The Athena honors women who demonstrate excellence and creativity in business, who contribute to quality of life in their communities and who help other women realize their leadership potential.
Nelson meets all of those criteria. The senior vice president of wealth management at Technology Credit Union, Nelson has for 25 years held high positions in financial services at companies within and outside Palo Alto including Union Bank's Private Bank, Addison Avenue Credit Union, Greater Bay Bancorp and Great Western Bank.
Nelson credits her mother as an early influence on her belief that women could create their own destinies. Her mother started a business when women just didn't. Her Carlisle School taught well-educated U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University female graduates shorthand because secretarial jobs were all they could obtain.
Now Nelson is part of the first generation to succeed in breaking the glass ceiling.
Likewise, the influence of her father, an executive for American Can Company in San Francisco, helped shape her dedication to community service, philanthropy and helping women, she said.
"My father was a wonderful role model. He instilled the intrinsic value of work. As he walked through the house, he hummed, 'Make a contribution. Make a contribution.' As a child, I remembered that," she said.
Entering adulthood, Nelson became involved in nonprofit organizations. Pitching in for something she believed in made that cause more tangible, more valuable, she said.
Nelson has loved working with organizations dedicated to medicine, education and children, she said. She has been committed to the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program, Palo Alto Art Center Foundation, Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Ronald McDonald House at Stanford, Lucile Packard Foundation for Children's Health and the El Camino Hospital Foundation, among others.
Nelson has a bachelor's degree in sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and has completed post-graduate executive programs at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. In April, the San Jose Business Journal named her one of the top 100 "Women of Influence."
She said she has always worked for companies that were dedicated to community involvement.
"I've been drawn to them; they're in my DNA," she said.
She was attracted to credit unions because the organizations seek to have a social impact and interest in policymaking, she said.
Growing up in Palo Alto "where roots are strong," Nelson was the youngest of three children with several years between her and her older brother and sister, she said.
Near her childhood home on Martin Avenue, Nelson recalled idyllic days of playing in fields and catching butterflies. That environment helped foster childhood creativity, she said. She reported for and sold subscriptions to the Martin Messenger, a neighborhood newspaper launched by a child on her block.
Her interests could have taken her in any number of directions, including journalism or even medicine, for which she still has a passion. Intensely focused with a strong business bent, now she considers herself a financial physician, she said.
Palo Alto isn't small-town quiet anymore; the innovation of Silicon Valley has taken hold in the city, she said. But Nelson doesn't find the changes in her hometown unsettling; she embraces them. Without change, a place, and a person, become stagnant, she said.
But success and harmony come from listening.
"It's important to listen to all voices and be wedded to one outcome (together). You can learn so much from everyone," she said. It is also her management style.
She recalled that as a child she had such a high level of independence from an early age that her parents wondered if she listened to anything they said.
But listen she did — to her parents' greatest teachings about what makes for a quality life and the power of the individual to create meaningful change — and to her mentors. Those most-influential persons include her husband, John; Bay Area business leader Duncan Matteson (no relation) of the Matteson Companies; Susan Black, CEO of Pinnacle Bank; Marilyn Winkleby, professor of medicine at Stanford Prevention Research Center; and others.
If there's one thing that has propelled Nelson forward, it is her lifelong habit of being a student forever and being open to learning all of the time, she said.
Despite all of the challenges and changes in the economy and society, Nelson said it's still a fascinating time to be alive.
"Those in my age category are reinventing our later years. I feel like a kid again. The Baby Boomers haven't done anything according to plan," she said, smiling.
As this year's Athena awardee, Nelson said she plans to learn from the Athena's past "goddesses" by pooling their ideas and knowledge.
"If we have that force, what can we do to have an impact? We can encourage ourselves to take on something great," she said.
The Athena Award luncheon will be held Nov. 7 at 11:30 a.m. at the Garden Court Hotel in Palo Alto.
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