Rep. Jackie Speier Inspires at the Professional Business Women’s Conference

On Tuesday 3,100 women gathered at the Moscone Center in San Francisco for the Professional Business Women’s Conference. I was excited about the morning keynote speakers so I sucked it up, woke up early (for me), took what felt like the slowest-train-ever downtown. I skipped the long line at Starbucks (despite being a little bleary eyed) and rushed into Moscone.

“Wait. What are all these dudes doing here?” Then, I realized I was across the street at the Google Developers Conference. (Note to self: write that blog about how few women still work in tech.)

I arrived at the media table a tad late, but attendees were still filing in and I hadn’t missed the women I most wanted to hear. The headliners for the morning were Congresswoman Jackie Speier and Author/Good Morning America Contributor Lee Woodruff. Overcoming adversity was a general theme for the morning and Speier, who is my Congresswoman, may be my new hero. She didn’t talk about politics, but rather she spoke about her extraordinary life story.

I knew part of that story. As a congressional aide to Rep. Leo Ryan, Speier was shot five times on the runway outside Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. Ryan and several members of their party were killed in what was the beginning of the infamous Jonestown massacre. The Congressman took his staff, press and constituents to visit the People’s Temple community because concern about the cult was growing in his district. After being shot and lying on an ant hill for twenty-two hours, Speier was rescued and spent two months recovering in the hospital. Her political career was then dotted with successes and failures.   Several years later, as if the world hadn’t thrown her enough tragedies and challenges, she was forced to terminate her second pregnancy.   Rep. Speier was a mature, married mother who very much wanted another baby, but she explained to us that the fetus had dropped from her uterus into her vagina and wasn’t going to survive. She and her husband eventually adopted a child only to have the birth mother take the child back. Then, they were told there was little chance of fertility treatments working and so decided to be happy with their only child.   Eventually, she became pregnant naturally. Speier dropped out of a state-wide race in order to preserve the health of her unborn child. Two weeks later her husband was killed in a car accident.

Despite the overwhelming set backs and tragedies Speier never gave up. She raised her two kids, remarried, and 30 years after serving as a congressional aide she was elected to represent the same district.   Speier is a good speaker, but the inspiring thing about her story is that she never quit. “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” Speier asked the crowd. She reminded the audience,“Don’t be afraid to take calculated risks.” Out of context those statements might seems a little cliche, but it’s clear that she’s learned those lessons through experience.

I enjoyed my day at the Professional Business Women’s conference and, I agree with Mira Veda, that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg had some of the best practical career advice of anyone at the conference. However, Representative Jackie Speier was a great start to the day and a good reminder that no matter how bad it gets -- just keep going.