I have now seen elegant and ornate furnishings. I've seen a bright green shimmering sari. I've heard a Georgian accent. I've smelled the perfumes of 500 women mingled together in one room. I've been told numerous times I look younger than I am. I've seen hundreds of women networking and stuffing their faces with food.
I've seen a lot of big buildings (much like the ones back home). I've taken a picture with a woman from Wyoming. I've sipped tomato bisque while speaking with a judge from Alaska. I have paid $5 for a glass of Coke. I've heard long acceptance speeches that should have been cut shorter. I've participated in discussions that weren't quite long enough. I've seen black suit jackets, and black slacks, and name tag after name tag. I've never been surrounded by so many women before, and I went to an all-girls high school. I now know about Athena International and their mission to advance women's leadership.
The Journey Begins: Courageous Acts
I had never traveled alone before. So when the Poughkeepsie Chamber of Commerce asked me to go to Chicago by myself to attend the ATHENA International conference, I was slightly nervous. What was this conference for? What would it be like? The first question could be answered with some research, but the second I'd only be able to find out by going. I knew it was an opportunity I couldn't pass up. So all 4 feet 10 inches of me, with suitcase, laptop bag, and purse in tow left my dorm at 6:00 a.m. to catch my 8:00 flight from Stewart Airport to....Atlanta, Georgia. Of course I had a layover.
This wasn't my first time on a plane and the two hour flight to Atlanta went by fairly uneventfully (with the exception of some nausea and stomach pain during our landing.) I had two hours to kill in the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport until my flight to Midway, Chicago. After a quick bite to eat at Wendy's, I decided it was a good time to read all the materials the Chamber gave me.
I'd read the schedule of events a hundred times. I'd done some research on the Athena Web site. That was about it. I figured the most important thing to read would be the biography of Colette Lafuente—after all I would be spending three days with her. Local chambers of commerce present the Athena award to a woman who has been an outstanding leader, shown initiative in her profession, and who has improved the quality of life for her community. As the former mayor of Poughkeepsie, high school teacher for 20 years, and Duchess County Clerk, Collette was the award recipient for the county. I wondered what sharing a room with her would be like. And I wished I could have been as lucky as she, getting a direct flight from Stewart to O'Hare.
My next plane ride from Atlanta to Chicago was also uneventful. After an hour long cab ride, I finally arrived at the hotel. As I walked into the Palmer House Hilton, I couldn't anticipate what the next three days would have in store.
Odyssey Dinner Cruise: Celebration and Joy
Colette had arrived before me and was already laying in bed, knitting and watching the news. One of the first things she said to me upon our introduction was, "I'm 65, I'm finally retired. So my new job is watching TV." I knew I was going to like her.
The first night, I immediately noticed two things. One was the sheer number of women. I asked one of the few men, Todd Popham, an Athena board member, how it felt to be one of the only males surrounded by so many females."Oh, am I," he responded cheekily, " I hadn't noticed." The second was that I was the youngest person in attendance.
Being the only 20 year old in a crowd ranging from their 30s to 60s is a little odd, but everyone made me feel welcome. Many people had attended these conferences before and seemed excited to see new faces. A dinner cruise was my first Athena experience. Colette and I joined a random table and everyone I spoke to was interested to hear why I was there. The delicious meal, friendly atmosphere, laughter, and beautiful nighttime skyline was a great introduction to Athena and Chicago.
I've Never Heard the Word Network So Much: Collaboration
The next day was the official start of the conference. Colette and I walked into the ballroom early in the morning, for the first event. This session was meant to engage us in discussion—we were given a list of the qualities Athena stands for and told to discuss which we thought were the most important to have in the workplace. Indeed, every workshop, session and activity during the conference was dedicated to networking and stimulating conversation. All the women I spoke with seemed especially interested to hear the opinion of someone younger. It felt strangely empowering to be surrounded by so many successful women, all for the cause of sharing ideas and opinions that really mattered to us.
Are You A Business Owner?: Relationships
One of my favorite ideas was the networking lunch, designed to make sure we met new people. The buffet-style food, tiny sandwich plates, and stand up tables forced us to keep moving around, leaving our comfort zone. When arriving at a new table the line we were asked to open with was "Are you a business owner?" and this was supposed to facilitate dialog. Everyone I happened upon knew I wasn't a business owner, but a few people asked me anyway, jokingly. It was strange being forced to talk to new people, but as the session went on I felt more at ease and really got to understand the scope of Athena's mission.
Breakout Sessions: Learning
The next two days had scheduled breakout sessions on a variety of topics. I was signed up for "Have We Come A Long Way, Baby? Statistically Speaking: Where Women Are Today."
The woman facilitating the session began by giving us a quiz of "firsts" for women– first woman in the U.S. with a medical degree, first woman lawyer, first female presidential candidate. We had to guess what year these "firsts" happened and the answers ended up being earlier than many had thought. We then went on to the "good news" and "bad news" of the statistics for women in education, the work force, and government. Listening to all the statistics made me realize women really have come a long way, but still have a long way to go to reach parity with men. It made me value the importance of organizations such as Athena that award women and support their endeavors.
It wasn't until the Gala that evening that I learned the history of Athena. Their mission: "Supporting, developing and honoring women leaders, inspiring women to achieve their full potential, creating balance in leadership worldwide." Each year, an international award is also given out, and it was given to the founder of Athena, Martha Mertz. When presenting Mertz with the award, the speaker joked that they were tired of hearing her say "Not me." After 25 years, they felt like it was about time she received the award.
Mertz started the organization in 1982 when she was working for the Lansing, Michighan Chamber of Commerce. She had discovered that in the whole history of the Chamber, only one woman had ever been honored, and she felt the boardroom didn't accurately reflect the real world. This motivated her to create the organization that continues to inspire, mentor, and award women around the world. When the award was created, it was named after Athena, the Greek goddess known for her courage, strength, and wisdom. And the women I was surrounded by—the ones who had won this award—really did embody Athena's spirit.
The Authentic Self and Giving Back
Returning home from a trip seems almost surreal and as the conference came to an end, the demands of the real world set back in (did I really have homework due the next day?) And I had a story to write for the Chamber.That story took me longer to write than I thought it would. I just hope I did the women of Athena justice.
A year after the conference I don't recall every person's name that I encountered, but I remember the Athena leadership model, eight tenets that reflect women today: the authentic self, celebration and joy, collaboration, courageous acts, fierce advocacy, giving back, learning, and relationships. That's what stuck with me.
At the end of the discussion of women's "firsts," the speaker asked us to reflect what the next "first" would be in our lives. Since then, I've still been trying to figure that out. But traveling by yourself to Chicago to be inspired by women leaders? I would say that's a pretty good first.