Most Powerful Women

Leadership lessons from a top entrepreneur

November 7, 2013: 12:42 PM ET

The Silicon Valley entrepreneur and Starbucks (SBUX) board member shares the leadership lessons she learned at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit.

By Clara Shih, founder and CEO of Hearsay Social


This October, I attended the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C., and spoke on a panel with three other women under age 40: Warren Buffett's financial assistant Tracy Britt Cool, Cinnabon President Kat Cole, and SunRun founder and CEO (and my Stanford classmate) Lynn Jurich. Fortune's Leigh Gallagher moderated the conversation, which covered all kinds of inspiring and helpful leadership lessons.

Here are a few highlights I gleaned from my co-panelists:

Inexperience isn't always bad. Jurich's lack of experience in the solar and energy industries freed her to ask "dumb questions." (Jurich's company installs solar power systems in residential and commercial properties). This turned out to be quite smart. She was able to create her company's energy-focused mission with a fresh perspective because she wasn't weighed down by expertise -- and the assumptions that often come with it.

Details and depth matter. Cool met her future boss, Buffett, when she was an undergrad at Harvard and organized a group visit to Berkshire Hathaway's (BRKA) Omaha headquarters. Most students are in and out within the day, but Cool and her group stayed for several days to get to know Buffett's businesses.

It's okay to fail. Cole talked about the importance of risk-taking -- and how different industries tolerate failure to various degrees. She reminds her Cinnabon employees that they "make buns, not bombs." No lives are at stake when a batch doesn't turn out. It's okay to fail. That's how we get better.

Respond to discrimination with grace. Gallagher asked if any of us had felt discriminated against in our careers or school years due to age, race or gender. I shared my philosophy that you can't control what other people assume about you, but you can control how you react. It's usually most constructive to give people the benefit of the doubt and respond with grace.

Following our panel, I caught up with two Silicon Valley friends who are under-40 influentials. Wildfire (GOOG) CEO Victoria Ransom (left) and Instagram (FB) director of operations Emily White (right) joined me, fittingly, for an Instagram.


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About This Author
Colleen Leahey
Colleen Leahey

Colleen Leahey joined Fortune in May 2011 to cover leadership, technology, and small business. She also focuses on building the Fortune Most Powerful Women franchise in the digital and live media space and manages programming for the MPW Summit. Previously, Colleen worked at The New Yorker and Bicycling magazine. She is a graduate of Georgetown University and lives in Manhattan.

Email Colleen Leahey | @cmleahey
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