Inspired by Yellen, Women in Banking See 'Infinite' Possibilities

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This year's most powerful woman in banking is ready for a rendezvous with Janet Yellen.

"I can't wait to meet her," KeyCorp Chairman and CEO Beth Mooney said Thursday at an American Banker gala honoring the industry's top woman.

So what would Mooney, No. 1 on the list of the 25 Most Powerful Woman in Banking, say to the central banker?

"I'd be tongue-tied," Mooney said.

Yellen was not among the 675 attendees at the annual awards dinner in New York at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, but her presence certainly was felt.

"This year, we could not have had better timing," said Heather Landy, American Banker Magazine's editor in chief, acknowledging Yellen's very recent nomination in her opening remarks at the gala.

The Federal Reserve vice chairwoman made history on Wednesday when President Obama named her as his pick to lead the U.S. central bank. Her nomination followed months of speculation about who would be tapped to succeed current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, with many theorizing that Yellen would lose out on the position to White House favorite Lawrence Summers. But the tides turned against the former Treasury Secretary as Yellen received a groundswell of public support, and as key senators said they would vote against Summers if he were nominated. Summers withdrew his name from consideration in early September.

Gala attendees saw Yellen's widely anticipated appointment as a source of inspiration for other women in banking who face logjams in the advancement pipeline.

"Women who find their way to the top create a draw for the people who are coming behind," Mooney said of the nomination.

"I'm so exuberant about Yellen," said LeeAnne Linderman, executive vice president of retail banking at Zions First National Bank in Salt Lake City. "Not just because she's a woman, but because of her experience and reputation. She's eminently qualified and she earned this, hands down. I'm hopeful that this sends another message about the incredible, deep talent among women in banking and finance."

American Banker Editor-at-Large Barb Rehm used Yellen's prospective tenure as Fed chair as an example of how having a woman in a key leadership role can make a meaningful difference to an institution.

"Janet Yellen isn't going to change the course of monetary policy drastically. She isn't going to get rid of the Volcker Rule, but there will be some priorities at the Fed that will reflect the fact that she is a woman and that will be progress, too," Rehm said in her remarks.

Yellen's historic nomination wasn't the only recurring theme Thursday night. Both Mooney and JPMorgan Chase's Mary Callahan Erdoes, who topped the list of the 25 Most Powerful Women in Finance, noted that they are "proud to be" bankers, even with the reputational issues that banks face.

The industry "learned hard lessons" during the financial crisis and its aftermath, Mooney said in her speech. "But I'm proud to be a banker… Banking powers the dreams, hopes, and aspirations that are the legacy of this country."

Another oft-repeated phrase at the event, and one likely to surface at any gathering of professional women these days: "Lean in." Playing off the title of Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg's bestselling book, Mooney urged the powerful women of today to help up-and-comers "lean in" to their careers, while Rehm told the audience of bankers, "I'm sure a lot of you, like I did, bought [the book] for the younger women in our lives."

Maria Coyne, KeyCorp's executive vice president of consumer and small-business banking and one of this year's 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking, said "leaning in" is "about not selling yourself short, creating your own destiny, and being forthcoming about what you want." The most important thing Lean In has achieved, she said during a cocktail reception following the awards dinner, is that "it's started a dialogue" among professional women of all ages and levels of experience.

Women like Sandberg, Yellen and Key's own Mooney give Coyne ample hope for the next generation, she said. Coyne said that when she speaks to her daughter and daughter-in-law about their careers, "they feel the possibilities are infinite."

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