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Schwarzenegger, Buffett and friends

The talk at the annual Long Beach Women's Conference takes some interesting turns.

October 23, 2008|Louis Sahagun | Sahagun is a Times staff writer.

The 22nd annual Women's Conference came to Long Beach on Wednesday and, at least at the beginning, men stole the show.

The conference got off to a humorous start during what was billed as a "once in a lifetime conversation" between Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and billionaire investor extraordinaire Warren Buffett, moderated by television political talk show host Chris Matthews.

But what could have been austere talk about falling stock prices and glass ceilings drew laughter and gasps from many of the 10,000 women in the audience when Buffett, playing to the crowd, hit Matthews with a particularly challenging question: "If you could have changed your sex into that of a woman, would you have?"

Matthews smiled sheepishly, then rambled about the virtues of womanhood.

Schwarzenegger eventually reminded him: "You didn't answer the question." Then Schwarzenegger took off on his own ruminations about the power and potential of women, although he pointed out that, "Here in California, they do have men that become women."

Matthews fired back: "Is that what you mean by 'girlie boys'?" -- a reference to Schwarzenegger's infamous label for gutless legislators.

"It was funny, but it drove a point home," said Karen Kaliseck, executive vice president of Women Media, a website offering expert advice for working women. "Buffett stumped Matthews. But Matthews' hesitation to answer that question reflected the hesitation of corporate executives who do not take women to the top of the ladder."

Marta Vasel, a regional asset manager from Chicago, said: "There was no right answer to that question. But it made all these guys human."

An estimated 14,000 women gathered at the nonprofit, nonpartisan conference held in the cavernous Long Beach Convention Center. The event, which began 22 years ago as a government initiative for female small business owners and working professionals, has mushroomed into the largest forum of its kind in the United States.

California First Lady Maria Shriver shaped this year's conference theme, "Be who you are. Feel it. Live it. Pass it on," with the goal of encouraging women to discover their purpose, passion and power. This year's highlights included seminars on starting a small business and financial well-being, and panel discussions on topics such as "Alzheimer's, cancer and aging parents" and "how to be a confident leader."

A remarkably diverse lineup of speakers and performers included leading women's advocate Gloria Steinem, actress Sally Field, blues singer Bonnie Raitt and Cherie Blair, a human rights advocate and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In a discussion moderated by CNN news anchor Campbell Brown, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Indra Nooyi, chairwoman and chief executive of PepsiCo, which operates in 200 countries and employs about 185,000 people, told the arena full of women to find their own way to success.

"When people ask me, 'How do I get to be a secretary of State?' " Rice said she offers up a personal story. "Well, you fail at piano and go from there."

In her case, "a black girl from Birmingham, Alabama" went on to "fall in love with international politics and the Russian language," she said. "My advice is that you do what you love and forget the rest."

Rice also said that having two female candidates in this year's presidential election -- New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- "bodes well for the future . . . I think they're both terrific."

Full day passes for the conference averaged about $125 each and sold out in a record three hours after going on sale July 14. Proceeds are used to pay for the event and guests, as well as a variety of educational and economic, leadership and educational women's empowerment programs.

"It's so worth the money to come here," said retired data processor Diane Cohn. "It is one of the highlights of the year for me."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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