Most Powerful Women

Former CEO Brenda Barnes passes the power to her daughter

October 3, 2012: 3:38 PM ET

Brenda Barnes was the most powerful woman in the consumer packaged goods industry in the 90s when she decided to leave her big gig at PepsiCo (PEP) and go home to her family. She had a husband and three young kids, whom she realized were more important to her than her highflying career.

Some people thought she was crazy to give it up.

But while she was on the sidelines, Barnes went on a bunch of big boards—Avon (AVP), the New York Times (NYT), Sears (SHLD), Starwood Hotels (HOT)—and returned to business in 2005 with an even bigger job: at Sara Lee (HSH), where she was CEO until 2010, when she had a major stroke.

This sounds like a tragedy, but it didn't turn out that way.

Barnes' daughter, Erin, was due to graduate from Notre Dame five days after her mother had her stroke. Erin had lined up a plum job in sales at Campbell Soup (CPB). This was the young woman who had been nine years old when her mom quit her job for her. This time around, how could Erin not follow suit? Erin took a year off to help her mother recover.

My exclusive story, The Rehabilitation of Brenda Barnes, is in the current issue of Fortune. But even better, I interviewed Brenda and Erin Barnes together on stage yesterday at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. There were not a lot of dry eyes in the house. Here's a clip.

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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