Business Leaders of the Year

Karen Keene | ATHENA Women’s Inspired Leadership

ATHENA Women’s Inspired Leadership
2018 Business Leaders of the Year | Social Entrepreneur

As director of marketing and business development at law firm Dean Mead and president of ATHENA Orlando Women’s Leadership Inc., Karen Keene has found the simple secret to maintaining balance in a hectic schedule: perspective and passion.

“Passion is first, absolutely. I’m a strong supporter of seeing women who have remarkable talents and diverse backgrounds be brought to the forefront,” Keene said, recalling the legacy that continues to inspire her: “I had a really amazing mom as my mentor. She was widowed and found herself with three children to raise, all while she was working as a teacher — and she kept everything in our life as normal as possible.

“I think of her so often. She was such an advocate of women having a voice, and she would say to me, ‘I want you to go out there and find your passion, and then I want you to go out and try to make that opportunity available for other women.’ I try to remember that whenever it seems like it might be too much — that was what she left for me.”

Led by her mother’s example, Keene graduated from Rollins College with a bachelor’s degree in organizational communications and accepted a position as marketing director at an engineering and architecture firm. “I learned many wonderful lessons from the only female vice president at the firm at the time,” Keene said. “She was just a ball of fire and an exceptional leader — and she paved the way for me in the firm.”

Later, while working as regional marketing manager and director of communications for law firm Foley & Lardner LLP, a unique opportunity presented itself. It would mark the beginning of the complementary relationship between her passion and her work, which she now continues in her role at Dean Mead.

“When I heard about the ATHENAPowerLink program, I saw a unique opportunity for the female attorneys, the few we had, to serve on advisory panels and support women-owned businesses,” Keene said. The program, which connects women business owners with a free panel of advisors for a year, was first established in 1999. Keene helped bring it to Central Florida in 2005.

Once PowerLink was established, Keene organized a group to bring to Orlando another initiative of ATHENA International, an organization founded in 1982: a Women’s Leadership Lunch. The event included roundtable discussions of eight leadership principles written by ATHENA founder Martha Mayhood Mertz.

“Established women leaders were asked to bring an up-and-coming star in their organization, or a neighbor or a daughter,” Keene said. The first Orlando luncheon saw a turnout of 350 women — a number that would double in its second year. Keene and her friend and co-founder Jennifer Johnson established a partnership with the University of Central Florida (UCF) and enlisted the help of community leaders including Helen Donegan, vice president emerita of UCF, and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. There was such a positive response from the community, they began to ask, “Could we do more?”

They took a leap of faith and created the ATHENA NextGen program. It was an initiative that served as a pilot program and is now being replicated in other cities around the world.

One morning a month for eight months, a class of 55 women meets to discuss the leadership principles, facilitated by local women leaders. In November, the program celebrated its fifth anniversary. It has graduated 265 emerging leaders and established a $100,000 scholarship with UCF.

Keene credits the support of her friends and family, her firm and her faith in the women of the community for reinforcing her drive. With both gratitude to those who came before, and hope for those who will come after, Keene has carried on a legacy of opportunity that promises to continue growing.

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About the author

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Meaghan Branham

Meaghan Branham is the managing editor for i4 Business, where she oversees the company’s digital media strategy, handles client relationship marketing for the print and digital magazines, and serves as one of the publication’s lead writers. A native of Brevard County, she splits her time between Central Florida and Nashville, Tennessee.

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