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Helping women network nets businesswoman ATHENA Award

Ten years ago as Liz Graham was about to help launch a new venture — a networking group for women executives — a businessman she knew chided her. “You know, if men formed (a men-only group), there would be such a ruckus,” Graham recalled him telling her. She asked him how many boards he was on and he answered five. She asked him how many women were on those boards. “He didn’t say anything but you could hear him thinking,” Graham said. “I told him, you already have your men’s group — it’s called the corporate boardroom.”

Graham and her Washington colleagues went on to create a networking forum for women executives that now boasts more than 800 members. And then, she returned to her adopted roots in Northeastern Pennsylvania and helped create a similar network for women here.

Her involvement in that group — Circle 200 — earned her recognition as a co-recipient of the 2009 Greater Wilkes-Barre Area Chamber of Business and Industry’s ATHENA Award.

The award, given this year to Graham and co-recipient Marilyn Millington, is presented annually to women who demonstrate excellence in business accomplishments, community service, personal achievements and assisting other women work towards their full leadership potential.

“I was definitely surprised,” Graham said of the award.

“It was not anything I was anticipating. Part of that was because with Circle 200, you’re aware of all the phenomenal women leaders in the area and you tend to think of them for these awards, but it was such an honor.”

The origin of Circle 200 was more than a decade ago during a strategic planning session at a Washington law firm where Graham headed the marketing division.

While planning the future of the firm’s large health law practice, a female law partner — the only other woman in the room besides Graham — lamented the lack of a way for women executives to network.

The result was a one-day forum of female executives from every aspect of health care. “We knew there was a need because all of these women had risen to leadership positions without that network of help and they realized the value of it,” Graham said.

From that one-day meeting was born a Washington-based organization that just celebrated its 10th anniversary. When Graham moved back here in May 2001, part of the forum came with her.

“I had tremendous opportunity and the job in Washington was great, but then I had the opportunity to come back and help my brother run our family business. I thought that would be great to put what I do to work for a business I own. I did that for a year when I realized there was nothing here for women to network. I talked to my mentor with Leadership Wilkes-Barre, Donna Sedor, and she told me I had to talk to Marilyn (Millington). The three of us spent a year forming Circle 200. Marilyn and I get all the credit, but the truth is none of it would have happened without Donna.”

With nothing more than a promise of what the organization could become, Graham said she and Millington contacted local women in leadership roles and forged a network that started with about two dozen and now includes more than 80 female executives.

“We received the ATHENA the day before the sixth anniversary of the first meeting of Circle 200 and I thought that was pretty special,” she said.

“Circle 200 works because we don’t want anything from anyone,” Graham said.

“We’re not a fund raising organization; we’re not a marketing organization. It works because you’re not in it for yourself, you’re in it for the greater good, to open up opportunities for all of us.”

And it works despite the fact that some of the participants are really business rivals; for instance, Millington and Graham are both key players in different investment companies that compete for the same business.

Graham said her business philosophy follows the same principle as the one behind Circle 200--focusing on the greater good, not just what is good for the company.

“When my father was 18 or 19, his father died,” Graham said. “The company he worked for hired my grandmother because that’s what good companies did--they took care of their employees and they took care of their employees’ families, too.”

It’s something that she keeps in mind in dealing with employees at Riggs Asset Management, a business started by her father, Robert J. Graham, and now run by Graham and her brother, also Robert.

Graham describes the Riggs employees as a close- knit, humble group.

“My father, probably because of his military background, was always putting other people in front of himself,” she said.

“It’s something we learned, too, and something that is part of our business. My father started the business as a second career. He was a highly decorated Air Force officer who earned nearly every medal except the Medal of Honor, a fighter pilot who served four tours in Vietnam,” Graham said.

After he retired, the family settled in New Mexico.

Then a grandmother who lived in this area passed away and as the family settled her estate, a Merrill Lynch advisor convinced her father to move to this area and go into financial advising.

He took that advice and started the business now run by Graham and her brother.

Keeping that business thriving is important to Graham.

