Interviewee Name: Martha Mertz, Founder of ATHENA International
Avil Beckford: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Martha Mertz: I’m a businesswoman who started company in 1978, at a time when woman weren’t starting companies. Women weren’t running companies, women weren’t considered leaders. I started the company, it was small, it was modest and I grew it into a very successful company. I ended up developing properties, most of which I retained, and these were commercial properties that were in Michigan. So that’s my business track and I learned a lot about business and life and about myself by having that experience. Along the way I started an initiative that has to do with women in leadership, which has now become international in its coverage. That has also been an experience from which I have drawn deep understanding, great motivation, and incredible perspective about the world we’re living in now, and the progress we’re making, and where we need to continue to go.
Avil Beckford: What’s a typical day like for you?
Martha Mertz: I’m a creature of habit, so no matter where I live I have an office that’s outside my home that I go to every day. I check up on my e-mail, I catch up on my communications, and I set up my to-do list every day, then I’m devoted to getting whatever those items are done that day. Sometimes it might be communicating with people, sometimes it might be writing, or it could be making a business decision. But I like to work from an office, I like routine, I easily get distracted, I get interested in hundreds of things so I have to structure myself to accomplish the things that I need to for that day.
Avil Beckford: How do you motivate yourself and stay motivated?
Martha Mertz: I have focused on certain things that I consider to be important to me and so I assign to myself every day whatever it is that I want accomplish. It’s the passion that motivates me. I’m passionate about the things that I’m focused on, and whether it has to do with the local issue in the community where I live, or of global issue in the world at large, whatever it is that I have decided to work on I’m already passionate about. That motivates me. I think I’m motivated by a passion for making a difference.
Avil Beckford: If you had to start over from scratch, knowing what you know now, what would you do differently?
Martha Mertz: I would believe in myself earlier and deeper. I would have recognized my own voice, that the messages I wanted to convey, that the things that I considered important were worth listening to, and were worth doing something about. It took me a long time to build an understanding about how relevant my message was and my mission was in the world. It took me a long time to believe enough in myself, and if I had started that earlier I probably could have taken it much further, but I wouldn’t really change anything in terms of what I have done. I love what I’ve done, and I wouldn’t change any part of it, but I would’ve believed in myself earlier. When I started there was no outside empowerment, I had to provide my own. Now, for women doing anything there is all kinds of support and encouragement and mentoring and so on. But when I started none of that existed, and so it was self generated. It’s better now because we have discovered how important it is to support one another.
Avil Beckford: What’s the most important business or other discovery you’ve made in the past year?
Martha Mertz: For the economy in our country to get out of the present state of paralysis that it’s in, we have to allow the financial resources to begin flowing again. Everything is choked up right now, and when you’re in a state where everything is choked up, everything stops. It’s causing a deterioration in our economy, and it’s causing a deterioration in the entire financial world. I find this very alarming and it’s not going to lead us in any good direction. We need to get the economy moving again in a productive way and that hasn’t happened. So I have discovered in my view that the banks and lending institutions have taken a completely different role than used to be the case, what they are doing now is making money through internal investments and they don’t need to circulate the money in the public realm and it’s ruining it for everyone except the lending institutions. They’re doing fine, and the rest of the world is being squeezed out of the necessary flow of resources to build in order to develop, and in order to thrive. In the last year, that’s the discovery I’ve made and I find it alarming.
Avil Beckford: What are the three threats to your business, your success, and how are you handling them?
Martha Mertz: I built commercial buildings and they house retail shops so I’ll speak from that perspective.
The use of the Internet by consumers to purchase goods has completely and radically changed the mode of operation for retail establishments. You can go on the web and purchase virtually anything you want, you have no idea or need you care where that item is coming from. The need to go to a destination to be a consumer has completely changed and it’s giving retail operations a number of new challenges. Many of them are rising to the challenge by offering their services both in the physical location and a presence on the Internet, so there are ways to overcome that but there had to be a rapid adjustment in the way that retailers operate because of the Internet. I don’t know that that was expected.
I don’t really have any threats to my success, in my view I have already achieved my success. And one of the questions that people ultimately get to ask themselves is, “what does success mean to you?” What is it? And we don’t all measure it in the same way. Success is measured in financial comfort and security. A certain level of financial comfort and security is necessary as a basic need, but when it gets to be in excess of a certain amount then that doesn’t spell success anymore. There is a need to achieve something that matters that makes a difference in the world. I don’t really worry about threats to my success, I just keep on doing the kinds of things I do in the world at this point I note that their additive.
Avil Beckford: What’s unique about the service that you provide?
Martha Mertz: I’m identified as the founder for Athena International, which is an organization that supports, develops and honours women who have achieved the highest level of professional excellence. It honours women to ultimately see women as the leaders they are and that we will achieve a balance in voices in leadership globally. With the title as founder of that organization, and the voice for that mission, I’m the person who is an ambassador to lift women up, one at a time, individuals who are making a difference, by doing so changing the understanding of women as leaders. So that’s what’s unique about me.
