Athena, Holly Smithson - Sharing proven philosophies on how to lead a successful business entity

The Business of Non-Profits

Nov 15 2022 • 22 mins

In this episode of The Business of Non-Profits, we speak with Holly Smithson, CEO of Athena, about approaching a non-profit as a business endeavor. She’ll speak candidly about what works for her and what sharing proven philosophies to lead a successful business entity.

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00:29 Stacey Lund:

Hello and welcome back to the Business of nonprofits. With me today is Holly Smithson, the CEO of Athena. Athena is an organization with a mission to advance women in STEM leadership to 1 million strong by 2030. Holly is a voracious supporter of strong business skills within nonprofits, and we are so happy to speak with her today. Holly, thanks for joining us.

00:53 Holly Smithson:

Well, thank you, Stacey. I'm excited to be here. And congratulations on the launch of your new podcast.

01:01 Stacey Lund:

Thank you. Holly, you've had leadership roles like Athena is not your first rodeo, so talk to us a little bit about your leadership at other nonprofits and kind of the journey that you think nonprofit leadership takes. You've had an evolution, so talk a little bit about that.

01:15 Holly Smithson:

Yeah, I've been really fortunate here in the great state of California, where there's a high volume of advocacy groups and sort of community groups that bond together in pursuit of a common agenda. And I have been fortunate enough to lead a couple of those in the space of life sciences, clean technology, and now women's leadership, specifically in the fields of STEM. And each of those organizations have a pretty successful track record. We know that on average, 90% of nonprofits will fail within their first few years, in large part because there's not a strategic plan or there's just some leadership deficiencies. So been really blessed and really fortunate to have these opportunities and these platforms to support these industry clusters.

02:03 Stacey Lund:

That's amazing. So would you say and I mean, you're in an organization now that really is teaching leadership in a lot of ways, right? Harnessing your inner leadership skills is your evolution, or do you feel like nonprofit leadership and the focus on strategy and business skills, do you feel like that's kind of a tandem path to teaching women in STEM how to be better leaders? Is it the same trajectory that nonprofit leaders just don't really realize kind of what skills they need? Or what do you think the deficiency is?

02:38 Holly Smithson:

I like your question, and here's why. Because we in the nonprofit industry for a long time had this false narrative that we want to show that we have spent very little of your donor money on overhead when all that does is perpetuate this race to the bottom mentality. And they know that it takes money to make money. So, the idea that you are going to communicate a business philosophy that you can spend the very least amount of money to drive an impact. When in fact, what you actually need to do is take some of the donor’s money and put it back into the mission. Into the organization. Into technology. Into talent development. Professional development. And so that's why you see these really nasty numbers where 90% of these nonprofits fail in the first few years. What donors really want is what is the impact based on your budget.

03:36 Stacey Lund:

Talk a little bit more about that where you mentioned tools and technology. You're going to take your donor dollars and you're going to bolster your infrastructure. about the strategy behind that, and then about data, because I know you love data, and the way to show results is through measurement. And I think it's hard when you have a mission, and you love the mission to even kind of put KPIs in place for success.

04:00 Holly Smithson:

For my mindset and because I professionally grew up working on Capitol Hill, working in public policy where accountability is scammed. And so, when I came out to California 15 years ago, my goal and my desire were to do the exact opposite of what they do in the federal government, I wanted to be a part of an organization that had an impact, that actually had outcomes that were measurable, and where everybody was on the same page, and everybody was rowing in the same direction. And we're guided by a set of data that informs us whether we're going in the right direction, whether we're going with the right people, and have the right tools in place to achieve success. And what I found was, obviously, the big data movement occurred within the last 20 years. So, if you in effect don't become a technology company, you will disappear. And the faster you understand and the faster that you're able to respond to those market dynamics, the more valuable you'll be. And that's something that's really been critical to my success, I believe, is being able to understand and see those market dynamics. You've got to have that constant excuse me, connectivity with your clients, right? Let me just give you an example. So, Athena, we've been around. We're celebrating our 25th anniversary next year. We now offer our 50 leadership development programs without boundaries. We were able to become a virtual organization. We need to understand being able to deploy a lot of the new technologies that would allow us to serve our community. We needed to hire in our very small and nimble team, those who have this new technology, proficiencies, and competencies so that we, in effect, can become a data company.  I need to see the data so that we can understand where our investment in our female leaders is leading us. And so being able to understand that that's where companies are today. If they're not investing in their female leaders, if they're not demonstrating that investment in material ways, then guess what? Those managers are going to be hit because of their performance evaluation, which is structured on how we are developing our talent. And so that's a cool opportunity for us to be able to generate the data, not just speak at it anecdotally, but come at it from a very clear dashboard that shows, here are the 50 women in your C suite or your management or your board that have come through our leadership programs. And then the conversation is just data-driven. The vision to be able to communicate using technology in a way that makes all the values and the impact so abundantly clear is where I believe Athena has been successful certainly in the last five years.

06:44 Stacey Lund:

So, give me a little more on that. Athena, I know when you came in, right? You really focused. I'm going to call it on the customer success. The product, the data around it, and to show value. How did you do that?

06:58 Holly Smithson:

What we did when we first when it first came on five years ago, the year was 2017, and that was the launch of the #metoo campaign. And so suddenly the board of directors at Athena is looking around and we're seeing this uprising and all these stories and all of these anecdotes of discrimination and harassment and biases that suddenly were not just one off. Because of, social media, we have this forever platform where these stories are compounded and become so pervasive that businesses everywhere it was hard to ignore.

And so, we saw as an opportunity, as the voice of women in STEM, to not just join the echo chamber, but actually drive the conversation with data and really level set the conversation in a way that could address what we found to be the perception gap. So, if we don't think that women should only have 20% of STEM jobs, then that's not how we see things. Until we bring data to say, hey, if you're okay with 80% of some of the highest wage salary positions in the STEM world going to men, then that's a different conversation.

And so, in that shift back in 2017, we started to have this Titanic shift at Athena. Where we wanted to get away from this sort of portfolio of programming on leadership, development, mentoring, networking, sort of the critical recipes for career advancement. When you come at the conversation with data, you're able to have a different conversation and you're able to arrive at more meaningful outcomes.

08:33 Stacey Lund:

How much data did you gather yourself versus using studies that were already out? There was a combination. And did you have to bring in a data analyst or walk through that?

08:44 Holly Smithson:

Well, so, at our 20th anniversary in 2018, we had our big annual STEM event of the year. And so we partnered with UC San Diego, which birthed Athena 25 years ago, and said, hey, we want to go in and produce an index. We want to have a women and STEM workforce index. We'd like to see how we are doing as a global STEM hub here in Southern California, and then how do we stack against the rest of the nation. And so we basically worked with them. They curated the data. We did it across all STEM fields. And then we broke it down by women in life sciences, women in technology, women in engineering, and then women in leadership positions. So that enabled us to kind of get a handle on where we stood and then how far we needed to go. And with that index, we did that product launch.

And at that time we had also launched a partnership with the United Nations Global Compact. And the UN Global Compact is the world's largest corporate social responsibility initiative. And in that initiative, it has 17 global goals, and one of them is to achieve gender equality. And so throughout those two initiatives, that was part of our biggest strategic outreach, to become more of an advocate to elevate Athena and obviously our corporate partners in ways that said, we don't have all the answers. We do have shared values. We have the data that tells us we have a ways to go, but we actually want to make this world sustainable. And we understand that the role of gender equality will play in that endeavor. And so now you suddenly have this movement, you have a set of people that are humble, that are informed, and, quite frankly, care more about the outcomes, the long-term outcomes, than just looking at their short-term gain. Some data-driven methodologies that would enable them to modernize their workforce. To recruit more women. To retain more women. To invest in their leadership growth. And then to ultimately drive. You know. The bottom line and their customers and their customer base and their customer loyalty. And so that whole process was, I would say, that was going on from 2018 to 2020 until the Pandemic hit. And so that was a huge evolution for Athena. And now we're this global entity that is widely respected and regarded as somebody that's on the ground, on the boots ground, in a global hub that wants to drive action. And if you're going to drive action and you're going to be bold enough to say, we want to advance a million women in STEM by 2030, you better be able to tell the story to keep the industry accountable.

