Donna Karan Arianna Huffington Christy Turlington WIE symposium

Donna Karan (left), Sarah Brown (center), and Arianna Huffington (right) host the WIE symposium. Photo: Joe Schildhorn for Billy Farrell Agency

A passel of glamorous, high-powered women gathered Sept. 20 in New York City for the first annual Women: Inspiration & Enterprise symposium.

The WIE event was hosted by designer and Urban Zen founder Donna Karan, media mogul Arianna Huffington, and Sarah Brown, the Global Patron of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood and wife of the former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

The industrial-chic Skylight West building was flooded with famous faces and inspiring stories.

Stars from film, fashion, media, philanthropy, and finance mingled with young entrepreneurs and activists.

In a rotating series of presentations and panel discussions, the speakers addressed the role of women in the workplace, access to education, the economic impact of empowering women, and the Millennium Development Goal of maternal health.

And you never knew whom you'd bump into in the elevator, from spiritual activist Marianne Williamson to singer Estelle to supermodel turned filmmaker Christy Turlington Burns!

Huffington focused on women as communicators, harnessing new technology to forge communities and new businesses. She pointed to so-called "mommy blogs" as an example and emphasized that "women need to do success differently."

Karan moderated a panel of fashion and media luminaries: designers Diane von Furstenberg and Tamara Mellon, Harper's Bazaar editor-in-chief Glenda Bailey, mega-entrepreneur Sheila C. Johnson, and Lauren Bush, founder of FEED Projects. The women talked about finding their own independence and encouraging others through the power of a great idea.

Film producer Christine Vachon led a conversation on telling women's stories through film -- with wry humor injected by director and writer Nora Ephron, who recently had a double-heroine hit with "Julie & Julia."

Fellow (or should we say, sister?) screenwriter-director Nancy Meyers, actress Elizabeth Banks, and Turlington Burns chimed in about their efforts to highlight women's experiences on film. All agreed that beyond romantic comedies, it was a frustrating struggle.

They also debated how the Internet and other new technologies influence film and storytelling. Ephron claimed, "On Facebook I have no friends, but I use Twitter to find out where my children are!"

Brown spoke movingly about the rights of women and children, particularly for medical care to lower maternal mortality rates. She was joined by Melinda Gates (wife of Bill Gates), who told illuminating stories of her travels on behalf of maternal and child health.

Despite all these boldface names, the event's standing ovation went to a simple statement from a previously unknown voice. Nthabiseng Tshabalala, a schoolgirl from South Africa, movingly spoke about the need for education for young women.

On a less highbrow subject, it must be said that the participants wore fabulous footwear. From DVF's high pumps with an island platform to Karan's sturdy, flat black boots, they were living proof that you can be both brainy and bombshell.

WIE white gowns auctioned off support White Ribbon Alliance WIE symposium

A sea of white gowns being auctioned off to support the White Ribbon Alliance. Photo: Joe Schildhorn for Billy Farrell Agency

In a glittering finale, guests hit the roof for a fashion show of dazzling white evening and cocktail dresses, which are being auctioned at the Charitybuzz website to benefit the White Ribbon Alliance.

Top-drawer designers such as Vera Wang, Stella McCartney, Catherine Malandrino, and of course, Donna Karan donated the gowns. Bidding will be open from Sept. 22 until Oct. 13.

The event aimed not only to raise awareness and funds for women's issues, but also to provide practical advice from groundbreaking role models. Here is some of their hard-won wisdom.

10 Inspirational Takeaways


Diane von Furstenberg: "My trick is that the very first thing I do each day is for someone else," like sending an e-mail to make an introduction. "The most important thing about giving is to make it part of your everyday life... like brushing your teeth."

Dr. Terri Kennedy, motivational speaker: "Take five minutes in the morning to think of your goals... then a few minutes at the end of the day." This habit helps ensure you're "living on purpose, not just with purpose."

Susan Smith Ellis, CEO of (RED): "Go outside! Nothing's going to inspire you on a telephone or computer."

Elizabeth Banks
: "Take little boys to movies starring girls!"

Glenda Bailey: "Working your way up is way overrated, in my opinion." Instead, she emphasized the need for a personal passion and a willingness to take risks.

Bobbi Brown, cosmetics giant: "You could say one of my biggest gifts is my naïveté... it's about being clear and having a vision."

Mellody Hobson, financial expert: "Smile a lot... people want to work with happy people." She then explained that when she was given this advice herself years ago, she shrugged it off before realizing its truth. "Be the person people run to."

Maria Eitel, president of the Nike Foundation: "Say 'girls and women' [instead of 'women and girls'] so that girls don't fall off the end."

Ashley Judd, actress: "[Enlist] empathy, which is different than pity."

Cathie Black, chairman of Hearst magazines: "Never send a four-foot plant [after a job interview]... Now I have to water it!"

In related news, read about the inspirational women honored by Talbots.