Avil Beckford: What do you observe most people in your field doing badly that you think you do well?
Martha Mertz: I’m going to be answering this question from the perspective of women and empowerment. When women in this field approach this work it’s with, it’s all about me attitude, what’s in it for me. Or it’s all about self-enrichment, and it completely changes the soul of what they’re doing. I think and I have learned that when I do this work my viewpoint is to have the larger picture in mind, I have to do the work because I believe that there is a need in the world to empower women. It can’t be about empowering me because when it’s turned inwards it’s less important and it becomes small. The message that this work requires is very large.
Avil Beckford: Describe a major business or other challenge you had and how you resolved it. What kind of lessons did you learn in the process?
Martha Mertz: When I was starting Athena International it was really meant to change one institution. It was the Chamber of Commerce in the middle of Michigan. I was asked to be a member of the board and I was the only woman on the board and when I tried to bring other women who were leaders in the community on to that board my male colleagues would not recognize those women as leaders, and they basically didn’t see women as leaders, or worthy of sitting at that table. I have never figured out how I got there, but as I started Athena I was asked to talk about this in the community, talk to groups and it took me a long time, my major challenge at that time and it was pivotal. For the potential success of this effort entirely was learning how to present my ideas in public.
It was public speaking and I was terrified, and part of that was I wasn’t entirely confident that saying these things was important, or saying these things and starting this cause and being passionate about achieving a balance in leadership was worth anyone’s time in those days and still it took me a long time to recognize the importance of what I had to say and to give myself permission to do that and to learn how to become comfortable being the spokesperson for these ideas, which rapidly became not local but global. That was the biggest challenge in my life I think – learning that my message was important, and how to present it in the most effective way possible. And the way I did that was my doing it. I had to overcome fear, I had to find a way to get into my rhythm, I was terrified and that isn’t an unusual problem, people are terrified about public speaking, so was I. But the way to overcome that is to do it over and over and over until you finally recognize that what you have to say is resonating with your audience and it matters.
Avil Beckford: Describe one of your biggest failures. What lessons did you learn, and how did it contribute to a greater success?
Martha Mertz: I had a hard time with this question because I have a tendency not to hold onto my failures. I go through them I learn something and then I go on. In my life, I guess one of my biggest failures was when I took a turn in business toward something I didn’t know enough about and I spent a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of resources in a direction that ultimately ended up not working.
I lost a lot, and the loss taught me that I shouldn’t believe that because I’m good at six things that I’m going to be good at another different six things, I shouldn’t believe that. To be really good at something a person needs to have a background, experience and knowledge, and I approached something without enough knowledge, didn’t do my homework and it cost me, but what I learned from that was you need to know quite a bit before you launch anything, and do your homework, learn as much as possible before taking a step, then think about what would happen should this not work out for me.
What is the price of this endeavour? For me the price of the endeavour was a great lesson. I hadn’t prepared myself adequately, and in the future I need to do that, and I did. Don’t risk something until you’re ready, but always go forward. Nobody ever considers themselves to be fully ready so there comes a time when you just have to believe that you’re able to pull it off. That’s a mixed message but that was one of the major learnings in my life.
Avil Beckford: What’s one of the toughest decisions you’ve had to make and how did it impact your life?
Martha Mertz: It was the decision to leave a marriage after 20 years. I think that was perhaps one of the toughest decisions I’ve ever had to make because it impacted my children and my former husband and myself in ways I knew that wouldn’t be easy and would be painful. My decision was going to be causing pain to others. What did I learn from that? I learned that there’s a cost for humans to grow. I couldn’t grow adequately within the relationship that I had. I needed to expand beyond what was possible in that relationship. Sometimes we have to take a path that’s very tough to remove the kinds of constraints that might exist in that circumstance and will want something that is bigger and allows space for one to develop one’s self.
Life sometimes presents very hard choices, and this happens to all of us, but in those situations decisions have to be approached very carefully, and weighed very carefully. It’s not to be done very lightly and it’s important for the personal who is making the decisions to reach out and try to ameliorate backflow from that so that one is protected as much as possible. Personnel decisions that have to do with change are very, very tough, but there are ways to get through them. In my case it was essential that I move on, and ultimately opened the way for a great relationship with my current husband and with him I have been able to grow and develop the capabilities for whatever directions I need to go.
Avil Beckford: What are three events that helped to shape your life?
- Starting my own company was a major issue. At the time that I did that, there was no support for women. Women didn’t have companies, woman didn’t run companies, women weren’t seen as having business voices and there was no infrastructure to move forward with. One of the hardest things to do was just find enough belief in myself to do that, and I did that. Because I started a business it gave me a public presence and I was able to build a reputation for excellence from that public presence and that helped to shape the business life that ultimately led me into the women’s work that I’m still in.
