Gates, Buffett and Powerful WomenOctober 3, 2008: 5:25 PM ET
What a wrapup this morning at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. I interviewed Melinda Gates -- with Warren Buffett watching from the front row. Buffett was flanked by his daughter, Susie, and his daughter-in-law, Jennifer, both of whom are powerful philanthropists in their own right.
It was fascinating to have Melinda Gates talk about her heady missions -- find an AIDS vaccine, eradicate malaria, reform U.S. education, bring a Green Revolution to Africa -- just one day after Buffett, the world's greatest investor, talked to us about the essence of investing: "Swing at the easy pitches," said the Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.B) CEO, adding, "It's the opposite in philanthropy. By definition, you're going to have a lot of failures."
That contrasting difficulty of giving money away, in fact, is one of the reasons Buffett has opted to funnel the vast majority of his wealth to Bill and Melinda Gates -- and clearly, they love that philanthropic challenge of disbursing his and their own billions. Melinda, who was the subject of a Fortune cover story that I wrote last January called "Melinda Gates Goes Public", told our gathering of 300 women leaders that she overheard her youngest daughter talking to herself about learning to tie her shoes: "This is difficult. But I like difficult," her daughter said convincingly.
As the morning rolled out, we talked a lot about other daunting challenges. Like the global financial markets. My colleague Carol Loomis led that session, with Citigroup's (C) Sallie Krawcheck, Oppenheimer analyst Meredith Whitney, and Barclays Capital (BCS) vice chairman Barbara Byrne, who was in that same role at Lehman Brothers until Lehman went bankrupt last month and Barclays swooped in to rescue the core of its North American operations. ("Surreal" is how Byrne, a 28-year Lehman veteran, described this past month's experience.)
These panelists' heads were spinning this morning over the news that Wells Fargo (WFC) wants to buy Wachovia (WB) -- potentially thwarting Citigroup's pact to acquire Wachovia's banking business. Whitney, the go-to bank analyst on Wall Street (and No. 35 on our just-released Most Powerful Women list), told the Summit attendees that a Wells-Wachovia deal would be a dire development for Citi given Citi's need to shore up its balance sheet with consumer banking deposits.
Krawcheck, who was Citi's top woman exec until she announced last week that she's leaving the company, had an interesting take on the Wells-Wachovia news and on Buffett's combined $8 billion investments in Goldman Sachs (GS) and General Electric (GE): "These are green shoots in the permafrost," Krawcheck said. Citi's former CEO of global wealth management is typically a pessimist, she admitted, but she's viewing these latest deals -- the rare ones done without government assistance -- optimistically, at least for the world's financial markets. (Good for Buffett too: He's been loading up on Wells Fargo stock this year.)
Just as Carol Loomis was wrapping up the panel, we heard the news that the Senate approved the $700 billion bailout plan. The room full of women leaders applauded. The women on stage looked very relieved.
We closed the Summit with a session on the Presidential race. It included Obama finance chair Penny Pritzker and former eBay (EBAY) CEO Meg Whitman, who is now co-chair of John McCain's campaign. I'll share some fascinating tidbits from that session -- and lots more from the Summit -- next week. Enjoy your weekend!