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Here's who inspires the 2017 Pinnacle Awards honorees

Posted by Jennie Pane-Joyce on January 18, 2017

Anyone will tell you that attending the Pinnacle Awards, the Chamber’s annual celebration of eight amazing Boston businesswomen, is an inspiring experience. An annual favorite, this event recognizes women crushing it in a a variety of fields, with awards for both lifetime achievers and upcoming champs.

These women are impressive, that’s for sure. But what inspires those who inspire? We asked this year’s Pinnacle honorees and this is what they said:

Sava Berhane: “My career has been defined by incredible mentors and sponsors, so it is hard to anawer this question. I am certain, however, that no one has inspired me more than my mother. A single immigrant mother of four children, she has an unwavering work-ethic and a passion for learning. I grew up in Roxbury, watching my mother work 60-70 hours a week as a maid, a janitor, a cashier, and more. She always found time to use her workbooks to learn English. If she found me awake at night, she’d ask me to read to her. Her tenacity and grit gave me confidence to withstand adversity, to fortify myself against challenges, and to have humility at all times. I take her character with me in my adulthood and in my professional life. The life of a true leader comes with times of loneliness – learning how to hire and fire, how to inspire, managing up and across the organization, etc. My mother has taught me something about grace under fire, and I am forever indebted to her for the leadership lesson.”

Penni McLean-Conner: “Throughout my life, I have been inspired and motivated by so many caring, thoughtful and determined individuals. My sister Judy immediately comes to mind, with her positive approach to life while battling often debilitating multiple sclerosis. And I have always looked up to my father, who raised me to have a strong voice and communicate my ideas.

But the one person early on in my career who served as an inspiration and mentor for me was Sharon Allred Decker. Sharon was Duke Power’s first female vice president, as well as its youngest. She shattered the glass ceiling before the term was even invented. As important, she transformed Duke’s customer service approach from face-to-face service at 99 physical business offices to complete self-service via phone. Within a two year period, Sharon established the first 24/7 customer service call center in the entire utility industry—this was a groundbreaking achievement for Duke and one that the industry was fast to adopt.

She then branched out into a variety of roles after leaving Duke. She was the founder and president of the Lynwood Foundation, which restored the historic Duke Mansion in Charlotte and she also served as Secretary of Commerce in North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory’s administration. Today, she is Chief Operating Officer at Tryon International Equestrian Center.

I had the privilege to work for and learn from Sharon at a time when I was transitioning from engineering-focused work to customer service. She was simply a different kind of leader. She truly cared about her employees, had clear passion for her work, and engaged employees in ideas and solutions. She also demonstrated to the women, and men, on her team that you can have a family, have a successful career, and not be afraid to shift gears and try new paths in your work.”

Susan Finegan: “My paternal grandmother, orphaned in Lawrence, Massachusetts, inspired me greatly. Adopted into an economically disadvantaged family, she made her way through high school, accelerating her graduation date by a few years – by skipping a few grades – so that she could start working to make money for the family. Despite not having the privilege of higher education, or the opportunity for a professional career, she had something better – an intellectual curiosity that served her well as a life-long, self-taught learner. She was very civic minded, never forgetting that she was given the right to vote during her lifetime; a week before she died of brain cancer, she walked to the polling location near her home so she could vote in the federal election. She was a devoted and loving mother and grandmother who took a great interest in whatever her family was interested. Last, she had an enthusiasm for life, and for spontaneous fun, that was infectious.”

Wendy Foster: “In the ten years I’ve been involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Massachusetts Bay, I’ve noticed many parallels between mentoring and parenting, and my inspiration comes from someone very close to my heart.

My daughter Alexandra (“Alex”) is my hero. When Alex was two-years-old, she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, a chronic life-threatening disease caused by the inability of the pancreas to produce insulin. Because the body needs insulin to access the energy from the food we eat, Alex has to give herself insulin injections multiple times every day. She also has to monitor her blood sugar levels multiple times a day by drawing blood with a finger prick.

With too much insulin, Alex can have a low blood sugar reaction, which can result in unconsciousness, seizure and death. With too little insulin, Alex can have high blood sugar, which over time can lead to blindness, heart disease, amputation of hands and feet or death. It is a very fine line to walk.

