Meet the Honorees of The 2017 ATHENA Awards Celebration

Once upon a time, women weren’t accepted in the workplace, let alone in the boardroom. Today, after years of fiercely fighting for equality, women are challenging, re-inventing, and innovating businesses and their communities – and are a strong force for economic change

On September 14, 2017, the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce awarded the prestigious ATHENA Leadership Award to Joan Budden and the ATHENA Young Professional Award to Shannon Cohen. Over 600 people attended the celebration held at the J.W. Marriott Hotel’s International Ballroom.

The Grand Rapids Chamber is proud to be one of the early adopters of ATHENA to engage and honor women leaders through programs like the ATHENA Awards Celebration, the ATHENA Scholarships, and the ATHENA Leadership Forum.


Read more: The ATHENA Program in Grand Rapids


We consider it a great honor to recognize some of these exceptional women every year at the ATHENA Awards Celebration. Despite the extra challenges of being a woman in the labor force, these particular women were able to achieve professional success, while giving back to the West Michigan community, and being a mentor and role model to others

The prestigious ATHENA Leadership Award honors an individual who has demonstrated leadership in their professional field, mentored and opened doors of opportunities for women and contributed time and talent to the community

The ATHENA Young Professional Award recognizes an emerging leader for their contributions to the community, professional excellence, and commitment to serve as a personal and professional role model to young women.

Below are the 2017 honorees:

ATHENA Leadership Award Recipient

Joan Budden
President & CEO of Priority Health

Joan Budden, President & CEO of Priority Health, has been described as a “chess player in a world of checkers players” by Robert Roth, President/CEO of Roman Manufacturing. Budden has made it her mission to combat the issue of affordability in the healthcare industry. As a leader, she is often recognized for her positive and engaging presence, as well as her spirit of authenticity. “Joan always shows up as her best self, but it’s her authentic self,” said Kathleen Stewart Ponitz, Founder of Stewart Ponitz Group.

“You see other leaders and you say, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’re wonderful! I want to be just like them.’ But you can’t, because you’re a different person. You grew up different, you had different experiences. You can admire other people but you have to have a good self-awareness in order to be a good leader,” said Joan.

Beyond her professional success, Joan is also a Board Chairperson of Michigan Women’s Foundation, Board Member of Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, and Vice Chairperson for our very own Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce (and many more!)

Surprising Fact: Joan’s guilty pleasure is milk chocolate. She also enjoys sweating in hot yoga.

ATHENA Young Professional Award Recipient

Shannon Cohen
Founder/Principal/CEO, Shannon Cohen, Inc.

“You think coming to an awards space like this that it would be competitive, but this is a space of sisterhood and I’m very thankful for that intentionality,” said Shannon Cohen (Founder/CEO/Principal of Shannon Cohen, Inc.) upon receiving the award. “[When I heard about] all the women who are finalists, I said, ‘Gosh, this is hard! They all slay!’”

As creator of Tough Skin, Soft Heart, a leadership-wellness movement designed to support the emotional health of difference-makers, Shannon has found an impactful way to teach others the value of self-care. Shannon is also co-founder of Sisters Who Lead, an affinity space for women of color in West Michigan.

Surprising Fact: As a child, Shannon was selected to represent her class during a visit by former Vice President Dan Quayle. When asked what she wanted to do when she grew up, she said: “work the slush machine at Kmart.” There was a woman who worked as a cashier at the Kmart in her Detroit neighborhood and she was “the kindest woman ever!”

ATHENA Leadership Award Finalists

Lori Burgess
Executive Director of Kent County Girls on the Run /

Lori has served as the Executive Director of Girls on the Run of Kent and Muskegon Counties since Fall 2009, serving over 25,000 young girls at more than 150 schools. She is also a part-time middle school guidance counselor and maintains a small private therapy practice. Throughout her professional career, Lori has created and implemented programs that empower and advocate for girls and women, including hundreds of abuse survivors. In her free time, she volunteers as a youth leader, goes hiking, reads books, and travels in the company of her husband and friends.