- Raising the three children that I have in many ways have been my biggest teachers, each one in their own way because they’re all different. Children provide us with every challenge that is out there and oversight of the family requires executive abilities that people don’t even recognize as leadership, but it is. My children in their early years as well as now fully fledged adults and independent, but I’m still learning on a constant basis from those people whom I had the privilege of being their mother. That was something that absolutely shaped my life.
- The time at the Chamber of Commerce when I asked my male colleagues to bring other women on to the Board of Directors because I didn’t feel my perspective was the same as my male colleagues’ perspective and I needed more people who would think and see things and prioritize things the way I did, and that moment when they said, “no these woman aren’t leaders” changed my life when I saw how they perceived the whole half of humanity in the guise of woman as not having the skills and talents to be equal partners in conducting the business of the community. That recognition and understanding at that moment, and what came from that, and what I did about it has changed my life.
Avil Beckford: What’s an accomplishment that you are proudest of?
Martha Mertz: For the things in my life, the circumstances in my life that I have focused on, and that have worked hard on, and I continue to work hard on, in each case when I apply myself, I’m proud to say that I can make something happen, I can change things, I can leave a different legacy. I think that I’m most proud of the fact that I can bring a different legacy. My life and my work have made a difference and now I can look back and say, “Wow, that worked.” That was effective, people needed that, and I’m proud of that.
Avil Beckford: How did mentors influence your life?
Martha Mertz: One of the problems I had was that there were so few mentors, and so the influence of not having a mentor is pretty huge. If you don’t have someone to guide and help you, to believe in you, to help lift you, to direct you and provide some kind of information that you might not have run across, then you have to find your way by yourself. That’s harder and it’s unnecessary and may take you in the wrong direction to get somewhere. The lack of a mentor early in my life for where I was going, there were plenty of people who were happy with the status quo for me, but any time I wanted to step away from the status quo and do something that was not yet done either by women or by people, that made it harder. Lack of mentors was one influence in my life that I had to grow from.
Another thing I’d like to say is that I’ve learned a lot from reverse role models, mentors. What that means is somebody who’s showing me exactly how I wouldn’t want to be. I have learned more from people who have indicated or demonstrated who I wouldn’t want to be. And I’ve learned from the positive role models that I have had because that kind of lesson steers its way into your soul. So if someone is standing in front of you, are in your life who is providing you with what you perceive to be very negative or destructive behaviour, instead of taking it and absorbing that, it’s much wiser to try and step away even from yourself and watch because it’s really that person showing you and giving you a lesson on how you don’t want to ever be.
That can be very instructive, and we all have people in our lives who do things in ways that are hurtful and harmful or destructive or negative in some way, and that’s a learning experience. And it’s something that you can add to your understanding of human nature and your understanding of yourself because we are all capable of doing exceedingly good and exceedingly bad things. It’s very good to learn that we don’t have to pick up the destructive behaviours to be effective. There many positive mentors and everyday I learn something positive from someone.
Avil Beckford: What’s one core message you received from your mentors?
Martha Mertz: The best message that I have ever received is life is a journey it’s not the destination, that each day we lead ourselves forward and so we are all involved in leadership. It starts from the individual and builds up to whatever your reach might be. We are all on this leadership journey and you need to enjoy the journey because if you only focus on your destination then you might reach that destination and it’s fine, but then where will you go? You might have a momentary sense of great satisfaction, but what I’ve learned is that it’s just wonderful to be able to recognize where you are on your journey, as you’re moving along and appreciate everything that’s happening to you along the way. Appreciate the lessons that you’re learning and the successes that you’re having and the fact that you’ve succeeded at one thing, you’re going to find another mountain that you want to climb, there it is, you just crested one mountain and how wonderful is that. It’s what motivates all of us to keep going and keep growing.
Avil Beckford: An invisible mentor is a unique leader you can learn things from by observing them from afar, in the capacity of an Invisible Mentor, what is one piece of advice that you would give to readers?
Martha Mertz: Recognize that life is a journey and not a destination, and enjoy every part of it. Take time to enjoy where you are now. Don’t always be pressing forward to get somewhere. You are already somewhere, you’ve come a long way, you’ve done things, you’ve got lots more to do but there is always mountains to climb so enjoy the path that you’re on right now. This is the moment of your life, every moment add up to a life but don’t wait until your life is over for you to enjoy it. Enjoy the journey and celebrate every day.
And remember that it’s important to be authentic, live authentically and what I mean by that is to know yourself, know what your values are, and live in alignment with your values. Believe in yourself and know your own strengths, make a difference, give back to the world, leave a foot print which reflects who you are. Have the courage to step up and speak out when the time requires it.
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