The 11 ATHENA AWARD FINALISTS have some similarities, but each has a distinctively individual flavor. The women, shown above and profiled on the following pages, share common ground, but come from different backgrounds, work in different fields and support different causes.

But each shares one trait: they have a passion for helping others, whether it be mentoring, coaching, teaching, fundraising or lending their voices in the effort to make Greater Cincinnati better.

In its seventh year in the Tristate, the ATHENA AWARD program honors these women. It is part of ATHENA International, an organization devoted to support, development and recognition. The judges chose one award recipient from the finalists who were chosen by a panel of local professionals.

Cincy thanks judges Marion Allman, Laurie Althaus, Mary Falls, Laura Ford-Harris, Debbie Gardner, Peggy Gruenke, Judith Harmony, Kelly Harrington, Sue LaChapelle, Amy Ostigny, Shannan Plogsted, Kathy Rambo, Adrienne Roach, Annie Ruth, Lisa Sainato, Amy Scrivner, Bobbi Shaw and Shantel Thomas.
 

Award Recipient - Zeinab Schwen

Zeinab Schwen is a self-described "triple hyphenate: Muslim-Arab-American."

The native of Egypt didn't need to add female to the list, but some of the struggles in her life were attributable to her gender, if not her heritage.

Schwen, founder and president of Strategic Regulatory Consulting, is a scientist with a master's degree in pharmacology. Before starting SRC, which helps companies navigate the regulations required to develop, test and license healthcare products, she worked for a major drug company. It didn't end well.

"I had to leave my work at a pharmaceutical company because I was passed over for promotions again and again," she says.

For all Muslims who live in America, the attacks of Sept. 11 are the defining moment.

Discrimination that might have been subtle became more blatant. Appalled by the level of antipathy, Schwen did what she has always done. She acted.

"(When) 9-11 happened, I felt the need to start a Muslim civil-rights organization," she says. "Muslim Mothers Against Violence teaches non-violent ways to face conflict. It's really the mothers who teach the children in the home."

Recent anti-American rioting in the Middle East shows that the path to peace is not a straight road. But that has never deterred Schwen.

"We don't do what we do for the recognition," she says.

She does it because it's the right thing to do.
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Award Finalist - Debbie Bowman

Recognition isn't crucial for Debbie Bowman.

The new director of Boys Hope Girls Hope left her job as Chief Financial and Operating Officer at the Cincinnati Art Museum in October after a career of more than 30 years. She has a wall of awards for business accomplishments and community involvement. Bowman appreciates the praise; it is certainly nice to be recognized by your peers.

Hope, however, is a different matter. That's because Bowman grew up without much of it, but persevered. One of five kids of a single mother in Bellevue, she attributes her success to "someone watching over me," but the fact is that she was willing to put in the work and never lost hope.

"I worked in the Lytle Food Shoppe when I was 15 and worked my way up to assistant manager when I was 17," Bowman says. "There was a lady who lived in the apartments above the store, and she worked at the Art Museum. She told me there was a job open and I should apply for it."

That job was in the maintenance department. Bowman went to college at night, concentrating on accounting classes. She volunteered to help in the museum's accounting department while working her regular job.

She was named CFO, then was given the added responsibilities of COO by the time she was 33. That story itself should inspire a generation. But there's more. Bowman has a lot of energy, and she loves sports. She coached her kids' teams and started the Dixie Heights Little Lady Leaders basketball program for young girls to "build future leaders through empowerment, creativity, team spirit and encouragement."

That description could be Bowman's mission statement.

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Award Finalist - Barb Rinto

It is a lucky person who is able to spend his or her life doing honorable work. Barb Rinto is one of those people.

"I have had the great fortune to marry my passion to my work," says the director of the Women's Center at the University of Cincinnati. "I have proudly worked for gender equity and social justice."

Before going to UC, Rinto was the director of Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio for eight years. During that time "” and since then "” she has been deeply involved in topics that are hotly debated throughout the country.

"I think issues of gender weave in and out of discussions all the time," Rinto says. "They might not be as prominent as they are during a presidential election campaign. But women's health has been so politicized "¢ I would like to eliminate the partisan stuff."

