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Secrets to their success: 10 high-profile local women

Every year, 10 finalists are named for the region’s most high-profile award honoring local women: the ATHENA. And every year, their collective accomplishments — in the business and non-profit world, and in their personal lives — are awe-inspiring.

We wanted to find out more about what makes them tick: how they find time to do it all; what resources they count on; how they’ve overcome life’s challenges; and what they do when’s it’s finally time to relax. Here’s our Q&A. To learn more about the professional accomplishments of all 10 ATHENA award finalists, go to

The debate rages on whether it’s possible, as a woman, to “do it all.” What are your thoughts? How do you find balance?

"I have been greatly inspired by watching successful women who “do it all.” One was my mom, who was a victim of domestic abuse. She worked herself off welfare, went to night school to become degreed, relocated us to a safer home and was very involved in our schooling. I always thought of her as I worked through my plan of simultaneously raising two daughters, being principal of a Chicago middle school of 1,000 students, caring for an elderly aunt suffering from cancer, and completing my doctoral studies (all as a single mom). Yes, we can do it all." — Yvonne Minor-Ragan, Ph.D., President & CEO, YM Ragan Consulting, LLC

"Superwoman retired a long time ago. You have to make a personal choice in regard to career and/or motherhood. If the latter is your choice, what and who is your support system? Not having a spouse embracing your same mission can derail you quickly. Who’ll stay home from work if the child is sick? Will you take turns? Do you have parents or siblings who can step in? Can you afford a babysitter? Au pair? If you have some of the latter, you can have career and work." — Ellen E.Grant, PhD, LCSW-R, Senior Vice President, Chapter Programming, Say Yes to Education

This year’s Athena Leadership Award finalists, from left to right: Yvonne Minor-Ragan, President & CEO of YMRagan Consulting; Katherine Conway-Turner, President of Buffalo State College; Anne Constantino, President & CEO of Horizon; Ellen Grant, Senior Vice President of Chapter Programming at Say Yes to Education.

"Yes, but keep in mind that no matter how well we plan, life throws the unexpected at you. My husband passed away in 1995 at age 38 when our boys were 5 and 7. I have been very blessed to have family and friends, the village we all need. During my husband’s illness and after his death, I made sure that one way or another, I made time for our boys. I think each and every one of us has to decide what it means to “do it all” – what it is that really matters, and what is the measure of a life well-lived. From the time I was a child I knew that science and understanding human disease was my passion, and even when there were challenges, detours and obstacles, I found the road forward." — Norma J. Nowak, Executive Director, University at Buffalo NY Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences, and Founder and Chief Scientific Officer, Empire Genomics LLC

"I am an energetic professional, coach, wife and mother of five children. I wanted it all, so I did it all. However, I have great respect for women who sacrifice their career for their children. I believe there is sacrifice either way, but life is about sacrifice, it’s about cost, it’s about giving up something and whether or not the cost and sacrifice was worth it. I will be honest, I’ve missed band concerts for board meetings and my kids don’t always have the coolest science projects. But on career day when they invite me in to talk to their class, they get a hell of a presentation. My husband and I are happy and the kids are happy and that’s what matters the most." — Melodie K. Baker, Director of Education, United Way of Buffalo & Erie County

"I think people need to find out what works for them – there is no “one size fits all.” It’s important to build a support system (spouse, friends, family) and to hopefully find an employer that’s understanding and encouraging of a work-life balance. We all have “human” issues we deal with – it could be children, a sick parent, or a friend dealing with a mental health or substance abuse issue — and the more we all support each other, the more we are able to achieve collectively." — Sarah Cotter, Vice President, Clinical Transformation & Operations, Catholic Medical Partners

"I think everyone’s definition of “doing it all” is slightly different, but achievable if provided the right variables. Your family and/or significant other needs to be on board with your goals and how you want to achieve them. It’s vital to learn to prioritize, but more importantly to learn to say “no” when you know you can’t fulfill an obligation. I’ve been lucky enough to see women “do it all” first hand. My mom had three children and worked her entire life while taking care of her family and continually staying involved in causes that were important to her." — Christina Rachelle Pearl, Director of Corporate Communication, Horizon Health Services

What was the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome in life and how did it change you?

"Probably launching to college. My generation is the first to go to college and we were extremely poor. So it took grit to even think of going to college and even more grit to navigate how to fund it. In my town, few students and even fewer African Americans thought of college in the 1970s. I did not have family who understood how to achieve higher education and my high school counselor did not think African-American students should aspire to college. I believe my initial hurdle was the highest and the hardest. Since then, obstacles have been scaled using the grit and determination I learned early." — Katherine Conway-Turner, President, Buffalo State College

"Getting through the post-traumatic stress that came after being molested at the age of 5. For 25 years, I didn’t realize I had been suffering from PTSD. I had to become a part of the change when reading the statistics: one out of five females and one out of six males are sexually abused / assaulted by the time they reach the age of 18. (Editor’s note: Tapia founded the organization Dear Tayrin to raise awareness of sexual abuse and empower victims in WNY.)" — Tayrin Tapia, Founder & CEO, Dear Tayrin, Inc.

