Gerry Laybourne reemerges, wisdom intact

May 26, 2009, 11:33 PM UTC
Fortune

Where in the world is Gerry Laybourne? Last we heard, she sold Oxygen Media for almost $1 billion to General Electric’s NBC Universal. The media-industry icon, who had built Viacom’s Nickelodeon before creating Oxygen, has been notably quiet since her mega-sale in the fall of 2007.

In fact, I didn’t know what Laybourne was up to until last week, when I ended up at her apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Reason I was there: Laybourne invited the participants in this year’s Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership for idea-sharing on a variety of topics—business-building, creativity, women and power, the state of the universe. Each May, Laybourne meets with the mentees — rising-star women from across the developing world who come to the U.S. to shadow participants in the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. Every May, the mentees say that meeting with Laybourne is one of the highlights of their month-long U.S. visit.

So this year I went to the Laybourne powwow — and as I admitted to her last week, I went partly to find out where in the world she’s been. “India, Bhutan, the Amazon—places I never had time to go to,” Laybourne told the 32 women from across the globe. One of her favorite trips was to Namibia, she said. That’s home to two of this year’s 32 mentees.

Laybourne really sounded liberated to be out of a job. “I’m happy to be a broader global citizen than I was when I was a grunt of a businesswoman and had time [during a trip] only to go to the hotel or to the meeting.”

Not that she’s abandoning her career forever. Now is prime time for women leaders, she contends. “Men’s brains are bigger, but we have more pre-frontal cortex, so we make connections better.” And connections — collaborations, partnerships, joint ventures — are more critical to business and politics than ever.

So is being adaptable, since today more than ever, who knows what tomorrow will bring? Women may have an edge in that respect. “We keep a lot of open folders in our minds, which is why we drive men crazy,” she told the group. “I joke that Steve Jobs is part woman because he has such an intuitive way of thinking about things,” she said, professing her admiration for Apple . (She’s an Amazon fan too. Loves her Kindle.)

Laybourne noted two areas where women aren’t too adept. “One is tooting your own horn,” she said. “Women are slaves to facts and don’t take risks as readily and trust their intuition.” She felt her own intuition blocked at Disney , where she spent a couple of years pre-Oxygen and felt that centralized control and over-analysis of ideas hampered creativity. “Eighty percent of business decisions get made on intuition,” she ventured.

Laybourne is trusting her gut — yes, her intuition — to lead her to her next gig. She wouldn’t say what it might be, but clearly she’s thinking about government as well as business. “I’m very excited by the Obama Administration,” she said, citing education, health care and infrastructure as three areas that particularly interest her. She has a screen saver on her computer that shows all the U.S. Presidents — 43 white guys — and then Barack Obama. “It’s a beautiful image,” she said. “I have so much hope, I can hardly stand it.”

Watch for Laybourne to reemerge. For a woman who wanted to be a city planner, became a teacher and then an entrepreneur, and ended up as one of the media world’s great pioneers, the world is open to her.