That's probably not going to happen soon, so Rinto encourages women (and men) not to take anything for granted.

"When I look back, there has been enormous progress made (on women's issues)," she says. "But it is critical for women to be involved so that progress isn't lost."

But women's issues aren't just about women; those issues affect everyone.

"Men don't want their wives and daughters doing the same job for less money," Rinto says. "Pay equity need not polarize the sexes. It's about the whole community being healthy and vibrant."

Rinto believes that a university setting is the perfect place for young people to learn how the world works and how to find their place in it.

Rinto relishes the role she has played for almost 40 years. "One of the reasons I love working at UC is developing critical thinkers and citizens of the world."

That's honorable work.
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Award Finalist - Karen Mueller

Karen Mueller knows what it's like to be the only woman in the room.

"When I graduated from college in 1983, the first job I could get was in insurance," says Mueller. "I was the first female salesperson at MetLife."

Although that sounds like it could have been a rough road at the start, Mueller says that wasn't the case. She says she was judged on her ability rather than her gender.

"The open-mindedness of the men I worked with has helped me," she says. "And I have an amazing family, especially a husband (Ken) who never said his career was more important than mine."

Mueller is now executive vice president at HORAN, a firm that offers employee benefits, including health and life insurance, to more than 500 companies.

One of the intriguing programs that Mueller worked on was HealthShare, an initiative in Butler County that was conceived as a way to provide affordable health insurance to uninsured working people.

"The program still exists," Mueller says, "but it never got off to a great start because Butler County never had the dollars to support it."

But she isn't ready to give up on health care exchanges. "We were a little ahead of our time with that. But that's what drives me every single day: "¢Do I have the resources to move this forward?' "

Health care availability is one of the defining issues of our time. The politics can be argued endlessly. But maybe, just maybe, smart people will come up with solutions that benefit everyone. Shouldn't that be the goal of a benefits company?

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Award Finalist - Dr. Tracey Skale

Dr. Tracey Skale, the medical director of Greater Cincinnati Behavioral Health Services, is responsible for overseeing treatment of more than 5,000 adults with mental health problems.

She has been with the agency for more than 19 years. During that time, she has seen many heart-wrenching cases among the clients, many of whom are homeless "” living on the street, under overpasses or in the woods.

None of her cases have touched her like a man named Rick, who was known as the Hyde Park Hermit.

"When I moved to town 27 years ago to go medical school, I saw this man," Skale says. "I knew who he was. I never dreamed that I would come in contact with him."

Caseworkers at GCBHS had worked hard to develop a relationship with Rick, a schizophrenic who had lived outside for more than 20 years.

In 2004, a blizzard two days before Christmas caught Rick by surprise where he lived in Burnet Woods.

Skale and a caseworker convinced Rick that he needed to come in from the cold, and eventually helped Rick move into his own apartment.

"To sit in a room with a man who has been through so much, that is what makes this work so gratifying," says Skale. "We never give up hope, and it is a tremendous privilege to have these people share their lives with me."

To see Rick's story, go to the video library link at www.gcbhs.com. You'll understand what Skale is talking about.
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Award Finalist - Marjorie Solomon

Talk about role models. Marjorie Solomon didn't have to look far for strong women mentors when she was growing up.

Her maternal grandmother was a botanist at the University of Oklahoma. Her other grandmother had a master's degree in social work from the University of Tulsa. A great aunt was a lawyer, active in politics, taking meetings with Eleanor Roosevelt. Her mother was a registered nurse with a master's degree.

Solomon says it's pretty clear what was expected when you were descended from women already on career paths about the time they got the vote.

"You were to go to work and have a career. It was always understood that education was extremely important," she says.

Solomon pursued a path that led her to be an area leader in nurturing economic growth for women's businesses.

Solomon did have to reinvent herself. After a career in the travel industry, she found herself laid off, eventually landing her current job as program director for the Ohio River Valley Women's Business Council, which determines certification of women-owned businesses seeking designation for bidding on set-aside contracts.

"I get paid to do what I'm passionate about, which is advancing economic empowerment for women," she says.