Imagine having to start each morning with a finger prick to draw blood. Imagine having to think about the amount of carbohydrates in every meal or snack you eat so that you can administer the right level of insulin to regulate your blood sugar level. Imagine having to give yourself multiple shots of insulin a day.

Alex has to deal with a life-threatening disease every day. She can never take a vacation from juvenile diabetes. She has to be constantly vigilant that her blood sugar is not too high or too low. She has to wear a medic-alert medallion in case she is found unconscious. She has to worry about the long-term damage her disease is causing to her body. Now at age 26, having had diabetes for almost 25 years, the toll it is exacting on her body is beginning to rear its head.

Yet in spite of this heavy burden, Alex is a joyful, caring and confident young woman who refuses to let her disease define or limit her. She inspires me with her positive attitude, and the way she handles her diabetes reminds me to keep my challenges in perspective. No matter what I am dealing with, it usually pales in comparison to the decisions and situations she deals with day in and day out. She motivates me with her optimism and courage, and inspires me to be a better person.”

Linda Mason: “There are so many! The most recent that I have spent time with is Gloria Steinem. I have probably read everything she has written over the years. I first discovered her in my 20’s and was greatly inspired with how she courageously broke through barriers and spoke out eloquently and strongly against various forms of discrimination. She built a movement through her relentlessness, courage, and intelligence. I got to know her over the years and so admire how, in her 80’s she is still fighting the good fight and writing in new and thought-provoking ways.”

Evelyn Murphy: “Many people have inspired and motivate me over my 50 year career. That’s the nature of a long career. I’ve gotten help, inspiration, motivation from family, friends, colleagues at work, all along the way. Otherwise, I couldn’t have continued to this day, especially without the support of my partner and dearest friends.

But I will single out one particular voice that still stands out to this day. When I lost my first campaign for Lieutenant Governor, I was devastated. I had worked tirelessly. My campaign staff and volunteers had worked just as hard. We had built up enormous enthusiasm after I, as a complete outsider to elective politics, won the Democratic Party nomination after 5 ballots by a 12 vote margin out of 3,000+ votes! The narrow loss in the primary, announced in the early hours of the next day, was crushing.

A couple days later, I received a handwritten, printed, letter from a young woman who wrote: Dear Evelyn Murphy, I am sorry that you lost the election. I took my father to vote for you in Revere where we live. This year I lost the spelling bee contest at my school. I intend to win it next year. I expect you to run again and to win the next time. Your friend, Monique Cassella.

Monique put it so simply: just pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and get it right the next time—her message has motivated me ever since then!”

Marylou Sudders: “Although there are many individuals who have provided inspiration both personally and professionally, it is my mother, and her struggle with mental illness, that has been the motivation for my professional career as a social worker and behavioral health expert. My mother suffered silently and was not treated for clinical depression that ultimately caused her death as a young woman. The stigma profoundly impacted the lack of understanding internally within our family and extended to her community. Stigma was a barrier to her receiving a proper diagnosis and treatment and created a wall of shame and silence in our family. My mother, and our family’s experience, served to channel my adolescent bewilderment into a lifelong professional journey to combat stigma and improve mental health treatment. She was a source of inspiration when, as Mental Health Commissioner in the late 90s, our work led to passage of a groundbreaking mental health parity law.”

Jean Yang: “Nancy Turnbull, Senior Vice Dean of Harvard School of Public Health. Nancy was a member of my Board of Directors when I was serving at the Health Connector. Although I became a public servant more or less by coincidence, Nancy was prominent reason that I became as proud as I am of this experience, even during the most challenging times.

Nancy is a lifetime fighter for health coverage for all. I have never met anyone who is more passionate about doing everything possible to protect people’s health care. She often reminds us of why we did what we did to begin with. She taught me that being popular isn’t always the same as being right, and that often times the most impactful decisions are also the hardest to make.”

Get to know this year’s honorees!

This year’s Pinnacle Awards luncheon is January 27, and not to be missed. Share in the triumphs of these outstanding leaders and RSVP today this event always sells out!