A tearful Laura Oakley – president and CEO of Professional Recruiting Services LLC – gratefully accepted the the 2008 ATHENA award during the third annual Chattanooga Nautilus Awards Luncheon, sponsored by the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce on Friday afternoon at the Chattanoogan Hotel.
During the Nautilus Luncheon, outstanding local businesswomen are recognized, along with individuals and businesses that assist women in reaching their potential as entrepreneurs and corporate leaders.
Other winners announced during the luncheon included Jeannie Hart, Navigator of Entrepreneurship Award; Lori Jenkins, Lightkeeper Award; Dana Michelle Towe, Stargazer Award; and Bethany LaFoe, Pearl of Promise Award.
“I can’t believe that I am becoming an Athena recipient,” Ms. Oakley told the 500 people assembled for the luncheon . . . I’m very excited and honored to stand with (past recipients) of the award.”
But her self-deprecating humor re-emerged a few sentences later, in an allusion to the nation’s current financial troubles and plunging stock values.
“I’m self-employed, so I’m very lucky,” she said with a grin. “My 401k hasn’t lost any money.”
The ATHENA Award
The ATHENA Award is presented to an individual whose professional achievements, community service, and efforts to help women obtain career goals and leadership skills are worthy of this coveted honor.
Ms. Oakley, this year’s recipient, heads Professional Recruiting Services LLC, an executive search firm awarded the Women Business Enterprise designation in 2007 by the Governor’s Office.
Previously, she founded and led Creative Business Solutions, an innovative consulting company with a client base that was 95 percent woman-owned businesses. Five local, female-owned companies assisted through Ms. Oakley’s firm are thriving today.
Her support for women in business began while Ms. Oakley served as disbursement operations manager for a large healthcare insurance organization. During her tenure she helped a group of “single mom” employees earn more through education and soft-skill building. She brought to the worksite accounting courses, Toastmasters’ meetings and fashion shows featuring professional attire. Her programs helped generate promotions and higher education degrees for several of the female “clerks.”
After graduating from Leadership Chattanooga in 2004, Ms. Oakley helped organize the Tennessee Economic Council on Women’s Southeast Development District Advisory Council and developed a series of listening tours eliciting concerns about the economic well-being of women. Two years later, the council held the Economic Women’s Mini-Summit, “Moving Women Forward,” in Chattanooga with Ms. Oakley as co-chair.
Ms. Oakley is active in support of women political candidates and was herself the only female candidate for the District 1 Hamilton County Commission seat in 2001. Through her campaign she encouraged women who had never voted to register and vote and motivated women to become involved in politics.
She is community group coordinator for Soddy-Daisy Rails to Trails, publicity coordinator for community information meetings on the TDOT Soddy-Daisy Toll Bridge Feasibility Study and former president of the Chamber’s Soddy-Daisy/North Hamilton County Council, which she helped organize.
ATHENA Award Finalists
Susan Binkley of Monteagle is the founder and executive director of the Blue Monarch, a non-profit, 12-month residential program for women who are recovering from abuse and addictions, and for their children. Most of the women come to the program directly from jail, many as a condition of their probation or an alternative to incarceration. Through Blue Monarch, which serves the entire state of Tennessee, 71 women and 144 children have been served.
Ms. Binkley’s business, The Blue Chair, collaborates with Blue Monarch, by providing job training and employment to the women undergoing the strenuous Monarch program. Blue Chair is a bakery/café in Sewanee. To accommodate the women in Blue Monarch Ms. Binkley opened a commercial kitchen at the Blue Monarch facility so the women could get on-site training and employment.
To serve the women who typically have a long history of poor job performance, Binkley developed and implemented a nine-week work ethics course which has proved highly successful. In addition, Ms. Binkley developed a product, Homemade Granola, to provide job training and employment for the women at Blue Monarch. The granola is sold at Green Life Grocery and Greyfriar’s, among other outlets. Each bag includes a photograph of one of the women who bake the granola, along with her special story on the back.
Ms. Binkley is a member of the Grundy County Rotary, Sewanee Civics Association and Frnaklin County Chamber of Commerce. She received the Community Service Award from the Cumberland Center for Justice and Peace in 2005, the Community Service Award from the Sewanee Civics Association in 2007 and the Retail Leadership Award through Gourmet News Magazine in 2006. She was a finalist for ATHENA Award in Franklin County last year.
Patsy Hazlewood, assistant vice president, AT&T Tennessee, AT&T, was the first woman promoted to a director’s role in BellSouth’s Regulatory and External Affairs operation in Tennessee and served as BellSouth/AT&T assistant vice president for East Tennessee for four years.
Ms. Hazlewood has served across departmental lines as an official mentor for younger women within the telephone company. In addition, she has provided developmental opportunities for profile-raising assignments for other women within the company.
