A recent poll of the Wharton Women in Business club asked members to list their “dream speakers” for this year’s 25th anniversary of the annual WWIB Conference. The person topping the list was Andrea Jung, chairman and CEO of Avon Products, the first woman ever to hold these positions at the company. WWIB members got their wish on Nov. 5 as Jung addressed a packed hall for the afternoon keynote session. Jung shared anecdotes from her career, described her strategy for expanding the reach of Avon Products, and offered advice on how to become a great leader who ensures the future success of women at the top of corporate America.

Inflection Point

Invoking the writer Louisa May Alcott, Jung suggested that the start of the 21st century will be remembered as “an inflection point when women began to ‘bask in the sunshine of their highest dreams.'” Jung was named CEO of Avon in 1999, the same year that its new slogan, “Avon: The Company for Women,” was adopted. In the 11 years she has been there, Jung said she has seen myriad changes, and not just in the gender of the top officeholder. When she arrived, although 100% of the company’s sales force – the iconic ‘Avon ladies’ who sell the company’s cosmetic products from their homes – were women, and the customers were all women, there “were no women past middle management at Avon.”

As the slogan changed (gone was the kitschy original, “Ding Dong, it’s Avon!”), so did the makeup of the corporate suite. “When I interviewed with Jim Preston [former chairman and CEO of Avon] for my job, he had a plaque on the wall behind his desk,” recalled Jung. “On it was a footprint of a barefoot ape, a footprint of a barefoot man, a wingtip shoe, and a high-heeled shoe. Underneath it said, ‘The evolution of leadership.’ I asked Jim if he believed in that plaque and he told me, ‘Absolutely. In my lifetime, I believe a woman will run this company. This should be the first Fortune 500 company run by a woman.'” The exchange left an impact on Jung, who said she never imagined that she would be that person. On the day Jung became CEO, Preston gave her the plaque, and it now hangs on the wall behind Jung’s desk.

Being first holds responsibilities, Jung emphasized. “I think about the speech Denzel Washington gave at the Oscars when he acknowledged Sidney Poitier, saying that he was standing on Poitier’s shoulders in order to achieve what he did,” she said. “The responsibility of being first is to be sure you are not last. I am one of a few now, but I hope the list will get even longer in the future and you will all stand on our shoulders.” Already that change is being felt at Avon itself: The company’s board membership is now half female, there is a woman president and a woman chief operating officer, half the managers globally are female, and 85% of the management team in the United States is female. In the next 10 years, Jung said she believes there will be a comparable exponential change in the number of women in top positions across all of corporate America.

“For years, when I used to sit down to do the New York Times crossword, there was a common word in the puzzle that was four letters, second letter ‘V,’ and the clue was ‘Ding Dong,'” said Jung with a laugh. “That’s how Avon was seen. Now I am proud to say that last year for the first time I saw those same four letters, second letter ‘V,’ and the clue was ‘The Company for Women.’ That’s who we are.”

Business as Empowerment

Jung has charted an ambitious course for the future of Avon. “We were founded 120 years ago on the concept of women’s empowerment by a male founder who believed that even before women could vote they deserved to be economically independent,” Jung said. She emphasized that the company was less about lipstick and perfume than it was about providing an upwardly mobile livelihood for each of the women sales representatives employed to sell Avon products. “The notion was scandalous then, but now we have five million reps in more than 140 countries, nearly all of whom are women, and they support themselves by selling Avon,” she said. “My own grandmother sold Avon.”

Though the cosmetic company recently launched a men’s line for the first time in the U.S., Jung said the most dramatic growth-related question the company has asked this year is, “Do women wear lipstick behind the burka?” Though Avon sells in Asia, South America and across Europe, it has yet to break into the Middle East. According to Jung, “Our decision about entering will not be based on waiting for the market size to show that it’s large enough for a big profit. We want to help. Our social purpose, our role, will be to lift women in that part of the world. We will live up to our promise to be the company for women.” Jung said Avon will continue to explore how to break into the Middle East in order to provide income opportunities to women there and support their move towards economic independence.

“It’s All About the People.”

Jung also offered her audience advice about building successful careers of their own. “I never thought running an organization would be so complex. I have learned, however, that it’s all about people – getting the right people,” Jung said. “Spend the time to ask yourself who you can get who can be better than you. Constantly look for new ideas, new eyes, new perspectives.”

She pointed to her parents as the “single biggest influence” on her life. Raised in a traditional Asian family, Jung’s father hailed from Hong Kong while her mother was originally from Shanghai, China. “They demanded achievement. They demanded that we must do better than [they did] and they instilled a work ethic that carries through for me to this day.” Jung described her mother frantically cleaning the house and cooking a Peking duck in anticipation of a visit from Dan Rather for a “60 Minutes” report when Jung was named CEO of Avon. “She worked for two weeks to prepare, and what ended up in the piece was my dad saying, ‘I don’t know how she’s going to do this job.’ He had raised me to be a good, traditional Chinese daughter. How to marry that with what he thought it meant to be an American CEO in the corner office, type A, aggressive, rude – he just didn’t see how it fit,” Jung said.

But Jung said her parents’ support has made an enormous difference to the way she approaches her career and in the way she has succeeded. “They constantly reminded me, ‘Never forget your culture,'” Jung said. “They said, ‘Have pride in who you are, no matter what you think business demands of you.’ So I have altered and bettered myself along the way, but I have never had to compromise myself.”

The Work/Life Conundrum

Jung, who graduated magna cum laude from Princeton University with a degree in English literature, went to work first for Bloomingdale’s and then for I. Magnin department stores, where she became senior vice president and general merchandising manager at the company’s San Francisco headquarters. She worked briefly at Neiman-Marcus before joining Avon in 1994 as president of its U.S. product marketing group.

On the eternal dilemma of finding a balance between life and work, Jung told her audience members to simply hold on to their senses of humor, to have passion for what they do, and to “follow your compass, not your clock.” She pointed to times when she passed over offers to become CEO of other companies because she loved Avon and the work she accomplished there. “It’s not worth it to take a job for money or a title and pretend you like the industry you’re in. Don’t do things because you think it’s time; do things because you love what you do,” she said.

Jung also shared a story about being on a board meeting conference call on the day of her son’s birthday when he burst into the room yelling, “This Scooby Doo is the wrong color! I want the dark brown color, not the light brown color!” Jung said she tried promising to buy her son as many Scooby Doos in any color he wanted, if only he would let her finish the conference call. It was too late. “Now, years later, board members still see me and say, ‘So, dark or light brown Scooby Doo?'” Her advice to the women of the WWIB was not to try and be all things at all times to either their companies or their children, but to choose what’s most important, and be there 100%. “I have extraordinary children; they are the most important people in my life. There are a lot of games and concerts that I miss, but never the most important ones,” she said. “There are also a lot of days and meetings at Avon that I miss – but never the most important ones.”

One meeting Jung did skip was an invitation to the White House to meet with President George W. Bush. “I was the only woman invited to this meeting of CEOs with the President,” she said. But it was also the first time her daughter was going off to sleep-away camp. “I just thought, George W. Bush will never remember that I was not at his meeting. But my daughter always will. So I said, ‘Sorry, Mr. President.'”

Jung closed her address by encouraging women in the audience to aim high and support each other as they embark on careers after business school. “You are each other’s shoulders to stand on,” she said. “You have a collective responsibility to help each other succeed. And I can promise that when you stand up there, the view will get clearer.”