What do journalism icon Gwen Ifill, Broadway/film star Idina Menzel, and TV legend Betty White have in common? The easy answer: They were all honored April 11th at the 2011 Matrix Awards—presented for outstanding achievements in the field of communication by New York Women in Communications.
Aside from that, though—and their ties to the media—these ladies, and the rest honored, collectively cover a wide swath, career-wise. Their fields of expertise range from public relations to social media to brand management (some are even brands unto themselves). Just look at the titles of this year’s winners (in addition to the ones above): Abbe Raven, president and CEO of A&E Television Networks; Gina Sanders, president and CEO of Fairchild Fashion Group; Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook; Cindi Berger, chairman and CEO of PMK*BNC Public Relations and Marketing; and Robin Koval, president of the Kaplan Thaler Group.
This kind of professional diversity among its Matrix Awards winners is one of the ways not-for-profit group New York Women in Communications (NYWICI) distinguishes itself from organizations that promote the advancement of women in more narrowly defined industries. “Our organization is unique in that we bring together a whole range of women in communications,” says Joan Cear, board president of the NYWICI Foundation.
As for the group’s Matrix Awards, it’s evolved a bit since its 1970 inception (NYWICI was founded in 1929). The name Matrix, a reference to the molds used in original printing presses, was meant to signify the beginning of mass communication. This year, the festivities took on a much more digital flavor, as coverage of the 2011 Matrix Awards ceremony streamed live on the NYWICI site. “With the depth of communication in the world today, you have to be omnipresent,” says Linda Kaplan Thaler, board president of NYWICI.
In other developments, NYWICI has abandoned using Matrix Award category designations to reflect the increasing interplay between marketing, media, and pop culture. “So many communications experts deal in multiple platforms, and categorizing them into one field just isn’t a reality any longer,” says Maria Ungaro, NYWICI executive director.
The Honorees of 2011
One such communications expert is Robin Koval. The co-founder of the Kaplan Thaler Group in 1997 has more than 25 years of advertising experience and a string of successes to her name that include the AFLAC duck (whose pending new TV character voice has created a YouTube sensation), Herbal Essences (“Yes, Yes, Yes!”) and Wendy’s (“You know when it’s real”) campaigns.
“The first thing you do when you receive the Matrix Award is look at all the other women on the dais and go, ‘Wow, how did I get to be on that list?’” says Koval, who—like the rest of this year’s winners—was honored at the Waldorf- Astoria luncheon (the event featured such big name presenters as Arianna Huffington and Rosie O’Donnell). “It’s very gratifying to be a part of this group,” she adds. “It says to a lot of other women that…this kind of success is doable.”
Another agency head honored this year is PMK*BNC’s Cindi Berger. During her 20-plus-year career there, Berger rose from receptionist to assistant to publicist to partner. She’s worked with everyone from Barbara Walters to John Legend to Billy Crystal.
Abbe Raven is another example of someone who managed to work her way up from the bottom. Now running A&E Television Networks, she began her cable TV career answering phones and making copies. Since then, she launched the History Channel and re-launched A&E in 2003. In 2009, she was inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame.
Honoree Gwen Ifill has earned prestige in her field long before picking up her Matrix. A former New York Times White House correspondent—Ifill moved on to TV, first as a panelist for Meet the Press, then, at PBS, as a senior correspondent for The PBS NewsHour and as managing editor of Washington Week (which earned a 2008 Peabody Award).
Idina Menzel, meanwhile, practices her craft on stage and in front of the camera. Famous for her stint in Broadway’s Wicked, Menzel has made a name for herself as an actress and singer. Her performance in Rent earned her a Tony award and a Pulitzer Prize, while her appearances on TV’s Glee brought her a new fan base. Her most recent accomplishment: finishing a sold-out national tour to promote her album I Stand.
Matrix also recognized the technology sector by way of Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO. Leaving government service in 2001—she was Chief of Staff for the U.S. Department of the Treasury—Sandberg realized the increasing power of tech, and opted to take part.
A principal at a more traditional media company, Gina Sanders served as publisher for a number of Condé Nast publications (including Gourmet, Lucky, and Details), before becoming CEO of the Fairchild division, where she oversees titles such as Women’s Wear Daily, Footwear News, and Fairchild Books.
Finally, there’s Matrix winner Betty White—the personification of stamina. Beginning her career as a radio writer, producer and performer in the 1940s, White went on to become the backbone of several hit TV series, including The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Golden Girls, and the current show, Hot in Cleveland. And last May, at age 88, White wound up as Saturday Night Live’s oldest host.
Funding Future Members
The Matrix Awards represent the culmination of a year’s worth of fundraising efforts at NYWICI. But the organization also fosters opportunities for professional development created by its philanthropic arm, the NYWICI Foundation. In addition to mentoring and networking support, the Foundation provides annual scholarships to high school seniors and college students.
“If you’re a student in journalism, advertising or public relations,” notes NYWICI Foundation’s Joan Cear, “you don’t have all the answers and you want the ability to learn and to explore.”
From 2010 through 2011 thus far, the Foundation awarded 18 scholarships totaling over $100,000. “Everything we do is meant to support women who are either entering the field of communications or perhaps changing their careers,” notes Cear. In fact, the organization offers a big career guidance conference in November and a number of smaller programs throughout the year.
Plus, NYWICI conducts behind-the-scenes tours at media companies, panel discussions and a career roundtable where students get to talk about their aspirations.
If all this sounds like serious business, it can be. Still, there’s a fun side to this group of women too.
In congratulating her peers on their Matrix awards, Kaplan Thaler demonstrated that even the most successful women can have certain concerns. “I want to say how thrilled I am for all the winners that they are being recognized for the extraordinary work that they do,” Kaplan Thaler said. “And how grateful I am that the luncheon happened on a good hair day.”