The Committee of 200

It's lonely at the top -- even lonelier for women. And if there was a common thread among the very successful women gathered here last weekend, it was this feeling.

An elite group of businesswomen met privately in Los Angeles to launch what could be the flagship of women's business organizations.

The newly formed Committee of 200 is, roughly speaking, 200 of the most powerful and wealthy women in US business. It has billed itself as a women's Business Roundtable, after the influential group of 200 chief executives of major firms -- all of whom happen to be men.

Most of the women here are chief executive officers of companies grossing $5 million and up annually. Others are running major divisions of major corporations.

Founding members range from Katharine Graham of the Washington Post to Sherry Lansing of 20th Century Fox. Industries represented run the gamut from steel and construction to interior design.

These are women who, for the most part, don't join groups. ''I think we've all had to be highly individualistic, noncomformist, iconoclasts,'' says one, Paula D. Hughes of Thomson McKinnon Securities in New York.

But together they seek a collective voice with some collective clout. They seek an impact on critical business, public policy, and educational decisions of the day.

The point is also for women who have generally made it on their own to make contact with each other. ''You always end up speaking at a black-tie dinner, and you're the only one wearing a blouse,'' says Judy Hendren Mello, president of First Women's Bank in New York.

''I think one of the prime drawing cards (of the new organization) is how isolated we all have been,'' observes Sharon L. Folk, president of National Business Forms Inc. in Greeneville, Tenn.

The Committee of 200 grew out of a study by the National Association of Women Business Owners, which culled about 2,000 names from Dun & Bradstreet's million-dollar index and from trade association rosters. Surprised to find so many names, the association zeroed in on those women whose companies grossed $5 million and up or were of similar stature.

Like the Business Roundtable, the Committee of 200 is a self-selecting elite. Membership is by invitation only.

Among a small group of women interviewed after a day of meetings, the sense of electricity in the new organization was universal. Clearly they inspired each other. There was little consensus, much diversity of interests and opinions, and certain key things in common, they noted of themselves.

Their very successful colleagues at the confidential conference (not even husbands were invited) had a noticeable aura of confidence, they observed. As a rule they are loners, private people who had shown great resilience in the face of adversity, and some said this was the first conference invitation they had accepted that didn't relate directly to their business.

Feminists? No, yes, and not relevant were the answers. ''I don't think you'd call any of us radicals,'' says Paula Hughes. ''We were born independent.''

Charlotte Williams of Charlotte's Fine Furnishings in El Paso (outside of business, she points out, she is Mrs. Fred Korth) describes sitting on various boards, trade associations, attending meetings: always among men. ''It can get lonely.''

By the year 2000, Paula Hughes speculates, there will be women on the Business Roundtable, ''just as there will be skirt hangers in hotel rooms.''

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