Carol Van Andel
Executive Director of David and Carol Van Andel Foundation

A native of West Michigan, Carol grew up in the Grand Rapids area, earning a business degree from Hope College in nearby Holland, MI.  Her lifetime has been marked by service to others, through volunteer roles with more than a dozen non-profit organizations. She is the Executive Director of the David and Carol Van Andel Family Foundation, a member of the Van Andel Education Institute Advisory Council, on the Board of Trustees at Western Theological Seminary, the Grand Rapids Public Museum Foundation, Grand Action, and GVSU Foundation Board.  Married to David Van Andel, the couple has four sons and reside in Ada, MI.

Surprising Fact:  Carol got a hole-in-one on her birthday!

Dr. Nkechy Ekere Ezeh
CEO of Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative

Dr. Ezeh is an international scholar, a tenured Associate Professor of Education, and the Director of Early Childhood Education Program at Aquinas College.  As she prepares new teachers for Early Care & Education, she is able to draw upon perspectives gained through her direct involvement in the community. A former Early Care & Education teacher, she spent many days in the classroom, especially with vulnerable children, gaining insight on the practical implementation of educational theory. Under her leadership, Early Learning Neighborhood Collaborative has created over 500 quality preschool slots in the core city of Grand Rapids.

Christy Buck
Executive Director of Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan

With over 30 years of experience in mental health as a professional licensed social worker, Christy passionately leads the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan (MHF). Her desire for transforming and saving lives through mental health education led her to develop two classroom programs, ‘Live Laugh Love’ for middle and high school students and ‘be nice.’ a program developed for schools, businesses, and communities teaching that how you treat others has a direct effect on their mental health. Christy and her staff educate thousands of individuals each year through their education programs and various other speaking engagements and presentations throughout Michigan. Christy currently serves on the Grandville Public Schools Board of Education and the Kent Education Foundation.

Surprising Fact: Christy is 100% first generation Greek.  She attended Greek school in her younger years, lived in Greece for a while after college (where she visited the Temple of Athena and climbed Mount Olympus), and, yes, she even had a big fat Greek wedding!

ATHENA Young Professional Award Finalists

Sarah Brodhead
Spectrum Health

As Senior Talent Program Specialist, Sarah is dedicated to creating a workplace where employees feel cared about, fulfilled and valued. Whether it’s breaking the Guinness World Record for the Longest Line of Backpacks at Spectrum Health or morphing leaders into competitive superheroes for the United Way Campaign, Sarah is all about bringing big ideas across the finish line and sprinkling in some fun along the way.  She is currently Co-Chair of the Ele’s Place’s (a free-of-charge grieving center) community board in Grand Rapids.

Surprising Fact: Sarah grew up in Northwest Ohio and lived on the state line, so she got on the school bus in Indiana and off in Ohio!

Danielle DeWitt
Spectrum Health Foundation

Danielle is the Senior Foundation Specialist for Donor Relations and Stewardship at the Spectrum Health and Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Foundation. Her role focuses on building the stewardship program to ensure that all donors see the impact of their giving. Danielle serves on the Michigan Women’s Foundation West Michigan Advisory Council, the Children’s Healing Center Community Engagement Committee, and is a member of Inforum and LEAD (Ladies Empowering & Advocating for a Difference)

Surprising Fact: Danielle has been on the launch teams for three books in the last two years! Most recently, for the new Jen Hatmaker book, “Of Mess and Moxie,” her endorsement was printed in the front of the book.  

Afton DeVos
Kids’ Food Basket

Afton joined the team at Kids’ Food Basket as Development Director in August 2012 and was promoted to Associate Director in July 2014.  With an emphasis on growing leaders for good, DeVos focuses on mentoring team members to achieve individual and collective goals to benefit the mission of Kids’ Food Basket.  She is also engaged in the community as a Board Member for the Children’s Healing Center, a member of the J-Board for Van Andel Institute, and is a volunteer at Ada Bible Church.

Surprising Fact: Afton is a childhood cancer survivor of 17 years.