“The past year has been one of the toughest financial years in history, certainly the toughest most people living have seen,” she said, “and our company out-performed the market. The thing I’m most proud of is we didn’t lose a single client during this time, and I think the reason for that is that whatever we do, we always put the client first. It makes decision-making easy when you have a common goal of always working towards what’s best for your client.”

Graham would like to see that business continue on, becoming multi-generational like another family business, one her father named his company after.

She said her mother’s family name is Riggs and her ancestors owned Riggs & Brother, a company founded around the turn of the 19th century that lasted until the mid 20th century.

“They started out making nautical instruments and expanded to everything you would want on a ship, from sextants to silverware,” Graham said.

“They were on Market Street in Philadelphia, right across the street from the post office started by Benjamin Franklin.”

When the company finally closed, items left in inventory ended up in many museums, including the Smithsonian.

Some of the navigational instruments and catalogs are displayed in her company’s offices, Graham said, and the company logo includes a compass in recognition of its namesake.

The old company was part of the family lore but Graham said she never paid it much mind until she was living and working in Philadelphia.

“I was walking down the street with my mom and she said, ‘This is about where the business was,’ and no sooner had she said that than we came across the bronze plaque on the street marking the place where the store was,” Graham said. “That was something, to see that right there as a landmark.

“I’m proud of that history. I’m proud of what we as a family have done,” Graham said.

And recognizing that they have been blessed with success, Graham said her family makes it a practice to give back in more ways than just the networking help of groups like Circle 200.

She and her brother are both members of the executive committee of Diamond City Partnership.

“It takes a lot of time and a lot of volunteers dedicated to helping to make the city a better place,” she said.

“You know, nothing significant is ever accomplished by one person.” She spreads that dedication and time around, serving on boards with the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts, Leadership Wilkes-Barre, the Commonwealth Medical College, the Chambers of Industry and Commerce, and, of course, Circle 200.

Her life experiences have driven home the value of helping others in all these ways, Graham said.

One of her past jobs was as a liaison between the largest dry cleaning company in the United States and the federal Department of the Environment. The company’s owners were Korean, and Graham learned some Korean while living in Korea during her father’s military days.

“I wasn’t prepared for the level of chauvinism I encountered,” she said, something that probably strengthened her desire to help businesswomen.

Her time traveling as an “Army brat” also gave her a first-hand look at poverty and an understanding of the privilege of living in the United States and shaped her in other ways, like developing a love of travel.

She recently returned from a three-week tour of South Africa that included a two-week safari. “When you’re on safari it’s amazing but it also brings everything to the most basic level, nature at its most basic,” she said.

Graham would like to travel more — living in China to see first-hand the rise of a global economy in a country caught between capitalism and communism ranks high on her list. So does hiking in Patagonia.

Spending time outdoors is relaxing for Graham, who competed in both skiing and golf when she was younger and even went to the state championships as a golfer her senior year at MMI Prep. The ease of participating in those activities is one of the things Graham likes about her Northeastern Pennsylvania hometown. “This is a fantastic area with great natural resources,” she said. “I love to get out and golf.”

The lifestyle she can enjoy here — a combination of working at a family business, making an impact in the community and enjoying the area’s many recreational opportunities — is why she now considers this area her home.

“In Washington, I was on the road all the time so I never had the opportunity to golf or ski. If I played golf twice in a year, it was a great year. You sacrifice some of the quality of life for the career. What I find here is that you don’t have to make the same sacrifices. It’s just a better quality of life here.

“This area also has a great sense of community. When you grow up in the military, you have that sense of community even if you move a lot because people look out for each other. We have that same wonderful sense of community here in this area. I’m very proud of this community,” she said.

Graham hopes others can be inspired to have the same kind of pride in this community.

“Circle 200 is truly a labor of love and it came about because we were so passionate about it,” she said. “I would hope that if anyone is reading this is passionate about something, don’t sit back -- just go and do it. Find someone else who shares your passion and go after it. That’s how we make things better for us all.”

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