The 2023 Brilliance Awards, an annual celebration of the dynamic talent, spirit and intellect of those who tackle issues facing professional women, took place May 17 at the Amway Grand Plaza in downtown Grand Rapids.
As the West Michigan Woman community gathered once more for an evening filled with awards, drinks, dining and music, we were reminded of the many inspiring stories of the women and men within the community who truly elevate others and blaze trails of inspiration.
The successes of local leaders were honored across 10 categories, with nominees including top executives, business owners, emerging leaders, team players, mentors, connectors and social change agents. Ultimately, three finalists for each category, and eventually a top honoree, were carefully selected from over 300 incredible nominations.
The 2023 event also saw the addition of a new award, chosen by the West Michigan Woman team: The Brilliant Legacy Award, honoring a woman who has a reputation for showing up for her team, her network and her community throughout the entirety of her exceptional career.
"Each year, we're absolutely blown away by the brilliance found within our community and are thankful to have the opportunity to recognize those who prioritize lifting others up and challenge the status quo to bravely press onward," said Kasie Smith, President and Publisher of West Michigan Woman. "We are deeply honored that the West Michigan Woman community chose to spend their evening alongside us as we shined a well-deserved spotlight on these leaders and trailblazers. There was no shortage of connection, collaboration and inspiration!"
Everyone in attendance left feeling inspired and ready to change the world, much like our brilliant 2023 top honorees and finalists. Keep reading to meet them all.
WOMAN OF THE YEAR
Zaneta Adams, JD
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Intergovernmental Affairs, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Biden-Harris Administration
"Strong" is a term often used to describe Zaneta Adams, JD, the 2023 Brilliance Awards Woman of the Year. And while Adams—an eight-year Army veteran medically discharged with honor—undoubtedly embodies a deep sense of strength in everything she does, she's passionate about others knowing it's OK to be vulnerable, and believing you can persevere despite your circumstances.
"I was in a wheelchair at one time and did not know if I would walk again," Adams said, recalling an incident in 2006 where she fell 11 feet from a truck, resulting in two back surgeries. "As long as I believed I would not walk, I didn't. Once I believed it was possible though, the transformation began."
For a time, Adams didn't have access to the resources she needed to heal and adjust back to civilian life. She struggled with suicidal ideation, believing she was a burden on her family because of her disability. Adams emphasizes that she wouldn't be here—professionally or physically—without her support network, including her mother, six children and husband, who is also a disabled veteran.
"Women, whether they're veterans or not, are often not recognized," She said. "Women in the military hear that they're not supposed to be there. And so when they come out, they're not proud of their service and aren't getting access to benefits or resources."
Belief in her faith, in herself and in the potential of change are what drive Adams to the work she does today. She took matters into her own hands in 2014 by founding WINC: For All Women Veterans, which helps bring awareness to the issues facing women veterans nationwide while providing a space where they can live, laugh, and readjust to life after service through peer support groups, military sexual trauma intensive therapy retreats, workshops, summits and more.
Adams further uses her experiences and expertise to advocate on behalf of and with fellow veterans through her work serving on various nonprofit boards, as an attorney and in her previous position as Director of the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency.
"Not only did that position provide a platform with which I could reach more veterans and let them know they were not alone, but it allowed me to be a role model and beacon to those mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters out there who didn't want to say they were veterans or didn't feel heard or seen."
She shared that, for a period of time, what got her out of bed each day was the belief in saving lives.
"The fact that I've made it through those moments to finish college, graduate law school, pass the bar, start a nonprofit, and then be selected by Governor Whitmer to run Veteran Affairs is truly humbling."
In addition to connecting veterans with each other and the resources they need here in Michigan, Adams' work has now taken her to Washington, D.C., having been recently appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Intergovernmental Affairs for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs under the Biden-Harris Administration. She also now serves as an appointed member of the VA's Sexual Assault and Harassment Prevention Workgroup.
Adams' story is one she shares with other distraught individuals to offer hope.
"I don't do what I do for recognition. I feel I was given a second chance to help and serve others," Adams said. "Because in my darkest hour, I never imagined I would find purpose in this way. Yet because of my struggles, I was able to accomplish this. And by the grace of God, I am not done yet."
Cara Anne Poland, MD, MEd, FACP, DFASAM, Michigan State University | Megan Schmidt, HealthPartners
BEST SUPPORTING MAN
Carlos Sanchez, MAD
Executive Director | Davenport University - Casa Latina
Craig Clark, Clark Communications | Omar Cuevas, Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce
WhizBang! Retail Training
Salina Bishop, Grand Rapids Symphony | Missy Summers, Festival of the Arts
Broadway Grand Rapids
Kori Thompson, MBA, Wedgwood Christian Services | Amiee VandenElzen, Disher Corp
BRILLIANT EMERGING LEADER
Sleeping Giant Capital
Stormie Drake, READ Ottawa | Caylie Peet, MS, CTA, Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce
BRILLIANT SOCIAL CHANGE AGENT
Vanessa Greene, Michigan African American Health Institute | Jessica Johns, The Community StoreHouse
BRILLIANT CHAMPION OF SERVICE
Rev. Joanna Bailey
Trinity Health Grand Rapids
Kristin A. Chmela, M.A., CCC-SLP, BCS-F, Camp Shout Out Inc./ Chmela Communication Center | Nicholette Driggs, CFLE, Comprehensive Therapy Center
Robyn Gobbel, LCSW
Meredith Kent, MS, PA-C, Skin CoLAB | Rachel VanBuskirk, LMSW, Portal Point Counseling
Henrietta Hadley, Infinite Solutions Consulting Group | Alma Ross, Koop & Burr Insurance
BRILLIANT TEAM PLAYER
Heron Manor & Heron Woods
Colleen Laskowski, SpinDance | Katie Racey, Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park
BRILLIANT PEOPLE'S CHOICE AWARD
Kristin A. Chmela, M.A., CCC-SLP, BCS-F
Camp Shout Out Inc./Chmela Communication Center
LEGACY OF BRILLIANCE AWARD
President, Grand Rapids Community Foundation
New for 2023, the Legacy of Brilliance Award—chosen by the West Michigan Woman team—is presented to a well-respected woman who has a reputation for showing up for her team, her network and her community throughout the entirety of her exceptional career.
Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.
This article originally appeared in the Jun/Jul '23 issue of West Michigan Woman.