The ATHENA Young Professional award recognizes an individual who is involved in the community, acts as a mentor to young woman professionals, and supports the ATHENA program and exudes its tenets. As we look forward to the 2015 ATHENA awards, we chatted with 2014 recipient Lizzie Williams, Employee Communication and Engagement Specialist at OST (Open Systems Technologies).
What did receiving the ATHENA Young Professional award mean to you?
It felt a little like a dream and a lot like my birthday. Kind words from friends, mentors, even complete strangers made my heart swell. Teachers from my elementary school sent notes saying, "I saw you on the news!" and "I'm not surprised!"—which was completely surreal. I've attended every ATHENA Awards ceremony since I moved back to Grand Rapids after graduating from Michigan State, and I always sat in the back thinking two things: "How do I become friends with these people?" and "How do they have this much energy?" When I heard my name I almost couldn't stand. It was a huge honor, and having family, friends, and colleagues with me, wrapping their warmth and encouragement around me, made me feel unbelievably fortunate. Being recognized let me step back and reflect on the amazing people and experiences I've been granted and provided momentum to keep challenging myself.
How do you display the ATHENA tenets?
In first grade, I realized taking the time to match and fold my socks was dreadfully boring, and I began throwing them into a drawer. This led to a new, much more fun, daily routine of picking out the two socks that matched the least, inspiring a rather questionable fashion trend at Pine Ridge Elementary. I don't think I owned white socks until sixth grade. Although this decision didn't seem significant at the time, it's a shining example of the accepting home I grew up in. My parents didn't bat an eye or make me feel weird about expressing myself through my "clashion" sense. They fully supported my unique ways. Miraculously, I've surrounded myself with people who continue to encourage me to be fully myself.
Authenticity remains at my core. I'm grateful to work for an organization that supports "wholeness" in all employees. Meredith Bronk, OST president/CEO, wrote me a thoughtful congratulatory note, mentioning that one of the most meaningful ways I make a difference at OST is by continuously putting myself out there. She noted that fully embracing who I am puts others at ease, allowing them to be more fully themselves; that had never occurred to me. At the core of being human, there's a longing to be fully oneself. It's been a huge advantage to have grown up in a home and worked for organizations that accept and encourage this.
I learned early on and am re-exposed to the importance of giving back. My siblings and I watched our parents dress up and head to their functions, which we thought the height of cool. Outside of the events they went to or the boards on which they participated, the most meaningful part was watching the quiet ways they helped those around them. The constant attention they placed on their relationships and their seemingly endless capacity for giving set the stage for my discovering how I wanted to make an impact.
I dive deepest into Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, Saint Mary's Foundation, and Grand Rapids Public Schools. Through volunteering with them, I recognize one person can only do so much; it's been my mission to empower and encourage those around me to get involved to make a greater community impact. This is why the seven-year-old I've mentored for four years walked alongside me at the Hospice 5K; why I constantly send texts, e-mails, or smoke signals saying "join me here!"; why sitting on the Habitat board doesn't mean just writing a check—it means grabbing friends and putting in sweat equity. It's about leading, inspiring, encouraging ... letting the stories spread.
What advice would you offer someone working to become a community leader?
Amy Poehler once suggested that when you feel stuck, think about what advice you'd give your daughter and recite it to yourself. Although I don't have a daughter, I have special ladies in my life and find myself reflecting on that suggestion often. If they had an idea, I'd tell them to turn it into a reality. If they were struggling with someone, I'd tell them to talk honestly with that person. If they wanted something that seemed unachievable, I'd encourage them to find a way. By reframing hesitations and doubts, you remove barriers.
How do you get others to share your passions?
When you're truly passionate about something, you embrace it fully. I'm passionate about art, but I don't just hope others will begin appreciating it. I take classes, create, write, and share it with my friends. I save up and I purchase art, display it, and talk about how it's changed me. You have to allow your life to wrap around your passions; the energy that's created encourages others to come alongside you.
Why do you support the ATHENA program?
I wholeheartedly believe in the principles it encourages: to live authentically, learn constantly, advocate fiercely, act courageously, foster collaboration, build relationships, give back, and celebrate. I've been changed by the stories of women recognized through the ATHENA program and I look forward to continuing to evolve and grow alongside this community of women who intentionally build one another up.
We invite you to hear Lizzie Williams and Bridget Clark Whitney, Young ATHENA 2014 and 2013, speak on the ATHENA tenet Celebration & Joy, May 28 at Cathedral Square. Join us for an afternoon of networking, hearing prominent young women leaders, and a delicious lunch! Visit www.grandrapids.org/athena-leadership-forum to learn more and to register for the ATHENA Leadership Forum & Scholarship Fundraiser.
May 29 is the deadline for this year's ATHENA Awards. All you need to do is provide a name, and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce will do the rest! Click here for more information.
Written by Mercedes Cowper, the program and events coordinator for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
Edited by Olivia Adams, the communications and social media specialist for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.