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Brenda Barnes, Former Sara Lee CEO and Hero to Working Moms, Dies at 63

January 18, 2017, 12:45 AM UTC
Former Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes died today at age 63.
Barnes was the most powerful woman in the packaged goods industry in the 1990s when she headed Pepsi-Cola North America. She famously left her big job in 1997 to spend time with her family—igniting the “Can women have it all?” debate that still resounds today.
Barnes remained powerful—and made the cut for Fortune‘s annual Most Powerful Women list—even as she stayed on the sidelines serving as a director on numerous Fortune 500 boards. At the same time, she became a folk hero to many women, particularly moms who left top jobs to take care of their kids.
Barnes returned to the business world in 2004 when her three children were old enough to be on their own. She took a job as president of packaged-goods giant Sara Lee and rose to CEO. Barnes was in that top post in 2010 when she suffered a massive stroke while working out at her gym near her home in Naperville, IL.
As I detailed in an exclusive 2012 Fortune story, “The Rehabilitation of Brenda Barnes,” Barnes spent months in intensive rehab in Chicago, learning “to walk, speak, shower, brush her teeth, button her shirt, put a contact lens in her eye … get back to life. She threw herself into each humble mission with the same zeal she once used to address thorny financial and marketing problems.” In the process, she grew closer to her family.

Later in 2012, Barnes sat on stage at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit with her daughter, Erin—who days after graduating from Notre Dame quit a job she’d lined up at Campbell Soup in order to help her mother recover. This MPW Summit session is the only on-stage interview that Barnes ever did about how she willed herself back to life.

This past Sunday night, during her sleep, Barnes had another stroke. She died about 3 p.m. today at Edward Hospital in Naperville, surrounded by her children Jeff, Erin, and Brian.