She served as a mentor in the GPS program pairing students with professional women. A founding board member of the Women’s Leadership Institute, she has recruited women for the Rotary Club, board positions and leadership positions on civic boards.
Ms. Hazlewood is incoming president of the Downtown Rotary and will be the first woman ever to serve in that capacity. She chaired the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce board during a two-year period of change and transition. She has also chaired the board of Junior Achievement, the Better Business Bureau, the Urban League and the Greater Chattanooga Sports Committee.
She was named Chattanooga’s Manager of the Year and a Woman of Distinction in 1999. In 2005 she received the Chattanooga Junior League Community Service Award.
Navigator of Entrepreneurship Award
The Navigator of Entrepreneurship Award is presented to a woman business owner who encourages work-family balance among employees, demonstrates a pioneering spirit of entrepreneurship and serves as a role model for other women.
Jeannie Hart, who won the Navigator for Entrepreneurship Award, is founder and CEO of Optimum Staffing Inc. Women represent 63 percent of the company staff with nine women in management out of a total of 19. Ms. Hart allows her employees to put their families first and, at the same time, encourages them to grow professionally. She provides in-house self-improvement, professional growth and team-building programs with on-going training for new technology, along with annual events such as executive retreats.
As an entrepreneurial business leader, Ms. Hart is always exploring ways to provide better service to her internal and external clients. She has implemented specialized evaluation testing that increases employee retention rates and productivity while decreasing work-related injuries.
She offered her staff a wellness program with a $1,000 reward for the person with the largest reduction in body fat. She has placed bilingual coordinators in the branch offices to provide additional avenues for increasing the talent pool.
Ms. Hart shares the rewards of her success. She purchased an automobile for a parent of an autistic child, sponsored numerous trips for dedicated employees and provides her staff and each of their family members with gifts during the holidays.
Ms. Hart has served as a missionary overseas and is a gifted motivational speaker. She supports the House of David Ministries, serves on the board for World Harvest Outreach Ministries, is a pillar-level donor to United Way and provides resources for children with autism and people suffering with cancer. She is active in the ministry of the North Cleveland Church of God.
Navigator of Entrepreneurship Finalists
Erika Halter is president of Bankcard Solutions, Inc. which specializes in electronic transaction processing for businesses. She started her company with less than $1,000 and no loans. During the majority of the ownership she was single with three children.
The company has a staff of seven women and two men, along with 29 referral partners and three banks that it services.
Women in the company are empowered to control their own incomes and schedules. They are trained, supported and encouraged to earn above their expectations while taking excellent care of their customers. Time-consuming, non-productive work is taken off their hands so they can be 100 percent income-producing when they work. The goal is to create independent sales executives who can build residual income conservatively, while maintaining all their other responsibilities to their families, their community and themselves.
All staff members are encouraged to develop their own businesses within the company, while expanding both Bankcard Solutions and their own company.
Ms. Halter serves on the advisory board of the National Processing Company, one of the largest credit card processors in the world. She is an officer of Business Network International Hixson chapter and is a Chamber member.
Sheila Shipley, broker/owner of RE/MAX Properties North, is a real estate industry leader and a role model to her staff – professionally, personally and spiritually.
Her creative approach to her business includes developing relocation, foreclosure and commercial departments, as well as title, mortgage and insurance services to offer comprehensive services to her clients.
Dedicated to the success of her agents, Ms. Shipley is one of only a few brokers with a full-time trainer on staff to provide coaching, mentoring and group training for her agents. She herself has mentored and trained single moms for productive careers and career/family balance, and demonstrated the extent to which she welcomes children of agents at the office by creating a room especially for them with desks, toys and DVDs.
A member of the ethics committee of the Chattanooga Association of Realtors, Ms. Shipley is a Certified Residential Specialist, Certified Residential Broker and Certified Mentor of the Buffini Organization, a national coaching company for sales people.
She has closed more transactions sides than any other Realtor in Chattanooga and is among an elite few to receive the RE-MAX Hall of Fame Award.
Ms. Shipley, who has served as a fundraiser for the Children’s Miracle Network, sponsors the Daisy Church of God ball team, supports the Christian Youth Group, DETOUR, and purchases sports uniforms for inner-city children.
The Lightkeeper Award
The Lightkeeper is an individual who has made significant contributions to issues affecting women and/or girls through grassroots efforts. The recipient is a person who keeps her/his company or organization operating smoothly and efficiently, oftentimes outside of the public spotlight.
This year’s Lightkeeper, Lori Jenkins, is director of sales for Country Inn and Suites. A 15-year veteran of the hospitality industry, she went from restaurant server to catering sales manager at the Read House in only four years. During her tenure she encouraged her staff to grow professionally, coordinated a holiday gift drive for employees who couldn’t afford presents for their children and adjusted to frequent changes in management.
