This year's 11 ATHENA® AWARD FINALISTS are role models, trailblazers and mentors for the young women leaders of tomorrow. Working in law, construction, non-profits and some of the region's largest corporations, these leaders are making a difference. They are active in breaking the cycle of poverty for young women, creating professional associations to help women advance in the workplace and mentoring women as they navigate the challenges of leadership.

They've made it to the top professionally. Then, without hesitation, they've turned around and extended a helping hand to the women coming after them.

In its sixth year in the Tristate, the ATHENA® Award program honors these individuals. The program is part of ATHENA International, an organization devoted to advancing women through support, development, recognition and inspiration. Of the 11 finalists, chosen by a panel of leading local professionals, the judges chose one award recipient.

Cincy thanks our panel of judges: Marion Allman, Laurie Althaus, Brittany Ballard, Susan Branscome, Karen Dorn, Laura Ford-Harris, Peggy Gruenke, Dr. Judith Harmony, Suzanne LaChapelle, Amy Ostigny, Kathy Rambo, Lisa Sainato and Dr. Shantel Thomas.

Award Recipient 
Annie Ruth

It was capturing the imaginations of her niece's classmates that led Annie Ruth to share her writing and art to inspire and educate.

"My niece said, "Aunt Annie can you come to my class to share?' When I went to the class to share, just to see the light bulbs go off in the children when you are talking about the art and the mixing and the seeing art beyond here's a pretty picture on the wall," says the renowned international artist. "That was the initial spark to share."

Her efforts are now worldwide "” through art, books, workshops and grassroots efforts to reach children because, she says, "Art transforms. I believe in the power of art."

Annie Ruth's eyes capture yours when you are in conversation "” she shares her stories as easily as she shares her talents to empower youth, promote literacy, run the non-profit foundation "Eye of the Artists" and work with young women to build the self-esteem to find money for college and follow their passion.

Her stories are about the people who shaped her life "” the P&G executive who started Annie Ruth on a journey of mentoring young women, her four-year-old nephew who would join her as she sat on the floor painting, and the students in a Kenyan school who participated along with Cincinnati students in a mural of what is important in their lives.

A former Taft Museum of Art Duncanson Artist in Residence, she has been honored by the Girl Scouts, the state of Ohio, NAACP, YMCA and United Way.

But her passion is fed by the words of one young woman who told her, "Miss Annie Ruth, you have changed my life."


Award Finalist
Barbara Bonifas
Barbara Bonifas never intended to make the Girls Scouts a career. Two months before graduating from Ohio State University with a degree in social work, she was offered a job that she thought would be just a stopgap until she could find work in her field.

"That was 40 years ago," Bonifas says.
Now the CEO of the Girl Scouts of Western Ohio, Bonifas has enjoyed every moment of the ride, which will end in April when she retires. She will be leaving the local chapter in strong shape: 53,000 girls in K-12 in a 32-county area of Western Ohio and Southeastern Indiana, 14,000 adult volunteers, 150 full-time employees and 75 part-time employees.

"My favorite magazine is the Harvard Business ReviewH, but when I retire, I won't have the need to really read it anymore," Bonifas says, laughing.

Her commitment to sound business principles has helped the local Scouts flourish under her and her management team "” together here for 20 years. A scout herself since the second grade, Bonifas led the Great Rivers Council (1988-2008) before it became the Western Ohio chapter.

She has helped thousands of girls, staff and volunteers to get on the same page to execute the program model. She also has mentored 10 or 12 other women who have gone on to become CEOs of other Girl Scouts councils.

And she has done it all while keeping her focus on the Scouts' mission: "Our mission has always remained the same: To build girls of courage, confidence and character who make the world a better place. It's not up to us to tell them what their values should be or what they should do, but to give them the tools so they can do that."

"” Tim Curtis

Award Finalist
Deborah Brenneman

Deborah Brenneman recognized early on that she was going to have a tough journey ahead in the male-dominated world of law.