Solomon's volunteer efforts include helping to establish the Cincinnati chapter of 85 Broads and working with Bad Girl Ventures, a nonprofit micro-lending group for women starting their own business.

Her advice: "Be resilient. Get a steel spine. Be able to redefine yourself. And listen to your mother and the women who came before you. They hold all the wisdom. I hear the voices of my grandmothers, my aunt and my mother all the time."
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Award Finalist - Litsa Spanos

The daughter of Greek immigrants, Litsa Spanos says her parents taught her to risk it all for her dreams, just as they did by leaving their farming village for America.

Spanos has been living her dream since 1993 when she opened her retail/wholesale art gallery, ADC, Art Design Consultants. What started with two customers blossomed into an award-winning gallery specializing in corporate and residential art consulting.

ADC has had revenues of more than $1 million a year. Spanos says her ultimate reward is "enriching lives by creating environments that are beautiful, healing, inspirational and inviting through the use of art. I love coming to work surrounded by beauty every day. "

Spanos' other passion is being able to help women artists earn a living by placing their artwork in the corporate collections of some of the most prestigious companies and residences in Cincinnati. Female artists have benefited by close to $6 million through her efforts, which have included installations for such companies as Great American Tower at Queen City Square, Cincinnati Financial, Omnicare, Macy's, Mercy Healthcare and Duke Energy.

In 2011 she was instrumental in planning and raising funds over a six-month period to bring to her gallery the Scar Project, a traveling exhibit of life-sized portraits of young women with breast cancer.

"(It) was one of the most important and life-changing events that I've ever been a part of," Spanos said about the exhibit that benefited the Pink Ribbon Girls.
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Award Finalist - Charlene Ventura

Charlene Ventura knows a bit about awards that honor women.

The president and CEO of the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati started the Career Women of Achievement Luncheon in 1980. It is now one of the most prestigious recognition programs in the region, drawing more than 2,000 people annually and raising more than $650,000 for YWCA programming. More than 250 women have been honored.

Although professional women have made great strides in leadership positions in fields such as medicine and law, Ventura thinks it's important to keep the spotlight on women in the business world.

"In the business community, there are still very few women in CEO positions or on boards of major corporations," Ventura says. "Recognizing those who are doing exciting things in the workplace sends a message that young women can still make it to the top. It's important to salute these successful women since many younger ones are faced with tough choices where they are, in many cases, the primary provider of support in the home."

Ventura, who started working at the YWCA in 1973, has been on the front lines on women's issues, a founding member of the modern women equality movement in Cincinnati, staging protests and workshops dating to the late '60s.

One of her greatest legacies is in the field of domestic violence, which she says makes up almost half of the YWCA's efforts. She initiated the first community-wide education program on domestic abuse, leading to the establishment of the first shelter for battered women in the region in 1980.

"We've literally saved a lot of lives with the programs, physically as well as emotionally," Ventura says.
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Award Finalist - Elaine Suess

Elaine Suess has a guiding mantra: Do what you are best at and do what you are passionate about.

"I like to ask women, what story do you want to be authoring?" Suess says. "Are you happy with the story you are writing right now?"

After an extensive corporate management career with General Motors and in the medical device industry, Suess wasn't happy with her plot line. Six years ago she founded her own coaching and consulting business, Beyond Being, becoming certified as a Leadership and Talent Management Coach as well as a certified Happiness Advantage Coach.

"I wanted to strike out on my own so I could be using my strengths more fully," Suess says. "It's a way for me to activate positive strength-based change "” look at not what's wrong or what clients want to fix, but at what they want to create."

Suess carries the same message to her service work. She is a board member and past president of Impact 100, the women's philanthropy group that makes gifts in $100,000 increments to nonprofit organizations.

"The gifts are transformational for the nonprofits," Suess says.

Suess also works with Sister Circle of St. Vincent DePaul to help low-income women discover their self-worth, and serves on the board of Women Helping Women.

Whether counseling low-income women or advising business executives, Suess has the same advice: "It's about having the curiosity to uncover our own genius and beauty. I think women are sometimes too modest as it relates to our own abilities. We need to embrace our gifts."
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Award Finalist - Moira Weir

Make good decisions. You have choices.

