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"Kick Your Impostor Syndrome to the Curb" guest article for the Athena Alliance

By Danna Lewis, COO of Athena Alliance

We’ve all had moments where we’ve felt like we don’t belong. Maybe it was your first week on a new job. Perhaps it was an interview, when applying to a master’s program, or presenting to a group of strangers. This feeling, “I don’t belong here,” can hit all of us—even at the highest peaks of our career. It’s called imposter syndrome, and it’s even been known to rear its ugly head here within the Athena Alliance network. I’ve noticed that during calls (too many calls) a potential member will ask if she has the right background, skills, or experience to join Athena.

If you’re unsure about your path to the boardroom or hesitant about adding to your already demanding schedule, that’s understandable. The Athena network is impressive. Many of our members are well-known within their industries and have accomplished a great deal in their careers. These are women who have transformed companies, created high-performance teams, taken companies to IPO, and built them from scratch. Many of them mentor junior women and other rising stars within their industries. These women are considered experts at what they do. Skepticism aside, if you are a C-suite, executive-level woman, female founder, or female investor with a desire to become more board savvy, board confident, and board connected, you are in the right place at Athena.

Yet… the imposter syndrome, it lurks behind even the most successful women. Why is this?


Here’s the deal about imposter syndrome. It turns out, it doesn’t discriminate based on title or career experience. It can affect everyone, at any stage of their career. Women are more likely to experience the phenomenon than men. In fact, the Athena Alliance wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for impostor syndrome. Back in 2002, our Founder and CEO Coco Brown was asked to step up at Taos to the role of COO, Board Member, and one of only three owners of the company. Then in 2004 adding the title of President (with all functions of the company reporting to her, and her as the one report to the CEO). She deserved all of this after leading the company through a turnaround post-dotcom bust. But, she had many moments of wondering if the world around her would respect a female non-engineer CEO as the leader of a deeply technical company where 90% of the buyers were male technologists. It was for this reason that she started a dinner group of female CIOs (representing her top buyer). As Coco put it to me, “I wanted to enable them to create community and strengthen their sense of belonging and learning, while also doing the same for myself. One thing we all had in common was not seeing ourselves represented around us, so I had to create a space where we did see it.” How that then led twelve years later to Athena is a story for another time.

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