Cailin Kelly
Creston Brewery

Cailin is a managing co-owner of Creston Brewery; local brewery, taproom, and restaurant. She has previously worked and volunteered in the human services field, and currently serves as vice-chair of Well House, a housing-first organization for individuals experiencing homelessness. Cailin has been a social activist and volunteer since she was old enough to speak and knock on doors. She has served two years in the U.S. Peace Corps in Moldova where she taught English and managed community development projects with Moldovan counterparts

Surprising Fact: Cailin once almost got lost in an Egyptian desert on a runaway camel.

Lorena Aguayo-Márquez
Grand Rapids Community College

Lorena has worked at Grand Rapids Community College for the past ten years and currently coordinates the Adult Education English Language Acquisition, Citizenship, and Cruisin’ to College Success programs.  Lorena’s passion for education and social justice has led her to different undertakings. Presently, she is the GRCC Scholarship Chair, social coordinator for the Latina Network of West Michigan, and mentor for the Project NOMAD (Needs and Objectives for Migrant Advancement and Development), to name a few.

Surprising Fact: Lorenna describes herself as “a social butterfly who enjoys time with family and friends, and also loves to dance.”

Alexis Rangel
Lake Michigan Credit Union

Alexis serves as Community Relations Specialist at Lake Michigan Credit Union. Her main responsibility is to develop and implement community engagement programs and events, corporate philanthropy, and public relations efforts. Alexis also works as an adjunct instructor for the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Grand Valley State University. She currently serves on the board/committees of the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan and GR8 Girls, a program of the Grand Rapids Student Advancement Foundation.

Surprising Fact:  Alexis is a professionally trained clown. Well, sort of. She once attended a clown camp put on by the Shrine Circus (and learned all of the trade secrets.)

Tamara “Tami” Sytsma
Sytsma Wealth Strategies

Tami is a West Michigan native born into a family of entrepreneurs. After receiving her degree from MSU, she began work at her father’s Financial Advisory Firm in 2003.  She then became a Certified Financial Planner and a Certified Private Wealth Advisor before opening Sytsma Wealth Strategies in 2014. Tami is involved with Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, the Family Business Alliance and the Uptown Business Improvement District Board, to name a few.  In 2016, she was named one of the Business Journal’s “40 Under Forty.”

Surprising Fact: To earn some extra money in high school, Tami raised steers/cattle to show and sell at the Hudsonville fair.

LaTarro Traylor
Downtown Grand Rapids Inc.

LaTarro is the Community Relations Coordinator for Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc. She received her BA in International Studies from Aquinas College and her law degree from Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School. A lifelong Grand Rapids resident, LaTarro is passionate about her community and spends a lot of time conceptualizing strategies that will alleviate poverty and economically empower marginalized people. When she isn’t busy engaging with the community, LaTarro spends her free time with her five-year-old son Colin.

Surprising Fact: Each school LaTarro attended, from preschool to law school, was located in GR proper.  

Alyssa Veneklase
Gold Coast Doulas, LLC

Alyssa is a Postpartum Doula and Co-Owner at Gold Coast Doulas, the first doula agency in West Michigan. She offers mothers a safe space to ask questions, learn about their new roles, and transition into parenthood gently. Judgement-free support is a critical element of her business model. Alyssa is trying to change the way people think about motherhood and is working hard to give mothers and their families the education and support they need to get through pregnancy and enter into parenthood with confidence.

Surprising fact:  As a child, Alyssa’s favorite sandwich was ham and peanut butter.

In addition, five $1,000 ATHENA scholarship recipients were awarded from the stage. The ATHENA scholarship goes to women aged 30 or older working to complete a degree program at an accredited college or university.

All in all, the 2017 ATHENA Awards Celebration was a victory for women leaders and professionals everywhere.

Thank you to everyone who attended this year’s ATHENA Awards Ceremony, to all the women leaders in our community, and to every single person who advocates for women in their daily lives.

We hope to see you next year!



Samantha Suarez Administrator

Samantha is the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s resident Communications Specialist.

follow me

Leave a Reply