim Bialik, of “Beaches” and “Blossom” fame, during a luncheon. Each was asked to share “pearls of wisdom” in 300 words.

As her company’s chief problem solver, Goldman cheekily confessed to solving big “wardrobe problems for women like ‘muffin top,’ ‘grid butt’ and the dreaded BBS — dreaded bad bra syndrome.” But it’s accepting responsibility and accountability for your own problems that is the key to success, she said.

“The solutions are up to you,” Goldman said.

“Success is not luck,” she said. “It’s believing you are lucky.”

Most astonishingly (at least for this reporter) was the assertion by Marcus, the Washington Post, Pulitzer Prize-nominated columnist, that she did not initially believe she had opinions worth sharing in print every week.

“It is not possible to get an A every week,” she acknowledged.  “Some of [my columns] are a B-plus, but it’s very important for us as women to get over the notion that we have to deliver perfection in everything we do. We need to learn to swagger, or at least get comfortable pretending to swagger.”

After listening to the 10 accomplished honorees get personal and introspective, show emotion and humility, I left the JWI luncheon reflecting on the “pearls of wisdom” that I also wear — each one given to me by an experience or an encounter that shaped my life.

So while I am still learning to perfect my swagger, when I told my girlfriends that I now have a free Spanx gift card from the Women to Watch gala, they totally got it.  And that gets me an A, every week.

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