Most Powerful Women

Former Sara Lee CEO on her stunning recovery

December 21, 2012: 9:38 AM ET

At the height of her career, Brenda Barnes famously quit her big job at Pepsi to be with her kids. Years later, a massive stroke nearly killed her--and her daughter returned the favor.

Ever since I interviewed former Sara Lee (HSH) CEO Brenda Barnes and her daughter, Erin, at this year's Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit, people have been urging me to publish the video of our on-stage conversation.

I'm happy to share this exclusive interview here, during the holidays, because Brenda and Erin offer wise advice about where we super-strivers should place our priorities.

Brenda Barnes was the most powerful woman in the consumer packaged-goods industry in the '90s when she quit her senior post at PepsiCo (PEP) to go home to her family. She famously sparked the having-it-all debate--and went on to raise three great kids. Then she became a role model for dropping out and coming back successfully. She did it by joining a slew of prominent boards--Avon (AVP), the New York Times (NYT), Sears (SHLD), Starwood Hotels (HOT), and Lucasfilm, now part of Walt Disney (DIS). Stacking up that board experience, Barnes attracted the favor of recruiters and snagged the top job at Sara Lee, which she led for five years until 2010.

This was when a massive stroke ended Barnes' corporate career. And it could have ended her life. But something amazing happened. Barnes' daughter Erin, who had been nine years old when her mom quit the Pepsi job for her, graduated from Notre Dame the very week her mother had her stroke. Erin decided to quit the job she had lined up at Campbell Soup (CPB) so she could help her mom recover. Barnes came back to life beyond anyone's expectations. Together, Brenda and Erin redefined power and success.

You can read my exclusive story, The Rehabilitation of Brenda Barnes. And over this holiday season, cheers to our families and everyone who is there for us when we really need them.

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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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