Athena Awards = Exceptional!

From The Greek goddess Athena is usually portrayed as one of the most benevolent goddesses … strong, fair, and merciful … able to remain independent … the prototype of the contemporary "career woman."

If it weren't for D.J. Ahrens, the former owner of Ahrens Cadillac-Oldsmobile in Madison prior to Bergstrom's arrival, Madison may never have been a part of the Athena Awards — an international awards organization. The group honors local men and women who have "achieved excellence in their profession or life's work, devoted time and effort in their communities to improve the quality of life for others, and actively helped women realize their full leadership potential."

Ahrens, who now works for a Chicago-based business consulting company, explained that Cadillac and the national Athena organization joined forces in an attempt to raise the awareness of the awards program and to reach female luxury car buyers at the same time. The Athena group was "a great organization," Ahrens said, "and a lot of fun to work with. It was the epitome of networking. Just put the power of 3,000 women behind it and watch."

He took the idea to the Madison Chamber of Commerce and the Dane County United Way who, in turn, suggested it to some area women's groups. The Madison Business Forum stepped up to the plate, realizing that such an award program would be a perfect fit for their organization, which encourages women's professional development. Ahrens was the presenter at the first Athena Awards program, and was instrumental in holding several golf outings in support of the organization over the years until he sold his dealership six years ago.

Since 1998, Dane County's Athena Award celebration has received an exceptional list of highly impressive nominees, but just one individual gets to carry the torch each year.

This year's nominees are (in alphabetical order):

  1. William "Patrick" Barlow of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Madison College. Barlow is responsible for all the professional development needs of both faculty and staff. For years, Barlow worked on over 25 productions as the head of Madison College's theatre production program. He was nominated for the award by a non-traditional female whom he helped after she decided to return to school. The Athena nomination, he said, "is surprising and flattering."

    Barlow, interestingly enough, is one of only two men nominated since the local program's inception. "That's great," said Angie Heim, president of The Employers Group in Madison and this year's senior co-chair of the Athena Awards Committee. She hopes to dispel the myth that the Athena Awards are strictly for women. Rather, she said, "extraordinary people from all walks of life can be nominated."

  2. Donna Beestman, president of Career Success Strategies, is a career coach who has mentored hundreds of professionals over the years in both Madison and her former home of Delaware. Beestman revels in connecting clients, business professionals and community leaders, and says she is "truly honored" to be nominated for this year's award. "I've attended the Athena Award dinner for a number of years and it's wonderful that the proceeds from the event go to provide scholarships for women pursuing their dreams."
  3. Laurie Benson, founder and former CEO of Inacom Information Systems, recently sold her company to Core BTS. Though she has since formed yet another company — LB Unlimited, Benson continues to work with student and adult entrepreneurs and remains active on 15 area boards. In 2009, Benson received the Small Business Administration's national Women in Business Champion Award, just one of many awards she has received for her business and professional successes. In 2006, she was instrumental in bringing the first Make Mine a Million $ Business Contest to the state. She also supports student entrepreneurs through her volunteer work with the UW Student Venture Seed Grant Program Selection Committee.

    "It's an honor to be a part of the 'cycle of goodness' that flows from the Athena award," said Benson. "It is a wonderful reminder to all of us that we can make a positive impact in the lives of others. Even as this is done in small ways through simple acts of encouragement, support, and genuine interest in others; it can really make a difference to someone, and that's really what gives meaning to life."

  4. Ann Eaves, president of the Board at Habitat for Humanity of Dane County (HHDC), retired seven years ago as the Director of Asset Management and CFO at WHEDA. She is a tireless devotee of the HHDC program, and has helped over 100 families — mostly single women with children — acquire a home. While she is extremely flattered to be nominated, she is also quick to divert attention away from herself and onto other HHDC volunteers and staff. "It's all about the families," she said, "which is what matters most." Eaves encourages everyone to get back in touch with what's truly important, whether that's family, pets, or growing living things. A master gardener, Eaves helped launch an annual plant sale. Proceeds from the event go towards teaching HHDC families how to beautify their new yards.
  5. A graduate of the UW Medical School who also trained at the Harvard School of Public Health and Boston's Children's Hospital, Dr. Barbara O'Connell is now a Director at UW Health and the University of Wisconsin Medical School. She is an OB/GYN who served as Director of Women's Health Services at Meriter Hospital for six years. Her work has significantly affected the lives of her patients. (Dr. O'Connell is out of the country and unavailable for comment).
  6. Sarah Zylstra, is a Partner with Boardman Law Firm and also the current president of both the Western District of the Wisconsin Bar Association and the Western District Pro Bono Fund. A YWCA Board Member since 2004, her "Y" involvement centers primarily around Girls, Inc., an after-school enrichment and empowerment program for girls aged nine to 18. "I am truly honored and humbled to be nominated for this prestigious award and to be placed in the same company as this year's other nominees," she said.

This year's Athena recipient will join a rich collection of past stars, including, but not limited to, Eileen Mershart from the YWCA of Madison, IB's own Jody Glynn Patrick, publisher of In Business magazine, Sister Mary David Walgenbach of the St. Benedict Center of Madison, Jean Manchester-Biddick, retired CEO of Neesvig's, Inc., and Carol Toussaint, the first recipient.

Choosing the recipient is the (difficult) job reserved for a mix of judges including past recipients and representatives from all walks of life, including the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, United Way and Madison College. "We usually have eight judges," Heim said. Their job is to sort through the nomination packets and score each packet based on a set of criteria. It is not a job taken lightly, Heim said, and some judges enjoy the process so much that they return year after year.

Heim, a Business Forum Member, is especially excited by this year's program. "My goal was to secure a local personality as our speaker, and we got Sue Ann Thompson!" she said. Connecting with the former governor's wife, she said, was a case of who knew who, and three degrees of separation, but in the end, a Business Forum donation to Thompson's own Wisconsin Women's Health Foundation secured the state's former First Lady's keynote appearance. In Heim's mind, it was a great trade, and with proceeds from the event going towards Business Forum scholarships for women, Heim believes this year's presentation will be the best ever.

"I'm crossing my fingers for 300 attendees this year," she said.

Madison's thirteenth-annual Athena Awards celebration will be held at Monona Terrace Convention Center beginning at 5:30pm on Tuesday, March 16. NBC15 news anchor Leigh Mills will emcee. For information, go to

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