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Great advice from the (amazing) Athena and Young Athena finalists

Before she became a partner-in-charge in the Pittsburgh Office of the law firm Jones Day, Laura Ellsworth walked into one of her Princeton classes dead tired from an all-night theater rehearsal. Her philosophy professor began talking, but the entire class was just as unresponsive as she felt.
Suddenly the prof slammed his textbook down.
I've told you everything I know, Ellsworth recalls him announcing. Your job is to bring to class what you know.
"Then he stood up and walked out," she remembers. "It changed the way I thought about everything." Now, she says, "I think I have an obligation, not just an opportunity, to bring to the table something no one else had brought before."
Ellsworth is one of eight finalists for the Greater Pittsburgh 2013 Athena and Athena Young Professional Awards, with winners to be announced at the annual luncheon on Sept. 30 at the Westin Convention Center Hotel, presented by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. The awards honor women who have achieved extraordinary career success, mentor other women and are involved in community service.
Athena, of course, was the Greek goddess who asked her best friend Mentor to watch over her son while he was at war. For Ellsworth, mentoring other women is a similarly deep commitment. "You do it for the love of the person and the love of the people who asked you to do it, and that makes you good at it.
"The real benefit of the Athena Awards," she adds, "comes from sharing tips and advice," which happens both from the stage, as the finalists and presenters deliver their remarks, and at the luncheon tables. "Any time you have an opportunity to get helpful tips from people who have been there before and succeeded, that is useful."
The five Athena finalists and three young professional finalists, to a person, say they will be humbled and honored to be on that stage before nearly 900 people; Ellsworth adds that she feels a little "embarrassment about the fuss."
But the fuss is warranted. Ellsworth is the only person among the eight who says her field has achieved anything close to parity between the genders. Women who work as lawyers and throughout the business world can still benefit tremendously from mentoring, she says.
Her top advice to her mentees?
"If you see something in your mind's eye that is really hard and complicated and thorny but would be really wonderful, you will find that everybody around you has a reason why this is impossible. Rather than hearing that, you should keep your eye on the horizon … and navigate around all those obstacles. It's just a matter of setting the course.
Pop City has gathered more inspiring stories and advice from the other finalists:
Theresa Bone, vice president & corporate controller, EQT Corporation
When Theresa Bone worked as an internal auditor for the 1984 summer Olympics in Los Angeles, she met a friend who had come in ninth in an Olympic swimming trial. It wasn't high enough to make the team.
And yet Bone had already made another sort of Olympic team – the all important back-office team – and would be able to watch the games as part of that winning crew. That's when she realized how much her work counted.
"The LA Olympics were a great success, not necessarily because of the athletic endeavors," Bone says, "but more than that it was known as the games that didn't bankrupt the city that hosted it.
"And I've been in finance ever since, raising lots of money to do lots of cool things."
She is most proud of writing the first rules at EQT, and before that Ernst and Young, that allow people to work flexible hours without falling behind in their careers.
"I think we've made a huge difference for those people and for the company," she says. "We've been able to grow those people we would have lost."
Today, she says, "I don't have any difficulty finding strong candidates who are women for jobs" in the energy field. And yet the gender balance is hardly 50/50. "It's 98/2," she jokes. "We still have a long way to go," particularly in increasing the number of women in engineering.
"Drive!" she tells her mentees. "Put yourself behind the wheel … Choose to be in charge of where you're going. There's maps, there's a lot of GPS, you can stop and ask, but put yourself in the position to make the decisions."
What will move her business forward, she says, is "people not only accepting but seeking a diversity of viewpoints and backgrounds."
Lenore Blum, distinguished career professor of computer science, Carnegie Mellon University
Lenore Blum has seen a lot of revolutions in her time. In 1968, when there were students in the street in Paris, Prague and throughout the U.S., she was earning her Ph.D. in mathematics at MIT and heading another revolution – without even realizing the barriers, she says.
"It was the first year that many schools allowed girls to enter their graduate mathematics programs," Blum notes today.
Since then, she has used her research career to promote the participation of women and girls in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
She led a symposium on women in mathematics in her first job teaching at the University of California at Berkeley in 1971, though she says she had not met another female mathematician at that time.
Afterwards she helped start the Association for Women in Mathematics and was its third president, then began the first computer science program at a women's university (Mills College in Oakland, Cal.). She has since created a series of conferences for middle-school students in math and science. At Carnegie Mellon University, when hired in 1999, she started Women at SCS (School of Computer Science) to encourage networking and outreach to younger students. In 2007, she began and now co-directs CMU's Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and is trying to increase the number of women starting in high-tech businesses locally.
All of those efforts thrive today. Even though women still make up fewer than 15 percent of computer science students across the country, CMU's SCS freshman class this year is 35 percent women.
"We can't have these barriers where people don't see women and don't ask them to participate," Blum says. "I think we have to be a little bit more outspoken." Not only should women develop the technical skills that provide wider career options, she adds, but they should remember that "it's never too late. I've seen people come back to school in their forties and do great things."
