Highlights from TEDWomen Session 1: finance in Iceland, Hans Rosling on washing machines, and how women + humor = change

I'm at TEDWomen, which takes today and tomorrow at the International Trade Center in Washington, DC. The organizers have turned this venue into a wonderful little sanctuary with massage stations, a cartoon exhibit, and lots and lots of coffee — much needed after the red eye that brought me to the biting cold East Coast just this morning. Here are some highlights from the first session:

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Hans Rosling gave a funny talk that posited economic development against the proliferation of the washing machine. When Rosling was seven, he watched his mother load a washing machine for the first time in his life. They invited his grandmother over to watch — she has been heating stoves on firewood to handwash clothes for seven children with her entire life — and the grandmother sat mesmerized in front of the contraption through the entire wash cycle. "To [her], the washing machine was a miracle."

It doesn't take much research to know that the bottom two billion people live on less than $2 a day — below the poverty line — and that one billion people spend more than $80 a day — above what he calls the "air" line. Rosling did some serious digging and number crunching to divvy up the economic scale by washing machine ownership. It turns out that an additional one billion people own washing machine, i.e. live above the "wash" line. These people spend about $40 a day. This means that, in a world with seven billion people, two billion have washing machines and the remaining five billion still wash their clothes by hand. This is a task that mainly falls on women, who spend hours every week performing this heavy-duty task by hand, often lugging water to their homes or their laundry to a water source far away. "They all want a washing machine. There's nothing different about their wish than my grandma's two generations ago in Sweden."

Rosling wrapped his talk with two important points: one, that as the population grows, the top consumers of money and energy need to spend less energy and transfer some of the current energy usage to green energy usage. Two, having a washing machine allowed him and his mother the time to enjoy things like reading books.

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Halla Tomasdottir explained how her financial firm, Audur Capital, survived Iceland's 2007 economic collapse without any direct losses because she incorporated feminine values into her business:

1. Risk awareness: not investing in things she didn't understand. "It's not complicated, but there was a lot of reckless risk-taking in 2007."
2. Straight talking: using simple language that people understand.
3. Emotional capital: "We believe that doing emotional due diligence is just as important as financial due diligence. It's people that make and lose money, not Excel spreadsheets."
4. Profit with principles: looking beyond just economic profits in the next quarter to long-term financial, social, and environmental benefits.

Tomasdottir thinks pairing female values with sustainability practices will yield some of the most interesting investment opportunities in the years to come. A lot of people try to rebuild models that have failed over and over again, but a new way of thinking about consumerism and the balance between the men and women could lead good businesses to change the world.

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Also...

* New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly gave a hilarious illustrated short talk about the expectations girls grow up with (eat this, wear that, don't be like this); how her mother gave her a cartooning book instead of pushing these ideals on her; and how women + humor = change.

* Ted Turner showed up for a quick interview with organizer Pat Mitchell. He reiterated an idea presented in the past that, if only women held positions in elected office for the next 100 years, they would spent money on healthcare and education — not aircrafts and weapons — and end war. When asked what women have influenced him most, he said: "My mother, my last wife Jane Fonda, my daughters... and all the women I've loved before."

* In taped footage from a November TED event, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said this about being the "iron lady" of Africa: "Being a woman and going through what I went through set me apart and enabled me to achieve what I achieved. I've been a victor of circumstances."