BRAVA Awards Women who have empowered other women

Old Greenwich resident Kendra Farn was the keynote speaker at the annual BRAVA Awards, which are held by the YWCA to honor women who have not only achieved professionally but personally as well and have given back to the community and through mentoring other women. — John Ferris Robben

Old Greenwich resident Kendra Farn was the keynote speaker at the annual BRAVA Awards, which are held by the YWCA to honor women who have not only achieved professionally but personally as well and have given back to the community and through mentoring other women. — John Ferris Robben

More than 300 people gathered at the Hyatt Regency on Friday, Feb. 7, to celebrate the achievements of local women being lauded for their efforts empowering other women.

The annual YWCA BRAVA Awards recognized 10 women this year, seven of them Greenwich residents. The awards, which were established in 1977, honor women who have excelled both in their careers and in  community service. The women are called powerhouses both in the boardroom and in the community. This year’s roster of honorees included Greenwich residents Fabiola Arredondo, Margaret Cheever, Donna Colletti, Cathleen Ellsworth, Avril Graham, Eleni Henkel, and Lesley Schless.

The remaining three recipients, Katy Tucci, Elaine Guglielmo and Rose Velez-Smith, live in Rye, Stamford and Norwalk, respectively.

Friends, family and colleagues attended the awards luncheon in support of the honorees and the YWCA’s many contributions to the community and dedication to women’s empowerment, which were frequently commended throughout the luncheon. State Sen. L. Scott Frantz (R-36th) was among the cohort of fans, saying that the Greenwich community was as “good as it gets literally anywhere in the world,” thanks to the work of organizations like the YWCA.

“Every year, I’m absolutely in awe of the accomplishments of the honorees and what they do for the community. So I stand here in awe of every single one of them,” said Mr. Frantz. “I consider myself and my family so blessed to live in a community that places such a premium on this kind of selflessness.”

Greenwich Selectman David Theis and U.S. Rep. Jim Himes (D-4th) were also at the event. Mr. Himes, a Cos Cob resident, effusively thanked the organization for its hard work and upstanding reputation.

“Those of us in this room and those of us who live in this community know that it [YWCA] is truly a gem. There aren’t many organizations that touch as many lives as the YWCA,” said Mr. Himes.

Keynote speech

A speech given by keynote speaker Kendra Farn was a highlight of the luncheon. Ms. Farn, an Old Greenwich native and award-winning reporter, candidly shared her apprehension upon learning she’d be addressing a group of such accomplished women executives and mentors. She shared her own personal story in an intimate talk based on lessons she’d learned from her father, one of the guiding influences in her professional life.

“There’s one common thread throughout all of the categories, and he’s my dad. He died 13 years ago, but he never really left,” said Ms. Farn.

She wove together her story, spanning from budding reporter working in the Deep South to seasoned Emmy Award-winning reporter at WNBC in New York City, with five major categories she considered essential to her success: making sacrifices, setting goals, taking risks, mentoring, and finding balance.

Among the advice she shared, she emphasized the importance of mentoring. From her family to the reporters who both encouraged and criticized her along the way, she expressed her gratitude for their feedback and support.

“Mentoring is something that I think is so incredibly important for young women and for young men. I think honestly that it is almost a duty for seasoned professionals like me,” said Ms. Farn. “I cannot tell you how grateful I was to all of the reporters and anchors along the way who took the time to talk to me, to look at my videotape, to give me feedback, both good and bad, and most importantly, to encourage me.”

Ms. Farn also shared her struggles finding balance as a mother and a  professional. She didn’t want to give up a job she loved, but she also wanted to be a more engaged mother who could be there at school pickup. She entreated women to find what worked for them without compromising their drive for success.

“Life, as you all know, is about balance, and women, we have to admit, we have more to balance, because of all of the different roles that we play in our lives. But you and only you are in charge of that balance and you choose what you want to put on your plate,” said Ms. Farn. “You know what makes you happy and what makes you fulfilled. We have just one vacation pass on this place called Earth, just one, and every single one of us is in the driver’s seat.”

Award winners

Mentoring and balance remained key, consistent themes throughout the speeches given by all 10 BRAVA Award recipients. They acknowledged the strong influence mentors had played in the many stages of their careers and the significance of giving back to the next generation.

