"It's like I have a party going on in my head!" -Pat Shea, ATHENA Award recipient

April 5, 2017

Last week, CNM board member and CEO emeritus of the YWCA Pat Shea was honored with the 2017 ATHENA Award – a honor awarded to women for “their business success, community service, and encouragement of other women” (Nashville Business Journal). A huge congratulations to Pat!

Hear more from Pat in this conversation with CNM:


Q: How does it feel to win the ATHENA award?

A: I’ve never felt like this before. ATHENA is a big deal – it’s like I have a party going on in my head! I also have to admit that I’m still feeling a little gun-shy, like they’re going to recount the votes and say that it wasn’t supposed to go to me.

Sitting there onstage, you’re surrounded by amazing women and Mayor Barry, and then they start reading about the winner. It started to sound like me and I looked over at my girlfriends and my husband in the audience and they’re going crazy. The whole experience was amazing. And I’ve been floored that everywhere I go, people come up and congratulate me. Nashville knows what it is and it’s a big deal, so I am incredibly honored.

Q: What advice would you give to developing leaders in the nonprofit sector? And also to women, specifically?

A: The advice that I would give to anybody is that you can’t go out and aspire to win something like ATHENA. I didn’t go into the YWCA aspiring to be recognized; I went in because I’m passionate about the mission of eliminating racism and empowering women. And then you put your head down and you get to work! And I loved it every single day, and worked hard every single day. The cool thing about running a nonprofit, for me, is that you get to both lead and serve at the same time. You focus on doing the work and serving people and then when it’s over, then you realize everything you were able to accomplish.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about developing women in the workplace, partly because I’m in this transition period after leaving the YWCA and whatever I’m doing to go next. It’s really a fun, creative place because you can be anything. (And you can sleep in!) I’ve been having this really wild thought that the most abundant and natural resource is human potential. I think I’ve always known that about women. One of my passions at the YW was to figure out how to help women unleash their potential. The clients who show up at the YW, sometimes they aren’t meeting this potential because they were burdened by poverty, racism, or violence – some other force not allowing them to reach their potential. I think that these women, and all women, need to figure out what is keeping us from being as big as we can be, as bright as we can be, and as aggressive and thoughtful as it will take to overcome our barrier to maximize our gifts. And that same is true for men! Especially with how screwed up the world seems to be right now, I find some comfort in thinking how much capacity there is within human beings. We will figure it out because that’s what we do.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I’m trying to figure out what I do really well and what I enjoy. Women of all ages, really, tend to get good at a bunch of stuff because we needed to. But now I really want to only do what I like and what I am good at. I really like public speaking so whatever my next job is, I want to do a lot of public speaking. And I love being an advocate for causes that matter to me, so I hope this is built in to my job as well. I’m working to narrow down 5-7 things that I really love and make sure that those things are in my next job.

And I’m not in a hurry so I am looking for something that hopefully uses my talents and feeds my interests.

Q: What should people unfamiliar with ATHENA know and understand about the process and the honorees?

When you are a nonprofit leader, are if you’re awarded something like ATHENA, I don’t know this is true in all sectors, but when you’re standing up there you realize that you are representing a body of work that was done by a whole lot of people. It wasn’t my work but I was the conductor, and it is a symphony. Standing on the stage, I was thinking about the women behind me who didn’t get the leadership award and thinking, “There are women behind me who are the reason I’m on this stage.” Evette White is a great example. What she did for the YWCA while I was CEO was amazing. She had a new company and worked on our brand and communications strategy. Without someone giving you the wisdom to build the megaphone, your message doesn’t work.

Mekesha Montgomery was also up for the award and she has chaired Wine, Women & Shoes for me for two years and she was on the Gender Equity Council. And Laura Smith is a rockstar. She’s in the Academy of Women of Achievement and she’s an attorney, legal counsel at NES. She’s the woman every woman wishes was her best friend. She called me before the ATHENA and said, “I think you have a chance to win. I want to help you write your application.” When she told me that, I didn’t realize she was an honoree herself! But then, a week before, she reached out again and said she wanted to help and I told her, “But you’re an honoree!” Laura said she still wanted to help. She met me at the YWCA on a Sunday morning and we spent nearly the whole morning working on my application. She sat next to me onstage since we’re together alphabetically. That is an example of a winner. She won! Women do that type of thing for each other all the time, and it’s amazing. So that’s the other thing with nonprofits, we know it’s not really our work.

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