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The Big Idea: Working Women

125-ATHENA-statueHard work, grit, diligence. These are just some of the characteristics of the growing circle of ATHENA Leadership Award recipients in the Fox Cities. This year, No. 30 — Lisa Cruz — was welcomed into the fold on Nov. 19 at the Fox Cities Chamber’s 2015 The Event: Celebrating Business Awards.

“It means a lot of things, I am certainly honored to be this year’s ATHENA Award recipient,” says Cruz. “It really recognizes those who have been with me on my journey.”

The president and founder of Red Shoes PR believes it speaks volumes that the ATHENA has stayed relevant for three decades.

Mary Hosmer, the 10th recipient in the Fox Cities who works in the field of commercial property and casualty, is not surprised that the ATHENA has sustained its legacy, but she does wonder, “Where has the time gone?”

From the beginning125-ATHENA-group-2000

The first local ATHENA Award was given out in 1985 to Susan Knaack when the program was adopted by the Fox Cities Chamber.

Joanne Fischer Chastain, now president of her own consulting business, Telecom Insights, and Ruth Ann Heeter, now managing editor and publisher of FOX CITIES Magazine, researched what the chamber in Michigan was already doing with the ATHENA.

“The ATHENA Award is a national program, so we follow the national guidelines of honoring local women who have demonstrated community service and professional excellence,” says Amy Flanders, vice president administration & operations at the Fox Cities Chamber. “It was started by Martha Mayhood Mertz who was serving on the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce when she conceived the idea of the ATHENA Award. So, there is a natural connection between the ATHENA Award and chambers of commerce.”

“What it did was simply reinforce women in business,” adds Fischer Chastain who was the first female Breakfast Rotary president in the area.

Following adopting Lansing’s criteria, a sponsor for the award was sought. The former Oldsmobile dealer in Neenah was the first to sponsor the award, Fischer Chastain shares. Today, Bergstrom Automotive pays for the award and gives it out.

“We’ve never lacked in sponsorship for this award so I think the community recognizes the value of it,” adds Fischer Chastain.

Passing the baton

Lisa Cruz

Lisa Cruz

As this year’s recipient, Cruz hopes she is of “value as a leader to women in the community.”

“I think anybody can be who they want to be and do what they want to do,” she shares. “I just try to share what I’ve learned along the way.” Cruz also makes it a point to support other women in business and stay attuned to her employees’ needs. She also shares that when she was younger, she didn’t necessarily think it was a struggle for women, but now recognizes that not everything in business is “women friendly” from fair representation on boards and panel discussions to advancement as a professional.

“I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to do better!’” she says. “I am constantly asking myself what I can do as an employer to make things easier to work outside the home.” Cruz believes firmly in creating a flexible work environment that doesn’t create more angst or guilt, and empowers women to make decisions and have exposure to experience.

“It’s a work in progress, but the reality is I can’t be one employer making changes and strides in that. It has to be a collective effort,” Cruz adds noting she hopes to be a lightning rod.

Fischer Chastain was one of the women to nominate Cruz and also interviewed her during the selection process.

“That’s a very warm, exciting feeling to tell another woman (she’s deserving),” Fischer Chastain shares. “I think what really makes her deserving is what she’s already accomplished.” Fischer Chastain notes that she was impressed by Cruz’s commitment to starting her own business, promotion of women and dedication to family.

If at first you don’t succeed

“It was a real honor,” says Hosmer of receiving her award in 1994. “I had been nominated the year before and had not received it, but that is not unusual.”

While some recipients have been lucky enough to receive the ATHENA in their first year of nomination, this is not typically the case, according to those who have made the cut. It also is possible for a woman who is nominated to not realize it until the field is narrowed. Recipients say, however, that they have worked with the women who have been nominated to encourage them to continue working toward the award.

The nomination process for the ATHENA begins in July and ends in September. Nominations may be made through the Fox Cities Chamber’s website by completing a form, which is then shared with the ATHENA task force. Women and men can either self nominate or be nominated by someone for consideration. Upon receiving all nominations, it was put to the recipient group to determine if any other candidates should be considered, notes Beth Davis, VP of business development for Community First Credit Union who received the ATHENA in 2013.

This year, when the nomination pool was narrowed to four after Labor Day, the women and men were each interviewed by ATHENA recipients to create a comprehensive, thoughtful, meaningful and detailed look at each individual who was nominated, says Davis.

In October, the task force gathered and scored the finalists to select this year’s recipient based on their contributions in four key areas — 1. Achieved the highest level of professional business and industry excellence, 2. Contributed time and energy to improve quality of life for others, 3. Actively assisted others, particularly women, in realizing their full leadership potential, and 4. Shown leadership and strong character in professional, community and personal life.

Why it means so much

Debra Michiels still recalls becoming a recipient in 2002 like it was yesterday, she says.

“It’s business women nominating other business women,” shares the president of Fox Banquets Rivertyme Catering. “It was right up there because I knew other successful career women thought of me to be in that circle.”