That is the most important advice Moira Weir says she gives to the women who come through her doors, many at-risk, who have exhausted all other resources when it comes to finding housing, food and a safe environment.

Weir is director of the Hamilton County Job and Family Services Department. Some have said she has the toughest job in town.

"Since the recession hit we have seen our funding cut 50 percent while our caseload has doubled," Weir says.

Weir began her career in real estate, but after becoming a "big sister" to a foster child, she felt called to social work. After 15 years with JFS, she was named director in 2007.

She launched Choose Your Partner Carefully, to educate single mothers about child abuse warning signs in partners. She also started the Higher Education Mentoring Initiative, helping at-risk students find educational opportunities. And she constantly works on promoting self-esteem in women, making sure they understand the choices they make have consequences.

"Single moms have all sorts of pressures and they make bad decisions by leaving children home alone or with people they don't know. It's a tough dilemma. Do I keep my job? How do I find affordable child care and basic health care?"

Weir says despite the gloomy statistics, she takes heart in the success stories.

"There are so many women we've helped who were on welfare, now working, going to school. There are amazing stories of women ending up being leaders in their neighborhoods and for their children."
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Award Finalist - Rebecca Wilber

Growing up in rural Wisconsin, Rebecca Wilber's dream was to own her own business. She was also a joiner and a doer "” 4H, Girl Scouts, Future Farmers. With a degree in restaurant management, she worked for Disney World, then advanced to senior management at Taco Bell.

In 1998, Wilber and her husband, Todd, acquired nine Taco Bell restaurants in Greater Cincinnati, which they have expanded to 12 today. She also owns the Uno Chicago Grill restaurants in West Chester and Anderson.

Wilber has a straightforward work ethic: "Just never give up. Follow your dreams. If you can work hard, you can achieve what you want in life."

Along the way, Wilber hired women. Lots of them. "At my restaurants, 95 percent of my general managers are women. One GM even started with me as an hourly worker when she was 14. Looking back, I didn't do it purposely, but that's what happened."

Perhaps it was because Wilber found that women are simply good workers. "There's a tenacity and attention to detail. Probably more of an open-hearted understanding of people," Wilber says.

Wilber has been a generous contributor of time and money to dozens of organizations including battered women shelters, foster care programs and food pantries, either personally volunteering or sponsoring fundraisers through her restaurants. She has been a leader in the various causes supported by the Community Foundation of West Chester/Liberty.

"I do it because I've been so blessed," Wilber says. "Everything in life has exceeded my dreams."
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Keynote Speaker - Venus Opal Reese

Venus Opal Reese's description of herself as the "Business Bad-A$$ Entrepreneur Coach" who spurs people to find their worth and leverage it in the world, might seem at odds with someone toting two master's degrees and a Ph.D from Stanford, who has presented at Harvard and Yale, Northwestern, MIT and the Department of Homeland Security "” and the Sorbonne to boot.

But when you learn of her years as a down-and-out teenager scraping by on the streets of Baltimore, it rings true. There's nothing high-falutin' about her.

It was in a ninth-grade math class (she attended because the teacher fed her) where Reese began to find her worth. It planted the seed of what she calls "pimping your pain for profit" "” taking the pain from the past and harnessing it to serve the people who need you.

That teacher gave her food "” and books "” and insisted she write down her thoughts since Reese had stopped talking to anybody. The teacher typed those thoughts and entered them in a NAACP competition, which Reese won.

But "winning was not the big deal," Reese says. " When I realized what Mrs. Francis had done for me "” she gave me the tools to have a voice, she was a resource on my behalf so I could see myself with new eyes. That's when a crack opened up in the wall of evidence that I was worthless, and a beautiful sliver of light came through. She saw me as someone who matters. I thought "¢If I can see me as she sees me, then maybe I can do something with my life.' "

It took Reese 20 years to do it, and now she teaches others to do the same, inspiring high achievers to change the world.

"Because of my background of getting off streets, people want me to speak to teens and homeless people for inspiration," Reese says.

Find out more about Venus Opal Reese at www.drvenusopalreese.com or www.BeABusinessBadAss.com