In 2005, Jenkins moved to the Chattanoogan Hotel to advance to the position of director of catering. She received the Leader of the Quarter Award for the fourth quarter of 2005 for supporting the staff and encouraging their career development.
She spent a year at Covista Communications before she realized that she belonged in the hospitality industry and joined Country Inn and Suites this past June.
Ms. Jenkins serves as co-chair of the Chattanooga Women’s Leadership Institute’s mentoring program to teach mentors how to mentor. The first “class” has 16 women participating in a 14-week program on self-esteem building, handling meetings effectively and other topics.
A former board member of Girls, Inc., Ms. Jenkins served as 2006 co-chair of the Unbought and Unbossed event which celebrates the impact of influential women on the community. In 2005 she was a founding member of the Chattanooga Wedding Professionals, an association to recommend and support women-owned, local businesses in the wedding industry.
Ms. Jenkins served as a volunteer for the political campaigns of three local women, serves on the cabinet of a city councilwoman and participates in the Brainerd Unity Group, a District 6 organization formed to address the concerns of residents.
A 2006 graduate of Leadership Chattanooga, Ms. Jenkins is president-elect of the Chamber’s Downtown Council, a Chamber Ambassador and a Chamber director. She chaired the 2008 Heart of the City Celebration which drew more vendors and visitors than in past years.
Recently named Young Professional of the Year by the Young Professionals Association of Chattanooga, Ms. Jenkins serves on the executive advisory committee of the American Cancer Society and has volunteered with Hospice of Chattanooga and Chattanooga CARES.
Lightkeeper Award Finalists
During her 23-year tenure at the Chattanooga Zoo at Warner Park, executive director Darde Long has professionalized the staff, built a strong Friends of the Zoo board and generated funding to improve the zoo.
Over that period the zoo has undergone a major renovation and expansion. It has been accredited three times by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and recently received a Kresge Grant to help with the current capital campaign to fund more improvements.
Ms. Long hired high schoolers for basic jobs and has encouraged them to pursue higher education. One of her protégés began her career at the Zoo as a “chimpanzee waste removal specialist” at the age of 14 and now, six years later, has risen to the ranks of the Zoo’s leadership team.
Each year Ms. Long and employees at the zoo participate in conferences and training that hones their skills for their work, with good results for the animals in their charge and for visitors.
Ms. Long developed the PEDZ (Promoting Diversity with the Zoo) as a way to recruit, train and retain a diverse staff who wouldn’t normally consider the zoo as a place of employment. Her efforts have gained national attention and in September she addressed the annual meeting of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums on challenges faced by women and minorities in her profession.
Abby Shipley, account executive at J103 Christian Radio, is growing professionally by not only participating in the sales side at the workplace but by writing copy and voicing spots to assist the production side. Always willing to support co-workers, she has undertaken a variety of tasks so that a colleague can return to school full-time. When J103 bought new office chairs, Shipley hauled the worn chairs to the Bargain Mart, where she volunteers as a member of the Junior League.
During her previous work as an associate producer at NewsChannel 9, Ms. Shipley teamed up with reporter Sarah Jennings to bring informative stories to viewers and prove that women can make a difference in the news, as ratings for Good Morning, Chattanooga rose. At the station she continued her community service by hauling old computer monitors to Goodwill and collecting blankets from co-workers to donate to the Community Kitchen.
Ms. Shipley’s work with the Junior League includes serving as a member of the Tour du Jour committee that raises funds for community programs such as Healthy Starts and Kids in the Kitchen. She is active with the Chattanooga Area Chamber Ambassadors, conducting new member and renewal visits and supporting local ribbon cuttings. She is completing the paperwork to become a Girl Scout troop leader and also going through the process of joining the Chattanooga Girls Choir Board.
During her youth Ms. Shipley mentored girls as a camp counselor. Later in college, as a resident dorm assistant, she served as a role model for freshmen women, planning education and social programs on a monthly basis for 545 women. She and her college roommate raised over $17,000 for the American Red Cross to help hurricane victims, and she traveled to Williamsburg, VA to assist low-income residents and assisted hurricane victims in Gulf Port, MS.
The Stargazer Award
The Stargazer Award provides financial assistance to a non-traditional college student who intends to advance her career by furthering her education. This award salutes women who have made a decision to change their lives by pursuing their education and making the sacrifices necessary to achieve their goals. The honoree receives a $2,500 scholarship and a laptop computer.
Dana Michelle Towe, who received the Stargazer Award, is attending Chattanooga State Technical Community College to pursue a career as a physical therapist’s assistant. Besides being a full-time student, Ms. Towe is a single mother and works part-time at Advance Rehabilitation.
Her work as a physical therapist’s aide inspired her to advance in the field which allows her to improve the quality of life for others, while she focuses on the needs of her children.
