ATHENA was created in 1982, from within the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce, when Martha Mertz was the only woman on the board. "Neither my colleagues nor most community members perceived women as leaders. We didn't see ourselves as leaders, either, mostly because we didn't hold high titles or positions."
But women were always leaders, the ATHENA founder said, in every other sense. This needed to be recognized, to elevate leadership capabilities. "Plato's quote, 'What is honored in a country will be cultivated there,' provided the wisdom we needed and showed us the way." Athena is the Greek goddess of wisdom, courage, strength, and enlightenment. What originated to inspire one group in one community became an organization with international reach; supporting, developing, inspiring; with a vision for achieving a balance in leadership voices worldwide.
ATHENA Awards let the community celebrate its amazing role models. Twenty-five years ago, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, with the Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs and MarJo Construction Services, brought the program to Grand Rapids. The chamber has hosted the annual award since then, and added a scholarship for continuing education for women over thirty and the bimonthly ATHENA Leadership Forum. In the past six years, the ATHENA Young Professional Award was added to acknowledge women under age forty who are emerging leaders in the community.
IATHENA has become the country's most prestigious award primarily for women, honoring the highest level of professional excellence, the value of giving back, the importance of bringing forward the next generation. Combined with other programs supporting the ATHENA mission, these efforts became a significant way to change the world.
There's great value in elevating women and girls, Mertz said. Balance in decision-making voices is powerful and transformative. "Compare the behaviors and focus of cultures where women have no voice with those whose people respect and listen to many voices. That's what balance is about—it is rocket science, and we all get it." By striving for this, humanity takes a giant leap forward.
To young women, from Mertz: "The most important and interesting person you'll ever know is yourself. That isn't just looking in the mirror. It's listening to your inner voice—hearing who you are, what you value, what and who you hope to become. This is a private, deep thing to do—even courageous. It leads us to the essence of our own authenticity.
The 2014 ATHENA Award Recipient is Diana Sieger, Grand Rapids Community Foundation President, who said, "To be associated with the tremendous effective, positive women who've won previously is a humbling honor."
Written by: Amy L Charles, West Michigan Woman editorial director, wrote the print version of this article.