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An overview of Women’s Council history, future

The Athena Award has recognized thousands of business and community leaders around the world since 1982. The award came to Rochester in 1987 as a program of the Women’s Council of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. This year marks the 30th time the award will recognize the contributions of Rochester women in leadership.

Wende Knapp, president of the Women’s Council, talks about the award’s impact on the local community and the council’s role in supporting professional women:

Rochester Business Journal: What is the significance of the Athena Award?

Knapp: The Athena Award has recognized nearly 7,000 outstanding women leaders worldwide since its inception in 1982. Here in Rochester, the Women’s Council, a Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce affiliate, began the Athena Award in 1987 and, since then, has continued to recognize the area’s most influential leaders who demonstrate excellence in their profession, community and mentorship of other women. Recognizing these leaders honors their hard work, contributions and dedication, and it empowers the next generation of leaders.

RBJ: How has the meaning of the award evolved in 30 years?

Knapp: One of the most impressive aspects of the Athena Award is the consistency of its message and meaning over that time: to honor exceptional women leaders for their professional and personal contributions. Since its inception, the Athena model of leadership has been based on eight unique attributes that reflect women’s contributions to leadership, and that model is just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. What has evolved is the diversity in the industries, professions, organizations, disciplines and women that the award recognizes.

RBJ: What changes do you foresee?

Knapp: The Women’s Council made a significant change last year by introducing the Athena Young Professional Award to Rochester. This award recognizes emerging women leaders ages 30 to 45 who demonstrate excellence in their profession, the community and mentorship of young women. Now, the combination of the Athena Award and the Athena Young Professional Award creates one of the most significant opportunities in our area to recognize outstanding women leaders at every stage of their careers. Another benefit: recognizing leaders creates tremendous value for retaining and attracting outstanding talent to the area—a core goal of the Women’s Council.

RBJ: What are your plans for the Women’s Council?

Knapp: The council recently completed a rebranding exercise where we focused on our value proposition to our members and the community. Then we developed our core goal: to recognize and empower success for professional women across Rochester. As we move into 2016, we will build on that strategy through our core programs, including our successful Building Your Briefcase series. This series engages our members through networking, community involvement, professional and personal development programs and connecting women professionals to one another.

We will also continue to live our “Womanifesto,” a statement that demonstrates the variety of ways that the Women’s Council is for women.You can read or hear more about that on our website, rbawomenscouncil.org.

RBJ: How do younger women become involved?

Knapp: Many do not know about the Women’s Council’s scholarship program for female high school seniors, the Young Women of Distinction program. It recognizes 20 outstanding female leaders for their excellence in academics and community involvement. Of those 20, four are chosen as the Young Women of Distinction recipients—one each from the Rochester City School District, east suburbs, west suburbs and the region. These four young women receive a $2,000 scholarship and an internship at a local business or organization. Additional internships and a leadership development program go to all 20 finalists.

By supporting these women at the start of their career process, we aim to help develop the next generation of leaders in Rochester. In fact, five dollars from every Athena Awards ticket sale funds this program and the scholarships. Planning is already underway for this year’s event in April. Sponsors and organizations interested in becoming involved can learn more at  rbawomenscouncil.org.

RBJ: What are some of the big issues women face in Rochester?

Knapp: While the role of women in Rochester certainly has evolved, there is still much work to do, particularly in pay equality and representation at the highest levels of organizational and business leadership. The Women’s Council is continually looking at ways to tackle these and other issues facing professional women here, whether it’s through connecting female professionals to one another, awareness and discussion of the issues or targeted programming such as “Negotiating Your Worth.”

Ultimately, the council sees the importance of not only celebrating the success of women through the Athena Awards, but also of navigating the stumbling blocks that prevent women from achieving success in their professions. Because the Women’s Council is the only professional women’s organization affiliated with the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, it can tap into the expertise and knowledge of some of the area’s most influential leaders to help advance women who work here.

1/15/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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