So, she looked for strong women to inspire and mentor her. Their nurturing helped her become a successful lawyer. Now, she's that strong woman to whom young female professionals turn for help.
Brenneman is a partner in the Labor and Employment and Business Litigation practice groups of Thompson Hine LLP.

She was instrumental in creating the law firm's nationally recognized "Spotlight on Women" program and earlier this year, Brenneman was named Cincinnati office chair of the program. The initiative provides mentoring to women in the firm, along with educational and social networking opportunities for business and professional women outside the firm. She helped to establish, in conjunction with the West Chester Liberty Chamber Alliance, a quarterly event for educational and networking opportunities for Thompson Hine's female lawyers and business and professional women in the West Chester community.

Always a multi-tasker, Brenneman helped jumpstart the Exhale Dance Tribe, Cincinnati's first professional contemporary jazz company. She helped the company's founders form a board of directors, seek non-profit status and start fundraising efforts. She also mentors a teen mom enrolled in the Visions program in Cincinnati, which helps young mothers stay in high school and go on to college.

"I really just feel an excitement and a duty to help those who come along after me," Brenneman said. "That's probably heightened by the fact that I'm the mother of four daughters. I want someone to help them along the way."

"” Cindy Kranz

Award Finalist
Kim Curtis

If Kim Curtis has helped you out, you can thank her mother, Toni Curtis.

"She taught me the importance of giving back to the community," says Curtis, the Regional Marketing Leader for the Midwest and East Regions for Humana. "She taught me the importance of being supportive.

"I think the greatest gift she gave to my brother and me was a sense of purpose and a sense of self. That's why one of my passions is creating programs for young women that focus on self-discovery and self-development."

Early in her career, Curtis met strong women who guided her along the way.

"My advice to young women is to develop a support system "” a personal board of directors "” that reaches both inside and outside of your organization. These are people who provide encouragement, advice, mentoring and support."

She has served on a number of professional boards including the Global Legal Network Marketing Practice Group, Legal Marketing Association's national newsletter, Strategies, Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce CISE Steering Committee, and the Economic Development Task Force.

During her tenure as Advisory Board Chair for the Fourth Street Boutique, which supports Dress for Success, the boutique was renovated and new programs were developed. She was a member of the steering committee for The Women's Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation's Corporate Engagement Committee.

Her recent appointment to the board of the Hearing Speech & Deaf Center of Greater Cincinnati is personal.

"My involvement is, in some small way, a tribute to my late father, Arthur Curtis, who was deaf," she says.

Curtis continues to look to create programs focused on women's opportunities for personal and professional development.

"” C.K.

Award Finalist
Debbie Gardner

Self-defense guru Debbie Gardner isn't afraid to go for the jugular.

The founder of the Survive Institute teaches a woman that if a gunman is shoving her into the woods, she needs to grab the gun and hit his throat.

That advice rankles some in the self-defense industry who say she can't teach that.

But telling women just to be aware and use their common sense doesn't cut it for Gardner. Instead, she gives women the courage and other tools necessary to save their own lives.

Gardner, certified by national and international self-defense training programs, has also written several books on survival. The latest is "Raising Kids That Can Protect Themselves." She has hosted workshops at dozens of universities including Miami, Thomas More, University of Cincinnati, Xavier and Ohio State University.

She mustered her own courage while working eight years as a Hamilton County deputy sheriff. She learned that she had to change or she would be eaten alive. "That doesn't mean I had to get aggressive or mean," Gardner says.

It means women can be both kind and strong. She calls it "using teeth, as needed."

Gardner advises women to be "as dangerous as necessary" to get through their crisis, whether it's being treated badly in a personal relationship, targeted by an abusive boss or physically attacked. Her techniques include remembering to breath because your brain cannot work without oxygen, how to grab a knife and how to strike back.

"An attack is an attack ... I see my daughter, if attacked, winning. Most moms see their daughter losing. I've got a lot of work to do before I die. I've got to change that."

"” C.K.

