Thursday, Apr 26 2012 06:41 PM

From Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue to Harvard: Tyra Banks headlines conference

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Tyra Banks meets Bakersfield Mayor Harvey Hall, during the annual Bakersfield Women's Business Conference, Thursday.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    Tyra Banks waves to the crowd at the annual Bakersfield Women's Business Conference, Thursday, while attendees take lots of photos of Banks.

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    The 23rd annual Bakersfield Women's Business Conference was sold out for the day long event, Thursday, at the Rabobank Convention Center.

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BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer

Model and business mogul Tyra Banks would get to the career advice the organizers of the 23rd annual Bakersfield Women's Business Conference brought her to town for eventually, but she opened her address to a sold out crowd of 1,500 current and aspiring business women Thursday with a lesson on how to "smeyes."

That's shorthand for "smile with your eyes," she said after taking a bite of the bread pudding she hadn't had time to get to before her speech.

Think of something that makes you really happy, ("for me, it's bread pudding") and then look directly into the camera and seduce it, Banks said. She demonstrated a pouty look with gleaming eyes.

Banks had to get that out of the way, she said, because everywhere she went people asked her about it. Airports. Restaurants. Even public restrooms.

Now then, to the business at hand.

Despite a career as one of the most famous supermodels in fashion, Banks is much more than a pretty face.

At just 38, she has already accomplished more than most people in a lifetime. After a meteoric run as a supermodel that broke through numerous racial barriers, she hosted a talk show from 2005 to 2009, and is creator, executive producer and host of reality show "America's Next Top Model," which is viewed in more than 170 markets, with 20 international editions.

Banks also runs media empire Bankable Productions, as well as the Tyra Banks TZONE Foundation, which makes grants to community-based nonprofits that serve low-income, disadvantaged girls.

Banks credited her mother with forcing her to consider, even at the height of her modeling career, what she would do with her life after the modeling gigs stopped.

"Every business has cycles," Banks said. "Prepare for the ending at the beginning."

Banks briefly flirted with the idea of a music career -- an ill-advised move she attributed to the echo chamber of her shower giving her the notion she could sing. A music video she premiered on her talk show garnered some of the highest ratings of the show's run, but for all the wrong reasons.

"People were tuning in to watch the train wreck," she said, laughing.

The point, Banks said, is that you can rebound from mistakes, and it's never too late to change course. If your career choice isn't working out, find a new one and get serious about doing what you have to do to succeed in it.

Sometimes, Banks said, mistakes are blessings in disguise.

She recounted the story of famously going on her talk show in a swimsuit, the same swimsuit she wore in tabloid spreads that viciously skewered her for having gained weight.

Banks used the episode as a platform to discuss body image oppression, and in a voice shaky with emotion told critics and anyone who had ever subjected a woman to that to "kiss my fat ass."

Afterward, she wanted to do another take that was less emotional, but was talked into sticking with the raw outburst.

All over the world, people rallied to Banks' defense and applauded her courage. The show garnered her the first of two Emmys. A good thing, she added, "Since y'all know I'm not getting a Grammy."

Banks said she learned from that not to be so fearful of exposing vulnerability.

That willingness to show weakness would come in handy when she went back to school.

Banks dropped out of Loyola Marymount University to pursue her modeling career as a teenager, but this year she earned a diploma from Harvard Business School's Executive Education program. Of 180 students in the program, she was one of only 18 women.

"I had advisers and mentors who told me in order to implement my dream, I needed an education," Banks said.

One of her Harvard assignments was so daunting she called friends to confess that she was overwhelmed. They advised her to get help from classmates, which she promised to do before crying herself to sleep.

The next morning, her dormitory study partners walked her through the assignment until she understood it.

Don't ever be afraid to ask for help, Banks said.

"I'm the queen of cold calls," she said, adding that "some say yes and some say no, but it never hurts to ask."

Banks' speech drew a standing ovation.

Chante Stuart, 28, called it "awesome."

"She's very real, so everybody can relate to her," she said.

Cami Watkins, 32, said Banks was "inspirational" because "she proved that no matter what you look like or what your size is, you can succeed."

Banks was the best known of the speakers on the conference lineup, but there were more than 30 experts on hand to share stories, tips and advice.

Conference workshops covered such topics as networking, business loans, balancing career and family and personal finance.

Former banker and personal finance coach Denise Winston had people in her session fill out a worksheet documenting their monthly expenses and then establish a budget for bills, savings and reducing debt.

One reason a lot of people fall deeply in debt is they aren't keeping track of what they're spending, Winston said. You can't get out of financial distress until you know exactly where you stand.

Once you know where you are, establish a plan and work toward it, in small increments if that's all you can do, Winston said.

"How do you get up a mountain? One step at a time," she said.

The conference's opening address was from Judge Glenda Hatchett, host of a syndicated legal television show. She noted that many, many women are happy to serve as mentors to help along the next generation of businesswomen, but there should be more of them and fewer businesswomen who tear other women down.

"We need to start embracing each other and celebrating each other and lifting each other up," she said.

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