11:20 Stacey Lund:

So let's use that same chutzpah and put it towards diversifying women in STEM. That's so interesting because you really took it on almost like a for-profit product launch, right? You did your market research, you looked at other things that were happening, like the UN Council and what you could grab and pull and sort of cross-checked it with your mission, and then you sort of repackaged it. It's been an evolution, but you really did apply product principles to almost like transforming your mission or bolstering your mission to take it the next step. How's that sort of post-pandemic? So, that was before, and during and now after. How does that feel? What kind of resonance is there? What do you see next?

12:00 Holly Smithson:

Well, that's interesting. So for us, for most of our history, we are focusing on the individual women that make up our membership portfolio. And obviously, the companies would be investing in those high performers, in those high potentials. And that was really our go-to market approach. But that shift, as I mentioned through our collaboration with the United Nations, was why don't we spend our efforts and our resources and reallocate them to support our companies? Because our 50 corporate partners employ over a million people worldwide. So I'm a nonprofit organization. I don't have a budget to get the emails of all women in STEM. But what I do have is I have onramp with my 50 corporate partners who have satellite locations worldwide and we know their total employee population. So by us focusing on how we can encourage and support those efforts by our corporate partners, we're able to lift the entire employee population far exceeding our individual support groups. And so everything that we do and the success that we've had is largely in part because of our corporate partners. And so we also have to come at it and recognize that there's a high degree of humility on the ones that do. This is Pfizer. It's Oracle. It's Qualcomm. It's Marauder Therapeutics. It's aTyr Pharmaceuticals. And so we know that we've got to partner with people that have been at it for a while to make sure to keep us accountable and to make sure that we're doing this in a way that's data-driven and reduce a lot of the trial and error time and get more actionable strategies that we can deploy today and start reaping the rewards. Understanding where the pain points are and where there's cracks in the foundation of the corporate cultures, helps us design products, as you would say in the private sector, helps us come up with these customized curriculums and content to help offset the challenges. And just to kind of give you an example the soft skills is where a lot of these women were falling short on. And had they been able to actually articulate their value proposition, to be able to recruit and activate male allies on their part, to offer them up to lead a special project, to be able to really build their social capital, these are obviously the social skills they're not teaching you at Berkeley or Stanford or MIT or any university or community college, for all I know. And so we saw that as a gap, a skills gap that we could fill and that would help them retain the women so that they could advance their careers.

14:36 Stacey Lund:

Awesome. So if you were going to say, I'm going to summarize for a minute, it sounds like really from a recipe point of view for a successful nonprofit, understand your mission. And so many leaders do they feel it right? They wear it on their sleeve, and they really are champions of their mission. But they have to be able to distill it down to such a value prop that it's crisp and it's alive, but it's also quantifiable. And then you've got to be able to have data that supports wherever you came from that led you there and then wherever you're going. And you have to adjust that, right? And that can be tech. It could be Google Sheets. I don't care what you use, right? You could find some great kids at UCSD, whatever works for you.

15:25 Holly Smithson:

