SAN RAMON -- Chemical catalysts spark reactions without themselves undergoing permanent change.

But at the eighth annual East Bay Women's Conference on March 4, catalysts were redefined.

Instead of passive agents, the "Catalysts of Change" were keynote speakers and guest presenters whose lives triggered long-lasting, explosive, profound change for themselves and for subsequent generations.

Approximately 560 attendees of the conference, sponsored by the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau and Chevron Corporation, filled San Ramon Marriott's Bishop Ranch Ballroom with communal, sometimes incendiary energy.

A presentation by humanitarian photographer Lisa Kristine brought everyone to their feet. Her images document modern-day human slavery in remote indigenous cultures.

Morning breakout sessions cooled the buzz with panels and presentations focused on "Making Your Idea a Reality," for entrepreneurs, and "Negotiation and Influence" and "Getting to 50/50" for all working women.

Women in the 21st century find empowerment at the intersection of their interests, passions and expertise. Quick Mount PV manufacturer Claudia Wentworth turned her sustainable-energy zeal and dissatisfaction with a roof renovation into five solar photovoltaic mounting patents.

"It caught on," she said, "but there were a lot of hiccups."


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Conference panelists offered nose-to-the-grindstone advice.

"Model a business, create value for each stakeholder in the chain and exhaust the possibilities," said Claire Herminjard, co-founder of Mindful Meats, which shuns genetically modified product.

"Know your strengths and apply them," suggested Ginelle Mills, who used social media to shape and found Cheerful Child LLC, maker of Cool Wazoo, a baby changing pad.

Added Wentworth, "Do your homework, know the risks, train your employees yourself and educate consumers."

Fremont's Gail Nakama, a business banking manager with Wells Fargo attending the conference, said her division is headed by a woman and has a number of female managers.

"This conference is outside of our normal training. There's networking, of course, but there's also external development approaches that will expand our ideas of how to move up in management," she said.

Adriane Lee Bird, marketing manager for Walnut Creek Civic Arts Education, often connects with women business leaders through her position. But she said the conference presents "bigger topics" and a chance to "be energized."

Event emcee and ABC 7 News Anchor Dan Ashley, caught in a moment between duties, said, "It's not just women's issues we're discussing. And the energy isn't confined to this room. These 560 people will take the information and go out in the world to engage, go online, learn more. It will be exponential."

All this before lunch and keynote speaker Marlo Thomas. Known to more than just her generation as "That Girl," television's first-ever young working woman making it on her own (and not looking for a mate) in a city, Thomas spiced her activism with jokes.

"Laughter is a cushion for life," Thomas said. "At our dinner table, I was fed good jokes constantly."

Her father, actor Danny Thomas, left her with a legacy -- terrific comedic timing. Sharing a memory of being chased around the dining room after causing an uproar and sending her actor father from rage into uncontrollable laughter by calling, "Cut! Stop action!" Thomas said, "Laughter will get you out of the corner."

But for women to get out of the "corporate corners," Thomas said revolutionary activism was necessary.

"Free to Be ... You and Me," a platinum album, book, Emmy-winning television and stage show, marked her second phase of activism. And a chemo party for a young cancer patient at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital her father founded helped lead to her current job as St. Jude's national outreach director.

"There's a way out of the hole for all of us," Thomas said. "Never stop dreaming."

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