Published in UT San Diego, June 26, 2012
BY BARBARA BRY
Finding a place for professional women to network 30 years ago was nearly impossible. As a female executive in the late 1970s and 1980s, I was sometimes the only woman in the room, and I was lonely.
In 1989, I was the associate director of Connect (an organization focused on nurturing technology and life-science entrepreneurs), and I began to see more women coming to our programs. So I thought, “There needs to be a place where women can help each other with their professional and personal challenges and issues.”
And thus was born Athena San Diego. It has more than 500 members from our region’s leading technology, life-science and health care organizations and the service firms that support them.
I chose the name “Athena” because it was the name of a goddess of wisdom and war. She inspired and fought alongside the Greek heroes, and she was equal with the men. It sounded like the right combination of attributes for business success.
We began as an informal group of 25 to 30 women who met for lunch in a member’s conference room. Telecom entrepreneur Martha Dennis hosted the first one. After a few years, our numbers grew too large to fit in a conference room, and we organized a few conferences. Then in 1997, when I left Connect to join a startup, I decided that Athena needed to become a formal organization if it were to grow and thrive.
To build a successful startup, whether it’s in the nonprofit or for-profit sector, you need a great team with diverse skill sets. I was able to recruit an amazing group of 13 women to serve on Athena’s first board of directors. We met several times over a one-year period to develop our original mission — “to unite senior women executives from high-tech and life-science companies, and the companies that support them, in a network that provides leadership, support and education, to address business issues and challenges unique to its members.”
It has been almost 25 years since its inception, and I decided to talk with members about how Athena has helped them and whether they still see a need for a woman-focused organization. Men are welcome at Athena events, and generally about 20 percent of the attendees are very smart men!
(Neil’s note: I was the first male member of Athena. It is not that the men were so smart, it was that they were involved with really smart and powerful women, and they needed to hang around with the big dogs.)
“I joined Athena because I wanted to learn from people whom I respected. There was so much that I didn’t know. I gained friendships, advice, guidance, and a lot of perspective,” said Tamar Elkeles, vice president of learning for Qualcomm and one of the founding board members. At the time, Elkeles was the youngest person in the room and was director of learning at Qualcomm. We all cheered her promotion to senior director and then to vice president.
Diane Goostree had moved from Kansas City to San Diego to become director of business development at a life-science company when she joined Athena in the early days. “I wanted role models so that I could understand how some women had risen in their careers and overcome obstacles, different pathways to success,” said Goostree, who is now CEO of Intrepid Therapeutics. “Women tend to be more open with their thoughts and feelings, and I learned that no one is comfortable in a new role. If you are rising rapidly, you are doing new things all the time, and that causes some fear.”
Erna Adelson, immediate past chair of the Athena board and senior director of information systems at Sony Network Entertainment, joined in 2006 when she moved to San Diego from New Jersey. “I work in a male-dominated field, and I wanted to find other executive women like me who are driven and love the game of work and are focused on their career,” she said.
Amylin accounts payable manager Kathy Tanner credits Athena and her FEW (Forum for Executive Women) group with helping her through her pregnancy and return to work. FEW is a group of eight to 10 Athena members who meet regularly in a confidential setting to discuss personal and professional issues and challenges. Tanner has also participated in Athena’s one-to-one mentoring program and served on the committee that plans the annual Pinnacle Awards at which people and organizations that empower women are recognized and five female high school seniors who want to pursue a career in math or science fields receive scholarships.
Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry, serial entrepreneurs who invest in early-stage technology companies, take turns in writing this weekly column about entrepreneurship in San Diego. Please email ideas to Barbara at firstname.lastname@example.org