Award Finalist
Sister Mary Jo Gasdorf, SC

Her confidence that women are "pretty capable of doing just about anything" is clear in her words and her commitment to breaking the cycle of poverty in her home neighborhood of Price Hill.

Sister Mary Jo Gasdorf, SC, founded The Women's Connection in 1997 to strengthen families by educating and empowering women, children and families.

A Sister of Charity for 51 years and a former teacher, she started with a yearlong assessment of the needs of women and children in the city. After she discovered that there are more single moms in Price Hill than anywhere in the city of Cincinnati, she set up the neighborhood advocacy center. "We connect women in need, who have no idea where to go, with what's out there. If they need clothes for their children, quality and affordable child care, help in dealing with an abusive husband, we link them with the agencies who can help."

Workshops, counseling, mentoring, child care and referral services are offered at the agency, which has grown to three storefronts along Glenway Avenue. There are programs for girls as young as 8, which include arts and crafts as well as community service. Services for adults deal with alcohol, domestic violence and how to find a job, write a résumé, interview and network.

"Knowledge is the foundation of all" the skills that young women need to reach their potential, says Sister Gasdorf. Breaking the cycle requires an intergenerational approach, so they work with moms or whomever is in the household. The goal is to build self-esteem and create leaders.


Award Finalist
Kathryn Groob

There's just not enough women in the House "” or in the Senate.

Kathryn Groob is on a mission to change that.

"I just believe strongly that we will be a better country. We will get more done in our government that's positive if we have balance in there," Groob says. "We need to get to 50 percent."

A former Fort Mitchell council member, Groob ran unsuccessfully for Kentucky's state senate in 2004 and 2008. During those campaigns, she says, she would have loved to see more female candidates.

So, she mustered her talents, skills and networks to do something about it. She's now publisher of ElectWomen Magazine, an online website ( that encourages women to run for public office. She's also a partner in November Strategies, a political consulting firm

Her inspiration?

"Brave women of courage, like Rosa Parks. She's a simple woman who changed the world with her brave action. I'm very much inspired by Kentucky's first woman governor, Martha Layne Collins, who was excellent."

Before her involvement in politics, Groob spent 30 years as an executive in small business, economic development and business management. Her passion was to develop leadership skills and opportunities for women. She served on the Transition Team for Gov. Steve Beshear, worked on Northern Kentucky's Vision 2015 initiative and is on the board of directors for The Women's Network. Her community involvement has included Kentucky Educational Television Fund Board, Family Services, Senior Services of NKY, Fine Arts Fund NKY, Dress for Success Advisory Board and Emerge Kentucky. She also leads a task force on homelessness.

"” C.K.

Award Finalist
Candace Klein

Listed among 30-year-old Ulmer & Berne attorney Candace Klein's favorite quotations on her Facebook page, there is this doozy:

"There is a special place in hell for women who do not help other women." "” Madeline Albright

That's the kind of passion Klein has.

"I look around, particularly at our culture as women, over the past 10 years, and I don't see a culture of women who support other women," Klein says. She relates a story of speaking to 150 female Fidelity Investments executives last year, many of whom admitted to being "kept down" in their career at some point by another woman.

"That's a major cultural problem. I have never had to deal with that because I have been lifted up. So I feel it's partially my responsibility to create a culture that's different than what I'm currently seeing," says Klein, who started Bad Girl Ventures in 2010, a micro-lending program for female entrepreneurs, to do just that. The program has helped seed 18 companies with $310,000.

That type of success should come as no surprise from someone who had a press conference to announce a 25-year campaign for governor while a student at Northern Kentucky University in 2002. Or from someone who founded CincyPAC and created another peer-to-peer lending company "” SoMoLend. She introduced Barack Obama on the campaign trail in 2007, is treasurer of Chris Seelbach's City Council campaign and has twice beaten ovarian cancer (2003, 2010).

Those battles are her motivation because, Klein says, "I'm not guaranteed tomorrow."

Politics, however, will have to wait.

"My plan was always to understand the law, run a successful business, teach others to run a successful business and then I'll run for office," Klein says. "I still have other milestones that I want to accomplish."