Titina Ott, vice president worldwide alliance & channels, Oracle Corporation
Titina Ott finds the job picture for women in engineering and other technical fields encouraging. In the next 15 years, women will hold 65 percent of jobs in physics, engineering, chemistry and computer and nuclear technology, she says.
"When I started out, I wish I knew the importance of a network," Ott adds. "I thought a company was a meritocracy … But your work is just table stakes" – the entry price you'll need just to stay in the room and keep playing the game. "It's really having a network to support you that will make you successful in the long run."
Before coming to Oracle, she worked as a developer, consultant and executive in operations and sales. "What I've learned is that there is more to leadership that showing up and doing your job. It's really about giving of yourself."
Her proudest accomplishment, she explains, was founding Oracle Women's Leadership, which lets the company's female employees network more effectively and then mentor others. "The Athena Awards have an impact on the community simply by highlighting the importance of mentoring," she concludes. "Mentoring is critical and it is actually not done enough."
Maurita Bryant, assistant chief, Pittsburgh Bureau of Police
Maurita Bryant realized halfway through her time in the police academy in 1977 that law enforcement was the career for her.
Today she is president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE).
"Attaining my current rank is something that at one time would have been unheard of," she says. Today she says, "it's still a struggle, but there's a lot more opportunity."
Her advice for up-and-coming women leaders? "I've always been a believer in leading by example. Sometimes women who have impacted my life or my career may not have been personal acquaintances. I've admired them from afar and just watched how they've handled certain situations."
Plus, she adds: "I've always found that you get more gratification from what you do for other people … than you do if it's solely for yourself."
The Young Professional Award was established in 2011 and honors emerging female business leaders who are 35 or younger:
Erin Isler, director, loan syndications, PNC Capital Markets LLC
"Banking is generally known as a guy's world," says Erin Isler. "The general perception of banking in my mind has really been broken by PNC. It has made a really wonderful effort at recognizing and promoting women."
Isler has helped, too, of course. She was a founding member of PNC's Women Connect, which has grown from a dozen to 750-plus members in a year and a half.
"We've been able to connect women throughout the bank, women who otherwise wouldn't have met, whether they are in the executive level to all levels at the bank," says Isler, 29, who has been with PNC seven years. "I'm incredibly excited to see where it goes over the next several years."
What's needed to bring women to equality of workplace opportunities, she adds, is to "make it a part of the culture of the company."
Amiena Mahsoob, director of education programs, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh
Sept. 11, 2001, was Amiena Mahsoob's first day as a student teacher at North Allegheny High School.
"As I walked into the classroom to give my lesson on writing the memoir, I noticed that something was strange and all the kids were staring at the TV."
As the attacks on the World Trade Center and elsewhere unfolded, Mahsoob decided instead to give her students "a contemplative pause … helping them to figure out that their kneejerk reactions were probably not the best ones for themselves or for the country."
That was the beginning, she says, of her realization that she could add a global perspective to her educational efforts. "You can show students how they are connected to the rest of the world, and how the world affects them as well."
She taught for three years in the Pittsburgh area, then three years in Japan, returning to Pittsburgh just in time for the start of the current recession. But she landed quickly at the nonprofit World Affairs Council, where she reaches 11,000 students and teachers every year. The Council gives kids a chance to videoconference internationally with peers in many countries, and over the last decade has sent 100 students abroad through their scholarship program.
Even though these educational programs are central to her work, Mahsoob says, her field is really the nonprofit world, and there the job picture for women is mixed. Surveys by the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University have found that 74 percent of nonprofit employees are women in all jobs – except the top ones. "There's still a lot of work to be done to make sure we're better represented in leadership roles," she says.
"I don't think I realized how powerful and inspiring women are in our community until I started attending," the Athena Awards, she adds. She recalls sitting next to a male Athena committee member and telling him it was generous for a man to be participating in this celebration of women. "'This is an amazing opportunity to sit at the table with some of the most powerful women in the region,'" he answered her.  "'I'm doing this for myself.'"
Marisa Bartley, business development officer, AVP, Citizens Bank
When Marisa Bartley interviewed to be a Citizens Bank teller while still a senior at Pitt, "just to make some extra money," she says "the branch manager, right when I walked into his office, said, 'You're over-qualified. I'm going to refer you to the retail branch manager program.'"
The Chicago office called two weeks later to interview her, and she's been with Citizens ever since.
"It's not just getting the job, it's navigating your way through the corporate swimming pool," she advises. "It's really about making those connections along the way and making sure you're retaining those deposits so you can use them later.
"We're still nearly male-dominated," she says of banking, but points out that Citizens has many opportunities for advancement and growth. "Young women are able to see where they want to be and know that it is not uncharted territory."
She likes to see youth groups attending the Athena Awards. "It's amazing to have young kids look at people like Jennifer Cairns," she says of the 2011 Young Professional Athena winner, who is a lawyer, mom and player on the Pittsburgh Passion women's football team. "Kids are looking at her, and saying, I want to be like that, instead of seeing Miley Cyrus and saying, I want to be like that. You can't aspire to be what you can't see." This is better.
Tickets for the luncheon can be purchased online here (ATHENA-Pittsburgh.com).
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