Heather Wessley is one of the youngest recipients in the award’s local history. She was 32 when she received it in 2010 and feels “blessed” to have been welcomed into the fold.

“When you look at this list, it’s a pretty significant and amazing group of women,” says the senior business development officer at Fox Communities Credit Union. “I look back and think, ‘How do I fit in to this group of women?’”

“I think it was a great honor and one of the real benefits is the circle of women you become a part of,” adds Margie Weiss, CEO and community advocate for Weiss Health Group, LLC, who received the ATHENA in 2000.

Davis keeps her award on her desk.

“It’s about what have we impacted individually,” she shares. “It’s been very special because I’ve been monitoring these women’s careers.”

Davis, who moved to the area in 1992, says her career in the financial services industry for 35-plus years, “all came together in this award” and feels it’s special that her boss, President/CEO of Community First Credit Union Catherine Tierney, received the award in 1998.

125-ATHENA-group-2012Paying it forward

“You’re only as good as your last rodeo,” shares Michiels, noting that she enjoys the fact that recipients give back and the award is more than a “dust collector.” “I would say all of us are great women who are mentoring young women who are just starting out in their careers.”

Vivian Huth, the Fox Cities’ second ATHENA recipient, stresses to young career women to keep their nose to the grindstone. At the time she won the award, Huth, now manager at Kampo Properties, was the only woman working in warehousing and distribution in the area. She also managed her career and three children, along with contributing to the Appleton Redevelopment Authority, being the lead person the Fox Cities Chamber’s economic development arm and becoming involved with the United Way Board, Rotary and other community outreach.

“I think it’s important to be a role model for supporting your family and education, as well as community service,” she says. “I just tried to do the very best I could and show the initiative, and show that I could make it work.”

Huth’s words now echo with Wessley who says five years ago she was involved in everything, but has chosen to take a step back to focus on her baby and 2-year-old despite occasionally feeling guilty.

“This is just a point in my life when I need to focus on my young family,” she shares. Still, she recognizes her own personal reasons for getting involved in the community.

“It felt to me in my heart that I was put her to help people,” she says. As a graduate of Kimberly High School, Wessley has always been connected to the Fox Cities, wanted young professionals to be excited by the area and for families to stay here.

Each recipient who was contacted for this story noted that she felt the need to pay it forward by mentoring because another female had helped her during her career. For many of those women, that not only made a difference, but proved to be a pivotal fork in the road.

“I think everybody needs someone they can turn to for advice,” says Weiss.

“Sometimes, it can be a little bit of a lonely space,” Cruz shares. As the mother of four boys ages 16, 14, 11 and 4 — with the oldest dealing with juvenile diabetes and juvenile rheumatoid arthritis — Cruz says she looks to be a role model for them and needs to be filling her own bucket. She also debunks the theory of work-life balance.

“I realized I have to take control of my schedule,” she says. “I don’t wait anymore until I’m hanging by a thread. I’m very proactive about scheduling that time.”

A helping hand

The Fox Cities Chamber will continue to be involved in facilitating nominations for the ATHENA Award through its website and also give it a platform through the annual The Event gathering. This summer, however, a task force determined that forming an ATHENA giving circle through the Women’s Fund would allow them to keep the criteria for giving consistent, be transparent, increase the size of the scholarships and determine what giving would look like. The remaining money was transferred from the scholarship fund with the Chamber Foundation to the circle. A scholarship committee and the executive committee — Michaels, Weiss, Fischer Chastain, Hosmer and Davis — have been involved in this process.

The intent of the circle is to grow the number and amount of the scholarships to three a year of a $1,000 or more, which will be announced at the Women’s Fund Grant Recipient Social in spring. Past recipients are encouraged to donate $100 each annually. The scholarship committee is working with the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh,
Fox Valley Technical College and the University of Wisconsin-Fox Valley to make recommendations and determine the best candidates to receive the scholarships.

“This is a business award and it needs to go to a woman who wants to further her career with higher education,” Davis explains of the scholarship which could be put toward college courses, online credits and certification processes that meet certain criteria.

“I think the changes are great. I think it’s a better way to do more for deserving, working women,” adds Michiels.

Hosmer would like to see the ATHENA continue to be the women’s business award in the area, along with keeping a degree of business acumen, community involvement and giving associated with it.

“I’m really excited about the format that we’re moving toward — it really aligns with the group and the initiative,” says Weiss. “I think a scholarship plays a really important role in the careers of women today.”

Never-ending circle

Joyce Bytof who received the ATHENA in 1990 was instrumental in keeping recipients together, says Hosmer. Since Bytof’s passing, other recipients have begun discussing plans to add an annual gathering in addition to the traditional ATHENA luncheon, along with quarterly or twice-a-year cocktail gatherings to meet other recipients and get to know business women in the community.

“These are very strong businesswomen and they all have their charity of choice or mission-based projects,” says Hosmer of the recipient pool, noting that each has their own influence within community groups and all have a very high respect for one another.

“I do feel very happy that they’re continuing the award and there were a lot of good candidates this year,” adds Huth. “I would encourage women to continue on and work hard.”

—FC

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