"” T.C.

Award Finalist
Sheila Munafo-Kanoza

Sheila Munafo-Kanoza works to help others along their journey of grief by offering hope and healing.

An entrepreneur and business woman, Munafo-Kanoza trained merchandise coordinators at Procter & Gamble, where she was responsible for one of the top sales territories in the nation. But after her husband's death in 1993, she left P&G and began her studies in bereavement.

She founded Companions on a Journey Grief Support, a faith-based nonprofit that provides support to anyone dealing with the loss of a loved one.

"Out of my pain, came my purpose, and out of my purpose came my passion," says Munafo-Kanoza, citing one of her mottos.

In 1999, she helped develop Teens in Grief Support programs, which serves more than 250 students each month at 10 area schools. Companions on a Journey is now one of the largest bereavement support organizations in the country, serving more than 4,000 people every year in the Tristate.

"Our overall thing is to reach out to those who grieve and mourn, and to help them along their journey of grief," she says. "We can be a place of comfort, hope, strength and healing."

Munafo-Kanoza has trained women to become bereavement facilitators in Greater Cincinnati and around the country.

"What we're trying to do is educate women, to empower them to reach out to those who grieve and mourn," Munafo-Kanoza says. "It's been an incredible journey."

Her work has grown to encompass educational workshops, widowed support groups, child loss groups, surviving after suicide groups and the Seasons-of-Grief Newsletter.


Award Finalist
Shannan Plogsted

Shannan Plogsted found it difficult to be taken seriously when she entered the construction industry.
 During her college internship at Turner Construction, she grew accustomed to seeing eyes roll and other expressions of the attitude that women don't belong in the industry. She navigated it with professionalism and grace, says a co-worker.

"I grew up in a family of fairly traditional values and, quite frankly, my own family was telling me women don't belong in construction," Plogsted says. "So, you're constantly fighting that, constantly trying to prove yourself, over and over again. It is tiring, but it's definitely worth it "¢ It's very personally empowering to know that you succeeded, despite all of the rolled eyes."

Plogsted is now a project manager for Turner. And, since there were no female role models for her, she focuses on mentoring young women joining the industry.

Her advice to young professionals is to find your voice.

"Be comfortable telling your story, because everybody has a unique set of talents, a unique ability to bring something of value to the table. It's so difficult, especially for women, but any young person coming into the workforce to feel like they've got something to contribute. You don't need 20 years of experience under your belt to be able to tell your story."

Plogsted founded WEST, now known as Women Enhancing the Success of Turner, to support the recruitment and advancement of women. She helps other companies attract female employees through the Women's Fund Mastermind Group for Corporate Women's Leadership. Her community involvement has included WANTTO Program for Hard Hatted Women at the YWCA, presentations to middle and high school students regarding non-traditional careers and volunteering at the Freestore Foodbank.

"” C.K.

Award Finalist
Sallie Westheimer

When you talk about early childhood development you have to remember, says Sallie Westheimer, that "90 percent of brain growth occurs before the child goes to school."

So, from the very beginning, children need to be in a safe, enriching environment to prepare them for success in school and in life.

Westheimer's passion for the care and development of children as well as parenting skills and professional skills for those who provide the care has defined the 30 years that she has spent as executive director of 4C for Children.

The childcare resource and referral agency now serves 23 counties in Southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky with a staff of 70, a budget of $5 million and innovative services which, in the past year, impacted more than 176,000 children through services provided to parents, early childhood professionals and employers.

Initiatives have included the city's first childcare center for teen parents in the 1980s, contracting with employers (including P&G and Ford) to help employees find quality child care, the Institute for Early Childhood Excellence to train childcare providers and a yearlong seminar for childcare center administrators.

Women still have a far greater role in balancing family and work, Westheimer says. A woman can't succeed at work or school unless her children are being cared for in a "safe and learning place."

Additionally, Westheimer is a member of United Way WINGS (Women's Initiative Next Generation), former president of the YWCA in Greater Cincinnati, mentors women in the non-profit field and served on boards including United Way Success by 6, American Jewish Committee and the Charter Committee.