If you don't embrace and leverage technology and don't have your finger on the market forces, that's a recipe for swift failure. 1.5 million nonprofits operate in this country today and very few of them operate under the million-dollar mark. We're talking the most highly funded are YMCA, Red Cross, United Way, and those are mission driven organizations that are bringing value to people and families and communities. And they obviously have a very rich history. They are very well funded. And when they are well managed, they're able to bring a lot of impact to the communities they serve. And when they are mismanaged, everybody knows. When you are trying to weather all of these different events, like, obviously we were mismanaged in our 20-year history. We were about to go under because we had a lot of volunteers who had really good intentions, but nobody had a line of sight on the budget, nobody had accountability, nobody ran a PNL. And so, you had a bunch of well-intended people trying to put together this big, huge turkey feast for Thanksgiving. And it was unfortunate. And so, I came in to do a turnaround, which is what I love to do and be able to reassess all of the disorganization, to reestablish the products, the value, the mission, reestablish the trust of our corporate partners, and then really to put a really bright spotlight on how important it is and how far we have to go and how far we come on our mission. And then we got the belt taken over a hiney by the Pandemic and all of that great work and the reestablishing and productizing and cleaning up our portfolio, cleaning up our database, really elevating our brand equity across through the UN collaboration. And then BAM. That was very sad and frustrating for everybody. But had we not reinforced our business model and reinforced the necessities to get this organization get back up and continue in its march, then we would have been taken out for good.

17:39 Stacey Lund:

I had a CEO I worked for a million years ago named Alex Sun. He's phenomenal. He's with Enlight, and he used to talk about protecting the core. The first order of business is protect the core. And the first rule of that is you have to know what your core is, right? So it sounds like when the Pandemic hit, it could have crippled you, it could have killed you, and it didn't, because you were already taking your value proposition and streamlining it to the point where you could protect that core. Right, those volunteers, as well meaning as they were, and I've worked in lots of organizations where I'm one of them, right, where it's we're making Thanksgiving dinner, but we're really heavy on the turkey, and there's no mashed potatoes. You don't want to do that. You want a good balance, and you can't be out of balance, but you have to protect that core. And you've already taken that on, and now you're just taking that to the next level of what you know, now that we're out of it, and I don't need to be quite so pedantic about protection, what can I do now that we're out of it to get to the next level? Do you know what your stats are? Can you share those with us? Where are we in 2022?

18:40 Holly Smithson:

So now that our program portfolio reaches, I think we have almost 99 different countries represented in our virtual programs. So now we have to double down on our investment in our technology and our capabilities to be able to track that data, upload it, and then be able to design it in a way that shows in real time to be able to bifurcate and extract the data insight, really get a normalization of our data, a cleansing of our data. Right now, we don't have that mastered. And we're on the precipice of being able to communicate the impact we're having in a much more compelling fashion than we are today. I would say we are halfway there to our mission, but our ability to do that in a much more disciplined manner is gonna require us to become a data analytics company.

19:35 Stacey Lund:

Which makes total sense, right?

19:38 Holly Smithson

I love the ability and the opportunity to actually bring all of the impact into a nice package that empowers our partners and positions our partners to demonstrate to their shareholders, to their customers, to their employees and all their stakeholders, their commitment by numbers. And so as we move into that, we obviously just recovered our financial from the Pandemic, and then we've got enough to support us. Now we're adjusting ourselves and we're going into hopefully clear skies. Now we got to double down into this data analytics phase that I want to take us into. And again, everybody is grappling with this. If you look at Accenture or PwC or HBR, everybody's talking about the need for companies to everywhere to upskill, right. Remote collaboration, technology, all of this. Everybody's turning this corner, like it or not. And so you've got to find the resources. I've got to find the resources to do this. It's not an option.

20:38 Stacey Lund:

But it's there. And you know where to go. You know what you want the end result to sort of look like. And you know that it's possible. And I think that's important because, yes, it's a blue-sky exercise, but there's no need to be afraid. And I think 25 years, hey, a lot of orgs don't last that long, let alone nonprofits. Right? You've had a few transitions under your belt, so I'm sure you will get there, actually. And I can't wait to see it. It's going to be phenomenal.

Alright Holly if we want to find out more about your mission and about the results, where do we go? How do we find out?

21:10 Holly Smithson:

Yes, you can find us on

21:15 Stacey Lund:

Thank you, thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciated it on behalf of Samm and I. Samm is my editor and my producer. So thank you so much for joining us. It's been a pleasure. And thank you all for listening. I really appreciate it. If you like what you heard, please subscribe or leave a review we'd love to hear from you. Or if you would like to be a guest, please hit us up at We'll see you next time.