She plans to continue working with Advance Rehabilitation for several years after completing the education requirements for the American Physical Therapy Association. Her hope is to become a clinical/regional director and eventually establish an annual summer camp for children with disabilities.
Alina Earnshaw will graduate from Chattanooga State in May 2009 with an Associate’s of Science in Teaching degree. Earnshaw is a full-time wife and mother with three children ranging in age from 20 to 13. Although all of her children inspired her to return to school at the age of 40, it was her 13-year-old son, who was diagnosed with autism, who led her to her calling.
As a volunteer at her son’s school, she saw the importance of outstanding teachers, especially to special needs children. Eventually her volunteering evolved into substitute teaching. As a substitute, she realized she could help the students by giving them the support and attention she gave her own children.
Ms. Earnshaw proved her determination and resilience after she broke her ankle this summer and returned to school in a wheelchair to continue carrying a full course load.
After receiving her CSTCC degree, she hopes to begin working on her B.S. in elementary teaching degree from Tennessee Technological University, while working as a Hamilton County public school teacher.
Jasminka Skrgic came to America from war-torn Bosnia in 1997, wanting to continue her education. She spoke no English, had no money and needed employment and housing. After enrolling in free English classes, she found a job, which allowed her to study more English and send money home to her family overseas.
Ms. Skrgic’s professional goal was to follow in her grandmother’s footsteps and become a nurse. She was also inspired by volunteering in a Bosnian hospital during the war. She was touched by the strength, patience and knowledge of the nursing staff. She recently completed her first two semesters in the nursing program at Chattanooga State with a 4.0 GPA. At night, she works in the McKee Foods’ technical services department.
She tutors other students in nutrition, which she studied at Chattanooga State, and puts her bilingualism (Serbo-Croation and English) to use by translating for Bosnian immigrants and helping them adjust to a new country.
Pearl of Promise Award
The Pearl of Promise is presented to a female junior or senior high school student with strong math and science skills, a defined career goal and leadership abilities. The recipient receives a $2,500 scholarship and a laptop computer.
Pearl of Promise winner for 2008, Bethany LaFoe, is a Chattanooga Central High School senior. She plans a career in architecture and dreams of one day operating a firm in New York City called BBB, Buildings By Bethany.
Over the past four years, the straight-A student has received 17 school awards, including honors in mathematics, science, history and writing. She is a member of the Student Council, president of the National Honor Society and a member of the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council.
Ms. LaFoe has played varsity volleyball, performed many hours of community service as Miss Junior Teen Tennessee and led the STARS (Students Taking a Right Stand) chapter at her school. As president of STARS she organized monthly trips to an elementary school to answer questions about middle school and make presentations on drug abuse. She also organized a Christmas party at a local shelter for abused children, providing food, entertainment and presents.
Last year she had an article published in the MENSA Research Journal. It was entitled “Awards for Excellence: Recognition.
Her parents are Bruce and Gaye LaFoe. Her mother is executive director of the International Congress of Churches and Ministries, and her father works in transportation.
Pearl of Promise Finalists
Michelle Elizabeth Brooks, an Ooltewah High School senior, would like to become a mechanical engineer for the Disney Corporation. As a Disney engineer, she would have the opportunity to use data, equations, and research to determine the most efficient and practical method to productively run and create theme rides, shows, and architecture.
Since the eighth grade Ms. Brooks has taken all academic honors courses and made high grades. Her senior year schedule includes AP Calculus and Honors Physics. She has shadowed a professor in the computational engineering program at UTC’s SimCenter.
President of her 9th, 10th and 11th grade classes and captain of the dance team, Ms. Brooks is a leader in the classroom, explaining math concepts to her classmates, and in the community, volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House and for the Tennessee Special Olympics.
Her parents are Mark and Sallie Brooks, a project manager at TVA and an accountant/marketing director at G.R. Rush and Co. respectively.
Ms. Brooks makes bi-weekly visits to local elementary schools where she mentors children from kindergarten to 5th grade. As the Ooltewah Junior Miss, she devotes much of her time to helping young girls understand the importance of education and of good health habits for mind and body.
Ruby Mannankara, a senior at Tyner Academy, is president of her class, a Beta Club member and an honors student. Her parents are Daniel and Rebeka Mannankara, both of whom are McKee Foods employees.
Her career goal is to become a neurologist, eventually conducting autistic research so she might improve the lives of those diagnosed with the condition. She would also like to become an advocate for autism victims’ rights and to make the public more aware of autism’s debilitating effects.
During the summer she participated in the UT Medical Explorations Internship Program, which gave her an in-depth look at the medical field and allowed her to shadow a neurologist. A volunteer every summer since the 9th grade, she has volunteered at the Siskin Children‘s Institute to learn how to interact with autistic children.