Senator Mikulski on inspiring bipartisan conversation

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, right, with Fortune’s Nina Easton

FORTUNE — If 76-year old Barbara Mikulski could time travel and chat with her 20-year old self, her advice would be simple: It doesn’t matter that you’re not 5’4”. These sorts of quips—Mikulski’s stature falls just short of five-feet—are key ingredients to the Maryland Senator’s tell-it-like-it-is reputation. They popped up throughout her conversation Wednesday evening with Fortune senior editor Nina Easton, garnering laughs and helping the politician charm her way into the hearts of the 27 emerging global leaders listening to her every word.

This year’s Most Powerful Women dinner in the State Department’s Benjamin Franklin Room gathered a wide range of high-powered guests, from U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin and Deb Fischer, to Ernst & Young’s Beth Brooke, to CEOs like Guardian Life’s Deanna Mulligan, and Solera Capital’s Molly Ashby. The event celebrated the launch of the Eighth Annual Fortune/U.S. State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Partnership, a public-private program that pairs rock-star global businesswomen with mentors at U.S. companies for five weeks; the 2013 class of mentees hail from 17 different countries and are working with women at companies like IBM , Goldman Sachs , SPANX, and Pepperidge Farm . As the longest-serving female in U.S. Congress and the current chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mikulski welcomed the mentees to America by sharing her own personal leadership story and her take on the importance of mentorship.

Growing up, Mikulski never expected to land on Capitol Hill. Raised in the Highlandtown neighborhood of East Baltimore, Md., she does not have the Ivy League resume so many of her Congressional colleagues boast. Mikulski attended Mount Saint Agnes College, then received her masters in social work from University of Maryland—and fell into politics after urban planner Robert Moses attempted to build a freeway through two Baltimore neighborhoods. Her friends were intimated by the corporate bigwigs, and weren’t sure how to formulate a successful argument against the project. With her social education as an obvious bonus, Mikulski stepped up and crafted a plan, which began with thinking of a cool, militant-esque name. “We had to create the illusion of power,” she laughed. The crew then entered a local bar, only to leave calling themselves SCAR: Southeast Council Against the Road. The freeway was never built, but the foundation for Mikulski’s political career was.

Mikulski credits her initial DC success with timing, and a little bit of history. She entered the U.S. House of Representatives in 1977 as a Democrat from Maryland’s 3rd district, right on the heels of Congresswomen Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, Jane Harman and Bella Abzug. They were the first wave of female Reps riding the second wave of the feminist movement. The women had to be twice as good as the Congressmen, and work twice as hard to get jobs done, Mikulski recalled. There was also a celebrity-like interest in their personalities. “Are you Bella without the hat?” Mikulski would get asked early on in her career. “I don’t need the hat,” she replied, remaining true to herself to forge her own identity.

Though those women carved a path that Mikulski gladly followed, it was her relationship with then-Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, that opened her eyes to the beauty of bipartisan friendship. When Hutchison entered the Senate in 1993, Mikulski had been there for several years—and their fiscal views could not have been more different. “People thought we’d never be friends,” said Mikulski. But Hutchison approached her regarding an IRA policy for stay-at-home moms, and the two concocted legislation that created tax opportunities for homemakers. Hutchison then suggested they have monthly dinners, which turned into lifetime friendship. (Mikulski once traveled to Houston to attend an event for Hutchison’s brother, who has multiple myeloma. Hutchison suggested they enter the Astrodome on horses. Mikulski was appalled at first—Me, on a horse?—but rode side-by-side with her Republican friend. For the rest of the day, her nickname was Buckboard Barb.)

The relationship with Hutchison inspired Mikulski’s lifelong philosophy of creating meaningful relationships with her colleagues, which she says creates better results. Though she doesn’t see eye-to-eye with every one of the 19 other women Senators, there’s a general respect amongst the group that Mikulski’s experience seems to have instilled. “We talk about macro issues and macaroni and cheese issues,” Mikulski said, mentioning that they often view economic conversations by thinking about how certain policies help or hurt American families. “We don’t judge each other,” she says about the women. “If it’s not today on this issue, then tomorrow.”

Two of Mikulski’s friends, Senator Kelly Ayotte and Senator Jeanne Shaheen, also shared their breakthrough leadership tales with the crowd at the Fortune dinner. Ayotte discussed a pivotal moment just after she graduated from law school, when she asked to be put on a difficult homicide case. “My client had more trial experience than me,” she laughed. Her risk paid off—and enabled her to pursue a career in murder prosecution. Shaheen, who is the only U.S. woman to be elected both a Governor and a Senator, told the story of a post-win cartoon that depicted her with a pickaxe and shattered glass all around. Speaking to the women in the room, she said that the glass had obviously shattered for them. But it’s important to remember, she added, “It’s not shattered for all women.”

It’s no secret the MPW community hopes to see more women in senior leadership roles. Mikulski’s favorite quote, told to her by the nuns who ran her high school, rang loud in the audience’s ears. “It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness.” Each mentor is sharing her flame with a global mentee. And each mentee plans to take that flame and pay it forward in her home country. One can only hope that soon enough, there will be little darkness to curse.

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