"I was not prepared to be a leader 22 years ago when I was appointed CEO of Horizon. I learned to trust my instincts and common sense. I learned to ask for help. I knew I needed to continue to educate myself — formally and informally. Most importantly — I surrounded myself with a great team. All of those things continue to this day." — Anne Constantino, President & CEO, Horizon

"My lack of self-confidence. I grew up in a very segregated environment. My first encounter with a majority environment is when I went away to college. I found myself as the only African-American in class. I felt totally unprepared. Overcoming this obstacle has made me very keen to the sensitivity of others, and how I treat others today." — Yvonne Minor-Ragan

"The loss of my husband. An obstacle you never actually think could happen to you, especially so early in life. I don’t think you technically ever overcome a loss like that. But it is up to you on how you want to move forward and how you want to grow from it." — Christina Pearl

What is the most important piece of personal advice you’d give to a woman who’s just starting in the workplace?

"To know your value. Research the position, understand your own qualifications and your position in the industry. Take gender out of the equation, and be confident in your own abilities. And maybe most importantly, find yourself a company/boss/superior who recognizes your abilities and supports your professional growth." — Nicole Savage, President/Owner, Nature’s Way Environmental

"Believe in yourself and the talent that you bring each day to your colleagues! Don’t get discouraged, and surround yourself with people who are creative, positive thinkers and solution makers." — Norma J. Nowak

"Stay focused on your end result. Work where you are happy. Life is too short to work just for money." — Taryn Tapia

With so many worthwhile causes (and people asking for help), how do you decide where to focus your volunteer efforts outside of work? Is it difficult to say “no?”

"It starts from your value system. For me, values such as women and children and health are a focus. I learned after many years to say “no.” I also believe people appreciate if you say no if you’re overcommitted and wouldn’t be able to contribute and do justice to the role." — Ellen E. Grant

"I continue to volunteer on several boards. These choices were made based on the answers to the following questions: What is the impact on the community? Who is being served? What is the reputation of the organization? Sometimes, it is difficult to say 'no.' And, even if the answer is 'yes' to those three questions, I still have to consider how much time is required to fulfill the responsibilities. If I find that I do not have the time, then I will say 'no.' " — Yvonne Minor-Ragan

What’s your best time management secret?

"I use my smart phone to manage my life/time. I use my electronic calendar to keep me on task and on time for everything. I secretly carry post-it notes with me to help manage my time and stay on task. The post-it notes allow me to reduce and eliminate distractions by writing down all the crazy ideas that will get me off task. After I write the idea down I look at it later and if it’s really crazy, I throw it away. But some of my ideas have become my most successful ventures." — Melodie K. Baker

"Prioritize your life and set goals. It helps keep me focused and stay on track. If you say “yes” to too much, or get distracted with things that aren’t a priority, it is so easy to get off track!" — Sarah Cotter

"I keep a Word document that is simply for logging my tasks each day, and in one glance I can see what my priorities are. It’s a very simple, running document that I’ve used since 2011, and at the end of each day I list out tasks to be completed the next day in order of priority." — Nicole Savage

How do you feel this region either promotes or inhibits growth as a career woman?

"The region has many amazing women that are in leadership and in the pipeline. However, I stress with my communities the importance of representative leadership. We need to continue to open opportunities for more women and girls of all backgrounds, so that leaders moving forward are representative of our community." — Katherine Conway-Turner

"We have great institutions of higher education. Our community is progressive and open minded and I have not experienced specific obstacles as a woman. That being said, issues of good education, childcare and transportation need to continue to be addressed so that every person in our community has an opportunity to achieve their goals." — Anne Costantino

Where is your favorite place to unwind in WNY?

Melodie Baker: If I’m with my family, I love to go to Canalside. If I’m with my friends, I love to go to The Tralf Music Hall for a variety of shows and entertainment.

Ellen Grant: Running at Delaware Park in Buffalo and Chestnut Ridge in Orchard Park.

Yvonne Minor-Ragan: After a busy or hectic day, just walking through the front door of my home immediately decompresses me. My home is my comfort zone.

Katherine Conway-Turner: On the yoga mat at East Meets West Yoga or Evolation yoga studio and then off to Bacchus for a glass of wine.

Anne Constantino: At home, Cone Five Pottery Studio and LA Fitness.

Nicole Savage: I am a homebody. I love curling up at home with my family, especially on cold winter days! But when I do go out, my favorite places always revolve around the amazing food we have in WNY.

Tayrin Tapia: At home with a nice glass of Pinot Grigio wine while reading a book or watching one of my favorite TV shows.

Sarah Cotter: I love spending time in our parks, especially Delaware Park and the Rose Garden playground. Also, just taking a walk down Elmwood or Hertel is always great for shopping and people watching.

Norma Nowak: Walking the beach or reading a good book by the shore…listening to the sound of the water…feeling the sun warm and relax me.

Christina Pearl: Western New York is so easy to unwind in because there is ALWAYS someplace to go and something awesome to do. Where I find so much peace is when I am taking a walk in my neighborhood. I am so proud of our city and so proud of what is in my backyard.

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