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Deep Divides—and Attempts to Cross the Aisle—at the MPW Summit: The Broadsheet

October 23, 2019, 12:02 PM UTC

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Scandals at WeWork and Theranos tarnish unconnected female-founded companies, New York Attorney General Letitia James leads the way on breaking up Facebook, and controversies—of all kinds—come to the MPW Summit. Have a nice Thursday. 

EVERYONE'S TALKING

- Reporting from Washington. Day 2 of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit featured the most talked-about session of the three-day event: the interview of former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen by PBS Newshour’s Amna Nawaz.

Even before Nielsen spoke at the Summit, a campaign against her presence there prompted some scheduled attendees to cancel. Fortune editor-in-chief Cliff Leaf explained Nielsen's place on the agenda by citing the magazine’s 90-year commitment to a free press and a mission to ask tough questions of those in power.

On stage, Nielsen responded to strong questioning from Nawaz by keeping to her talking points, sticking by the Trump administration’s support of a zero-tolerance policy that resulted in families being separated at the Southern border. "I don't regret enforcing the law because I took an oath to do that," Nielsen said. Nawaz countered that the law Nielsen referred to has been in effect during prior administrations, but that those administrations largely had declined to separate families in order to pursue prosecutions; in spring 2018, Nielsen signed off on a memo calling for dramatic enforcement measures that included routine separation of parents and children.

Nielsen also commented on her departure from the Trump White House, stating that she ultimately left because “saying no” to the suggestions of others in the administration was “not going to be enough.” (The full video is here if you want to see the interview for yourself.)

Interestingly, Brandeis University professor and feminist icon Anita Hill preempted Nielsen’s appearance somewhat, by earlier in the day using her own interview time to explain the deep history of family separation in both slavery and the government's treatment of Native Americans as a tool to dehumanize individuals and eliminate their cultural roots.

The visceral response to Nielsen points to the intensely partisan climate that permeated the Summit’s host city, Washington, D.C., and the United States at large, even before the current impeachment investigation got under way.

Two other Day 2 panelists, Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D–Mich.) and Elise Stefanik (R–N.Y.), spoke of trying to cut through the constant cross-aisle fray to find common ground. Together, they’ve co-sponsored 85 bills in the House and fostered a working friendship that is, in their view, reminiscent of a bygone era of camaraderie in Washington. “It’s a conscious effort,” Slotkin said of their collaboration. "I would say that the number of people in Congress who make that conscious effort is probably not big enough."

Despite the congresswomen's best efforts, there's no doubt a debilitating divisiveness has infiltrated the U.S. And while it centers firmly on politics, there’s no way for business to escape its vast scope, as was made evident in a town hall on corporate values yesterday. In that forum, executives talked about socially charged decisions—halting the sale of assault rifles, advocating for voter registration, publicly supporting women’s health—as corporate stances that faced blowback. In an era when stakeholders expect organizations to be purpose-driven, there’s little avoiding such contentious issues; identifying a purpose in and of itself can be seen as political decision. The key, as executives told it yesterday, is for corporate behaviors to reflect the values a firm ultimately advocates.

Laying low is also not an option. As Victoria Medvec, co-founder and executive director of the Kellogg Center for Executive Women at Northwestern University put it: “Silence is a complicit act.” 

Claire Zillman
@clairezillman
claire.zillman@fortune.com

MORE FROM THE MPW SUMMIT

- Dinner with Tulsi. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), a 2020 candidate for president, continued strongly criticizing Hillary Clinton and her foreign policy at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit. She also answered a definitive "no" to the question of whether she would run as a third-party candidate. Fortune

- Scandal by association. Scandals at WeWork, Theranos and other startups are unfairly tarnishing the reputations of female-founded companies not connected to those organizations, founders say. "There’s just a volume problem with female founders—so when you have one or two bad actors, and you’re in the same space, or you have any semblance of the same appearance, which is true for me," says Julia Cheek, founder and CEO of EverlyWell, an at-home health testing startup, who often hears comparisons to Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos.  Fortune

- McSally's stand. Sen. Martha McSally (R–Ariz.) told the crowd at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit what it took to come forward with her experience of being raped by a superior officer while she was in the Air Force: "If there was somebody that this happened to yesterday or 30 years ago, maybe seeing me share my own story helps them get out of bed today." Fortune

- No normalcy here. Tesla board chair Robyn Denholm didn't anticipate things would be easy at the automaker. "I don’t expect normalcy in that environment," she says of Tesla and its disruptor peers. Fortune

- Worth the risk. Citi, Levi Strauss, and Dick's Sporting Good have all taken strong stances on gun violence prevention. Their executives explain why—and why it was worth it: Fortune

- Rural America. Improving quality of life in rural America will solve problems for the American agriculture industry, says Land O'Lakes CEO Beth Ford, No. 31 on Fortune's Most Powerful Women list. Rural America, Ford says, is the "new inner city." Fortune

- Be like Burch. Women need to embrace ambition, says Tory Burch, founder of her eponymous fashion brand. That applies to women "whether you’re a stay-at-home mom or an executive," she says. Fortune

- Diversity downturn. During market downturns, companies lose focus on diversity and inclusion, says Carla Harris, vice chairman and managing director at Morgan Stanley. "The intensity goes from 10 to one," Harris says, "and that’s when you lose your pipeline." Fortune

MOVERS AND SHAKERS: The White House established an advisory council on science and technology that includes Bank of America chief operations and technology officer Catherine Bessant; Berkeley chemistry professor Birgitta Whaley; and CTD Holdings chief scientific officer Sharon Hrynkow. Lightspeed Venture Partners named Mercedes Bent and Anoushka Vaswani partners. 

ALSO IN THE HEADLINES

- Yes, and? COO Julie Bornstein left Katrina Lake's Stitch Fix months before its IPO. Her first independent venture since her departure will be The Yes, an "A.I.-powered shopping platform;" its funding round was co-led by Forerunner Ventures' Kirsten Green. The details are still mysterious: TechCrunch

- Team effort. New York Attorney General Letitia James organized an event that took place yesterday where state attorneys general and federal regulators explored legal grounds to build an antitrust case against Facebook. There's reportedly another meeting in the works for the group to strategize about Google. Wall Street Journal

- Too big to discriminate? Facing a class-action lawsuit over gender pay discrimination, the Walt Disney Company is arguing that 10 plaintiffs can't represent a larger class—because the company is too big and too diverse for those women to represent thousands of employees. Disney denies women were paid less than men because of their gender. Variety

- Red Light revamp. Femke Halsema, the first woman to be the mayor of Amsterdam, has been working to limit tourism in the city's Red Light District, in part as a response to concerns about human trafficking. The New Yorker dives into her efforts—which have received mix responses from sex workers. The New Yorker

Today's Broadsheet was produced by Emma Hinchliffe. Share it with a friend. Looking for previous Broadsheets? Click here.

ON MY RADAR

CBD skincare: How female-founded Sagely Naturals is entering the hot new market Fortune

Gwen Ifill memorialized with USPS Forever stamp NBC News

Fisher Investments withdrawals exceed $2 billion as New Hampshire pension plan exits CNBC

QUOTE

"[It's like being] 7 ½ months pregnant with a 10-pound baby and we’re ready to deliver."

-Old Navy CEO Sonia Syngal on spinning off from Gap Inc. Syngal spoke at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C.