Getting ahead in business often requires help from someone who's 'been there,' a voice of experience. That voice is usually male. To promote the involvement of more women in business and in leadership positions, the Athena Foundation has partnered with organizations in more than 100 cities across the United States and around the world (Canada, China, Russia, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom) to recognize community leaders who mentor young women.
Over more than 2 decades, the Athena Foundation - an organization dedicated to getting more women into leadership roles - has honored 5000 men and women with Athena Awards, for their contributions in community service and volunteerism.
The Foundation's Amy Billings says the Award winners must demonstrate creativity in their business or profession, and help improve the quality of life for others in their communities. "It's more than just, 'Wow, this is a great person,'" she says. "It's about giving back to others. It's not only that this person excelled, but they are helping younger women as they are coming up through their careers."
It was easy for Yvonne Wood, who is a wife, a mother and a grandmother, to meet those criteria. The Tennessee Athena Award winner is a small business owner and an active member in several local non-profit organizations. She says she's been learning and trying to improve herself for most of her life.
"For example, when I just got out of high school and I had not had any university training at that point," she says. "I went to work in a bank, and the bank itself offered training programs. I always signed for those training programs because I realized that, for one thing, I really liked to learn. For another thing, I realized that if I was going to be successful and receive promotions, I needed to continue to improve myself."
When Ms. Wood felt that training courses were not enough, she went back to college. She says it was a hard task for her as a wife with 4 children. "I worked all the day and went to school in the evening," she says. "But I did love being a student even though sometimes the body was tired. When I finished my Baccalaureate Degree, I went back to get my Master's degree."
Ms. Wood spent most of her career working for the state government. She retired in 1996. "I retired for only 6 months," she says. "Then, I started my own small business, which is a meeting and event planning business."
From the very beginning of her career, Ms. Wood says, she wanted to help other women balance life at work and at home, succeed as professionals and be active in their local communities. She joined the Women's Political Caucus, which helps women get elected and appointed to public office, and she served as president of a local business networking organization. Ms. Wood has also shared her career and leadership experience through an online mentorship program sponsored by the Athena Foundation, with Zayed University, a women's college in the United Arab Emirates.
Amy Billings, the Foundation's Director of Programs, says the technology connects people who would never be able to interact any other way. "This not only increases awareness and understanding between peoples of different cultures and backgrounds, it's also helping these young women as they're developing their own leadership skills," she says. "The students have comments that show that they enjoy just hearing from a woman who is in a position of leadership in another part of the world. What life is like here. How they deal with the demands and stresses of having a family and a career and being in a leadership position."
Yvonne Wood has been involved with the Global Links Mentoring Program for several years. "One of the students that I have now, for example, told me that she was interested in public relations and marketing," she says. "So we had a good interchange because that's an interest that I have too."
Ms. Wood was nominated for the Athena Award by many local organizations, including a business group she once headed. Its current President Glenda Copeland says this award is important in promoting volunteerism and mentoring. "First of all, it recognizes and validates those women that have already done that and taken the time to do that," she says. "It tells those women that what you've done is important and appreciated. The second reason why it's important is because it serves as an inspiration to those people that perhaps have not had enough opportunity to get out and volunteer."
Winning the Athena Award, Yvonne Wood says, is definitely a great honor for her. But, she adds, nothing is more rewarding than the satisfaction she gets every time she helps young women advance in their careers and get more involved in their communities.