A lot of bankers these days talk about getting back to basics, but few are able to articulate what that means as well as Carrie Tolstedt, U.S. Banker's Most Powerful Woman in Banking. For the senior executive vice president of community banking at Wells Fargo & Co., the key is remembering a time when she herself felt like a valued bank customer.

While accepting her award Wednesday night at a reception at the Pierre Hotel in New York, Tolstedt recalled how she learned about banking at a young age, growing up in a small town in Nebraska where her father owned a bakery. "Surrounded by flour dust and frosting," she helped her father tally up the day's receipts, then walked with him hand-in-hand across the street to the bank to make the deposit.

"The tellers were always so nice to us. They knew my dad by name. They treated him with respect," she said. "Through this early childhood experience, I not only knew banking was important, somehow I also knew my dad was a valued customer and his business relied on his bank."

The potential for banking to have a powerful impact on the lives of many was a theme echoed throughout the evening among the more than 600 people gathered to honor Tolstedt and the other women on the 8th annual list of The 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking. But the celebration really focused on the role women in the industry play in making such a lasting relationship with a bank possible.

Though the mood was light and positive, the honorees, as well as keynote speaker Meredith Whitney, didn't shy away from acknowledging the challenges ahead — consolidation, tightened regulation and the foreclosure crisis, to name a few. Whether or not the industry is able to overcome those obstacles depends on the willingness of its leaders to not only work together, they said, but to guide future executives — both women and men.

"We know the next generation of leaders will face more complexity," Tolstedt said. "Our direct involvement through teaching and mentoring is one of the most important ways we can ensure that our industry continues to be a source of positive solutions."

Like Tolstedt, Lifetime Achievement award winners Yasmin Bates-Brown, former executive vice president of community affairs and economic development at Bank of Montreal's Harris Bank in Chicago, and Diane Thormodsgard, former vice chairman and head of wealth and securities services at U.S. Bancorp, touched upon experiences in their life that affected their careers and led them to the banking industry.

Thormodsgard said she could not have accomplished so much without the support of her peers and superiors, U.S. Bancorp Chief Executive Richard Davis, among them. Davis, who introduced Thormodsgard, pointed out that many of the women in the room "got into this business accidentally," but that each has "toiled hard … to do great things."

Bates-Brown, for example, never lost sight of the difficulties she faced growing up in the projects of Chicago. She channeled her energy into revitalizing struggling communities within that city, helping to fund small businesses and community centers.

Overall, the atmosphere was collegial; on more than one occasion, and by several different people, the phrase "you rock" was shouted from the podium. And the evening's soundtrack of Lady Gaga and Cyndi Lauper underscored the aura of girl power.

Tolstedt offered up her own definition of such a concept.

"Some think of power as force or authority. I view power not as force, but as capacity," she said. "Our capacity to perform with effectiveness. Our capacity to use our influence and knowledge. Our capacity to mobilize the energy of others and the capacity in others.

"You are powerful for your willingness to collaborate and work together to climb higher and reach further."

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