Ms. Henkel, CEO and founder of boutique executive search firm Henkel Search Partners, spent more than two decades at Morgan Stanley. When she joined Wall Street, she had no female mentors whatsoever. In retrospect, she said, she would have benefited greatly from female role models who could have offered her guidance and support. As a result, she came to understand the extent of the influence mentoring can wield, especially in building the careers of young women.

And so, in her words, “mentoring became a priority” in her career and one that she remains committed to.

“Mentoring relationships don’t have to be formal or arranged to be impactful. … It’s really not complicated. If we commit to make ourselves available to each other by offering an ear to listen, a brain to pick and a push in the right direction, we can make a difference,” Ms. Henkel said. “We have a responsibility to mentor our daughters, our friends and members of our community who are in need. There are so many opportunities to help empower women.”

A much-repeated phrase throughout the acceptance speeches was the popular adage “It takes a village.”

Ms. Tucci, portfolio manager at BNY Mellon, shared her belief that it “requires an outstanding team of individuals to truly cultivate a leader.” Ms. Guglielmo, vice president of human resources at Stamford Hospital, went so far as to dedicate the award to her peers, saying it stood for the “united effort” she felt each day she went to work. Dr. Colletti, director of palliative care at Greenwich Hospital, put it simply: “No one arrives at a date such as this by accident.”

For Dr. Colletti, as for the other honorees, it took a village of peers, friends and family to get her to where she is today. Just as Ms. Henkel  did, she said she considered it both a duty and a responsibility to look out for the future.

“Success to me is not an accident, it’s an intention. So today, I would like to direct our energy towards these young women, next to accept a golden ring of opportunity,” said Dr. Colletti.

The honorees also offered their thoughts about the event’s second running theme, balance. Ms. Arredondo, founder of Siempre Holdings, a family investment office, formerly managing director of Yahoo! Europe, admitted that the search for balance was elusive.

“I’ve looked for balance and then accepted that there is no balance,” said Ms. Arredondo. “And somewhere along the well over million miles I’ve traveled, I’ve learned the following: that perfect is far from great, that life is about giving your best, learning from failure and building upon your experience.”

Ms. Schless, a partner at Shipman & Goodwin LLP, discussed her evolving approach to the clichéd but persistent question of Can we have it all? Upon the start of her career, she wondered how she’d manage to have it all; to commit to her professional aspirations, contribute to her community, sustain meaningful personal relationships, raise thoughtful children, all while enjoying life.

She shared the words of advice of her college president that she’d often fallen back to: To “aim to lead a life of many stages, each with its own fulfillment.” While she admitted that this wasn’t an easy lesson to accept, it was one that grew in meaning. That while it was possible to have it all, it didn’t have to be all at the same time.

“So long as you invest yourself fully and live fully in whatever it is you’ve chosen to invest yourself in at any particular point in time, the fulfillment will be there. It’s up to you to see it and to take it,” said Ms. Schless.

Trickled throughout the afternoon were a smattering of “pearls of wisdom” about jobs and success from these formidable women. The thoughts shared ranged from making money to seeking out unglamorous job opportunities to starting from the back row to not apologizing for loving work.

“When you embark upon your career and you’re sitting in the back row, it is as fascinating as rising to the top. It’s the journey along the way that makes it so fabulous,” said Ms. Graham, executive fashion and beauty editor of Harper’s Bazaar. “But don’t be afraid to start at ground level and work towards the top. That’s exactly what I did, and I’ll never forget those moments.”

At the end of the day, all women were united in their fervor about community service. Ms. Velez-Smith, vice president of human resources at Pitney Bowes, declared that without giving back to the community, she wouldn’t be fulfilled for success. Cathleen Ellsworth, managing director at energy equity firm First Reserve, asserted that “you’ve got to be in service to something beyond yourself.”

Ms. Cheever, managing director at RBS, spoke candidly about juggling responsibilities and the ultimately enhancing effect of volunteering. She said, “I have come to recognize that contributing time and expertise outside of the workplace is possible, needed, and speaking personally, is expanding.”

The resounding themes of the event were inspiring: that success is impossible in a vacuum, that it’s possible to balance the many roles of being a woman, and that the true measure of success, both personal and professional, is aptly embodied in the YWCA’s ethos, to give back and to empower women.


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