Powerful women bet their careers

I’m on vacation this week — or I’m supposed to be! The blog world never sleeps, I guess, nor does learning while away. So I’ll share with you a few things I’m learning here in Allentown, Pa.

Aside from plowing snow, I’ve been plowing through the invite list for next year’s Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. This, as you may know, is the annual powwow that accompanies the release of what has become Fortune‘s second most valuable franchise: the annual Most Powerful Women in Business list. (No. 1, fyi, is the venerable Fortune 500.). As I scanned the Summit invitation list (and checked it twice!), I was struck by the number of women who have made big career moves — and risky ones at that.

Kathy Murphy, the CEO of U.S. Wealth Management at ING and No. 41 on this year’s MPWomen list, just joined Fidelity Investments. She’s the new president of personal investments at Ned Johnson’s ever-so-secretive empire. It may be a smart move for Murphy, as Fidelity has lost lots of top talent and has plenty of problems to fix.

Two other veterans of the MPWomen list took high-risk leaps as well. Paula Reynolds, the CEO of Safeco who sold her company to Liberty Mutual for $6.2 billion earlier this year, is now vice chairman and chief restructuring officer at AIG (AIG). There aren’t many restructuring jobs bigger than this. And Cece Sutton, who headed retail and small business banking at Wachovia until Wells Fargo’s recent buyout, moved to Morgan Stanley . No. 33 on the 2008 MPWomen list, Sutton is aiming to build Morgan’s retail operation as the investment bank morphs into a commercial bank. The world according to TARP.

And one move I discovered as I scanned the Summit invite list yesterday: Lorraine Bolsinger is the new president and CEO of GE Aviation Systems. Bolsinger led General Electric’s Ecoimagination initiative these past three years. So now, are green avionics on the way?

The Fortune 500, meanwhile, has a new female CEO: Laura Sen, president and COO of BJ’s Wholesale Clubs , will become CEO on Feb. 1. BJ’s stock, btw, has outperformed not only the S&P but Target and Wal-Mart too over the past five years. That’s a feat!

One more big appointment announced just yesterday: Karen Mills is President-elect Obama’s choice to head the Small Business Administration. Co-founder of Solera Capital (with Molly Ashby, Solera’s CEO), Mills is a regular at our MPWomen Summit. In fact, we’ve had both her and her mom there. That’s Ellen Gordon, the president of Tootsie Roll.

Mills comes from good business stock. Her mom’s father bought up enough Tootsie Roll shares in the 1930s to gain control. After he ran it, Ellen and her husband,  Melvin, took charge. Melvin, Karen’s dad, is now 89 and chairman. With $498 million in revenues last year, Tootsie Roll has a $1.4 billion stock-market value. That’s just $400 million less than General Motors. Selling candy must be healthier than selling cars. Sweet!

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