Meredith Whitney gathers the power

January 28, 2009, 12:22 AM UTC

I was with 25 powerful women and one man last evening. We agreed: The worst is yet to come, but if something good comes out of these crises, it might be because we’re all questioning our higher calling.

The setting was the Manhattan home of Meredith Whitney, the Oppenheimer bank-industry analyst whose early calls on Citigroup and Bank of America , among other teetering giants, earned her a Fortune cover story last August and the 35th spot on our 2008 Most Powerful Women list. The guy in the room—the evening’s guest speaker—was Michael Lewis, the best-selling author of Liar’s Poker, Moneyball,  and The Blind Side.

Lucky guy. Well, he seemed to think so. Especially as the group conversation shifted from one theme—business is awful, uncertainty is overwhelming, and “I’ve never felt so powerless as I do now,” as one woman put it early in the evening—to another theme: So what are we going to do about it?

And as we leaned in that direction, the group—including attendees of Fortune‘s annual Most Powerful Women Summit and others from the top levels of media, law, and banking—talked about stepping up civically or philanthropically to help resolve the mess we’re in.

Katie Hood, who is CEO of the Michael J. Fox Foundation, said she’s been fielding lots of calls from friends in financial services. They typically say something like this: “I don’t think my job is coming back. What can you tell me about the not-for-profit sector?” She’s a good one to ask since she once was a credit analyst at Goldman Sachs .

Nancy Peretsman, the Allen & Co. investment banker who has advised Google and News Corp. on major acquisitions, told us about the surge in popularity of Teach for America, where she’s on the board of directors. TFA’s applications for the 2009 class of incoming teachers are up 48%—on top of a 36% increase last year. The terrible job market is fueling much of TFA’s growth. Besides that, though, young people are looking for careers where they can make more of a difference than in the corporate world.

The guy in the room, Lewis, talked about women and power (smartly), but he struck a chord particularly by noting about President Obama: “He’s tapping into people’s desire for altruistic behavior.” And what better time for a President to do this than the worst period since the Great Depression? “History doesn’t repeat. There is no relevant precedent for this,” Lewis said about the downturn, observing that today the collapses are larger, the falls are steeper, and isn’t everything happening so much faster than it used to? Whitney, in a chair next to Lewis in her living room high above Manhattan, agreed that we haven’t seen the worst of the downturn.

Whitney, whose single focus once was making the right stock calls, is now thinking a lot about using her power more broadly. “Creative construction is far harder and more challenging than creative destruction,” she said last night, referring obviously to the fact that her prescient analysis helped bring down the banking sector. This afternoon she happens to be in Washington D.C. meeting with a very powerful federal official. She’ll pump this official for information, no doubt, but more importantly, she wants to ask: How can I help?

You have power and influence. Besides surviving, what are you doing with it today?