 Key Advice: BALANCE
Anthem OHIO President Erin Hoeflinger Talks About Perspective
By Rick Bird
Keynote Speaker
Erin Hoeflinger 

Erin Hoeflinger confesses she's not one to quickly offer unsolicited career advice to young professionals. She has learned that people are different and job situations require different skills.

But when she is confronted with what she calls "a group of hyper go-getters," yearning for professional words of wisdom, Hoeflinger focuses on one word: "balance."

Hoeflinger, president of Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield in Ohio, says keeping job, family and service work in perspective, finding that center among life's endeavors, has been her key to success.

"When I talk about balance to young people I like to point out, "¢You won't remember the meetings you had, but you will remember the birthdays,'" Hoeflinger says. "When your schedule gets crazy, it's important to start prioritizing, to find the balance. Find out what's important, because that's what's going to give you energy. You realize it's not always just about family. And it's not always just about work."

With a 20-year career in health insurance, Hoeflinger described Anthem as a "health benefits company" in a 2008 interview with Cincy. Instead of collecting premiums and paying claims, she explained, her mission is to ensure that the millions of Anthem members understand what it takes to lead healthier lives.

A Dayton native, Hoeflinger originally figured television news was the career for her. After earning a communications degree from Wright State University, she landed a job delivering headline inserts at Dayton's WHIO-TV.

"I was so good I got to do that overnight and on the weekends," she says with a laugh. "I realized that was not going to be my place to be."

She moved into information technology, earned a MBA from Xavier University and took a position as an IT analyst with Anthem's prescription management division. From there she advanced to leadership positions in sales, operations and healthcare management. In 1995, she was named president of Anthem of Maine, returning to Ohio in 2008 as head of the state's largest health benefits company.

Hoeflinger's experience taught her that different regions of the country require different strategies. "You have to respect where you are," she says. "In Maine, health care was much more expensive than in Ohio, and the per capita income is lower. It was hard for people to afford health care."

Hoeflinger says she has been fortunate working for a company with no glass ceiling. "It's a company that wants to promote women," she says. Indeed, WellPoint Inc., Anthem's parent corporation, has an impressive track record in that regard "” 77 percent of its associates are female. Women make up 36 percent of its board of directors and 58 percent of its managers. WellPoint's president/CEO is a woman, Angela Braly.

Like many successful professionals, service work is important to Hoeflinger. She thinks that becomes part of the DNA of a thriving executive manager.

"When you are really hitting on all cylinders, really doing well, you want to give back," she says. "You feel good about what you have done, what you are able to earn, so it's natural to think, "¢To whom much is given, much is expected.'"

And if a sense of balance and purpose is applied to executive management, Hoeflinger says you can make a difference.

"People need to see you and know what you are about," she says. "If you can set a vision and people know why they are there, and they know you are accessible, you can move things forward." 

Event Emcee
Sheree Paolello

WLWT Channel 5 news anchor Sheree Paolello knows well the challenge of balancing work, family and philanthropy, much like the 11 women she will introduce as emcee for Cincy's Athena Awards Banquet on Sept. 22.

"The Athena Awards are important to women in our community because it recognizes women who never ask or expect to be recognized for their hard work. These women are wives, mothers and career women who, on top of all of the demands of their daily lives, make time to help others," Paolello says.

Paolello finds herself squarely in that category. She is a guest speaker at her former high school and college, and she volunteers at local charities, including Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, the MS Society, animal shelters and humane societies.

"I grew up in Cincinnati and unfortunately every night on the news we see all of the bad people, doing the wrong thing. So for me to come here and honor successful women who "¢ want to give back and help someone else, it's the best part of my job," she says.

Paolello grew up in the Tristate and attended Northern Kentucky University, graduating in 1996. She began working for WLWT in 2002, and now anchors the 5, 5:30, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts. She lives in Florence, Ky., with her husband and three sons.

"” Brianna Bodine

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