The 5,000 women who gathered in the George R. Brown Convention Center for the 12th Annual Texas Conference for Women might have come from different backgrounds but they were united in wanting to make a difference and invest in themselves and their careers.
After a welcome message from First Lady Anita Perry, a morning session and lunch session featured inspiring stories from women (and one man) whose careers ranged from business and sports to entertainment and humanitarianism — plus a special message from Ben Affleck and an Oprah moment.
Learning to conquer fear
As life coach and author Martha Beck spoke in the morning session about fear and how to conquer it, she focused on a trip to Africa, partly to relate a story of how she was almost killed by a rhinoceros, but also to talk about a women on her trip who was afraid of getting divorced and having only three houses — crying in the midst of the human misery of Rwanda.
What's the lesson? That everyone lives with fear, no matter how good life might seem to other people.
Cindy McCain appeared onstage and spoke warmly and with conviction, with nothing to remind of her "ice queen" image except for her ever-present pearls......This is what happens when you judge people before hearing what they have to say: You feel like an ass.
It was an interesting story, considering one of the keynote speakers was Cindy Helmsley McCain, wife of the senator and former presidential candidate. "What's she going to speak about, the difficulty of managing eight or more homes?" I snarked before her presentation.
I was wrong. She talked about the plight of women being sexually assaulted in the Congo and her role as a chair on the Eastern Congo Initiative. This is what happens when you judge people before hearing what they have to say: You feel like an ass.
After a surprise video introduction from Ben Affleck, who thanked attendees for paying attention to the issues in Africa and urged them to join him and McCain in making a difference there, McCain appeared onstage and spoke warmly and with conviction, with nothing to remind of her "ice queen" image except for her ever-present pearls. She talked about the women in the Congo who told her they had been raped before and would be raped again, but stayed because they wanted to be a force for change in their country, and she credited her experiences as a mother for giving her the strength to visit third world, often war-torn countries.
Perserving through loss
Before McCain and Beck took to the stage, Turk Pipkin, the self-described "token male," talked about his film Building Hope and his non-profit organization The Nobelity Project before sitting down with U.N. Humanitarian of the Year Rose Mapendo. As a member of the Tutsi tribe, Mapendo survived a horrific experience during the genocide in Rwanda, which spilled into her homeland of Congo. Barely older than 20, she had seven children when her husband was killed and she was imprisoned, finding out later that she was pregnant with twins.
Her story was one of the strength of the human spirit, and told while often on the verge of tears. After delivering her babies on her own on the concrete floor of the jail, she used her own hair to cut the umbilical cords and named her babies after two prisons guards in the hopes it would inspire them to help her and the babies. It worked.
In another story of persevering through loss, Bellaire native Lisa Niemi Swayze talked about her struggle against fear. Comparing herself to "wilted grass," she said that after the death of her famous husband last year, she has felt lost and often despairing — "so how is it I have a book coming out in January?"
Lisa Niemi Swayze told the audience that being fearless isn't a characteristic, it's a deliberate action: "You're making a choice to be gutsy."
Swayze told the audience that being fearless isn't a characteristic, it's a deliberate action: "You're making a choice to be gutsy." She says the key to writing her book, or making a movie, or achieving anything else, is not taking no for an answer and not beating yourself up over shortcomings and setbacks — like her weeks when she wouldn't get out of bed — and finding the will to keep trying.
Legendary University of Texas basketball coach Jody Conradt opened by talking about what it means to be on a team, what makes a team better (passion and communication) and what makes a person invaluable. Conradt talked about her record-breaking 34-0 season and how her players were able to accomplish something no one had done before because they had been through the setback of being upset by Western Kentucky in the NCAA tournament the year before and had to watch four other schools play for the championship on their home court.
"After that no one cared who scored or who got written up in the paper. Everyone just wanted to win," said Conradt.
She also talked about one point guard who was 5'4", not terribly fast and not a great shooter — and how she was awarded one of the highest honors in college basketball anyway — not because of her statistics, but because she made everyone around her better, and other people recognized it.
The Oprah moment
In the final keynote address, Women For Hire CEO Tory Johnson sat down with Barbara Bradley Baekard, the co-founder of Vera Bradley. Baekard's bags may be ladylike, but she is a pistol in person, talking about how she wanted to call her wallpaper installation business "Well Hung" (her first husband vetoed that idea) and on sending the obituary of her mother, the real Vera Bradley, to a client who refused to pay a bill and told her that "Vera Bradley won't drop dead over $100."
Her biggest advice was to figure out what you do well and find other people who can do what you can't. And then, just as the attendees might have been fading in their energy, it was time for the Oprah moment, as dozens of volunteers emerged from the screened areas to give out free Vera Bradley coin purses.
Sadly Baekard did not take the opportunity to stand and declare "You get a coin purse! And you get a coin purse! Everyone gets a coin purse!"