1. Meredith Blake
The idea for Women Rule! started with Blake: Straight out of UCLA School of Law, Blake founded Break the Cycle, a nonprofit agency that helps teens prevent and end dating abuse and domestic violence. Ten years later, in 2005, she joined Participant Productions (now called Participant Media), which makes films such as Al Gore's Oscar®-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Inspired by the power of the media to spread important messages, last year Blake founded Cause & Affect, a company that designs high-impact social action campaigns around issues ranging from the environment to human rights to women's leadership. When she took on the White House Project, she contacted O's health and news director, Liz Brody (the two had been tossing around ideas for years). "Making your dream a reality almost requires an obsession," Blake says, "a feeling that your idea really, really matters and that you are the one to make it happen come hell or high water." To that, she adds: "You also need a ton of chutzpah and a Teflon skin. You must have, or quickly develop, the ability to forge ahead in spite of naysayers and, ideally, leave them in the dust."
2. Marie C. Wilson
Wilson took Blake and Brody's enthusiasm and ran with it—agreeing to expand the White House Project's political training to a leadership program in various fields. Wilson had launched the White House Project 10 years earlier, when she was president of the Ms. Foundation for Women. "I have never known anything about any field I entered," she says with amusement. "I was a philosophy major in college!" A mother of five children, one of them with special needs, she says there's still a deep ambivalence in the world—and inside women—about ambition. "It's not that women can't dance; it's that women are waiting to be asked," she says. Wilson insists that we must encourage one another to take the lead. "Within the next 24 hours," she says, "you should call up a friend and say, 'Have you thought about becoming a leader in your community or running for...?'"
3. Cheryl Dorsey, MD
Dorsey immediately agreed to take part in Women Rule! when she was contacted by the White House Project. In the early 1990s, while studying to be a pediatrician at Harvard Medical School, Dorsey saw a photo in a local paper of a poverty-stricken mother leaning over the grave of a child. It was her "moment of obligation"—the realization that a particular issue is so important you have to do something about it, "that you are accountable for it, that you own it." Dorsey launched Family Van, a mobile health unit for Boston's inner-city residents. That endeavor was financed by Echoing Green, a global nonprofit that provides seed money to social entrepreneurs with bold ideas. Today Dorsey is its president. "Ideas without execution are simply daydreams," she says. "My mother was convinced she invented Cookies 'n' Cream ice cream. Maybe she thought of it. It doesn't matter—she didn't do it."
4. Mee Moua
Minnesota state senator Moua joined the Women Rule! lineup as inspiration for anyone considering political office. She was born at the height of the Vietnam War in a bamboo hut with no electricity or running water in a jungle village of northern Laos. Her family immigrated to the United States in 1978 and settled in Wisconsin, where they faced the common postwar hostility toward Asians. "I've always been guided by my mother's words: 'No matter how American you become, some people will never like you because of the way you look. That is why you must study hard, go to college, come back, and be their boss.'" Moua did just that, becoming a lawyer and then winning a seat in the Minnesota senate by contacting every single household in her district, reaching out to the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised. "We should infuse our hearts and our souls into this political world that we live in," she says. "Just look around and see what the world has come to without our presence at the decision-making table. We must be audacious, we must be strategic, and we must be ambitious about taking up the mantle of affirmative leadership because we know we can do better."
5. Philanthropist Libby Cook
Cook agreed to help support Women Rule! financially, then came to check out the participants, counseling a number of them during and after the conference. Cook, with her husband, turned a local health food store called Wild Oats into a billion-dollar company before selling it to Whole Foods in 2007. "I had no business experience and made every mistake in the book—at least twice," she says. "At one point we were trying to be everything to everybody—we had seen hard-core hippie health food stores fail and we were trying to be a crossover store, introducing customers to natural foods without scaring them. But people were wondering: 'What's your real message?' Sometimes it's important to start small and be really focused." Wild Oats provided the means for Cook to create Philanthropiece, a foundation that supports international programs focusing on education, health, and the environment, with an emphasis on local communities
(Cook took a particular interest in several participants, including Lea Webb, Micki Krimmel, and Rahama Wright and has been working with them to develop their projects). "You have to surround yourself with the right people," she says. "I didn't care about having marquee names on my board. I knew not to ask, say, the dean of a business school because he's too darn busy. I looked for people with the same passion I had."