Johnnetta B. Cole, who launched her career as an activist and educator at Washington State University in 1964, received the ATHENA International Global Award.

The award⁠—established in 1994 and presented by chambers of commerce, women’s organizations, and universities, recognizes leaders who have achieved professional excellence⁠— work to improve quality of life for community members, and actively assist others, particularly women, in realizing their leadership potential. Past recipients include the late US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Portrait of academic Johnnetta B. Cole
Johnnetta B. Cole (from Facebook)


ATHENA International, founded in 1982, is a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to building a global pipeline of women leaders from the classroom to the boardroom.

“In the spirit of an African proverb that says, ‘It does no harm to be grateful,’ I want to express my profound gratitude for receiving this prestigious ATHENA Global Leadership Award,” Cole said in a news release. “The very best way to demonstrate my gratitude is to continue to carry out the kind of work the ATHENA Award stands for: to do work that is marked by excellence and creativity, to be of service to others, and to help women soar to the height of their potential.”

At WSU, Cole taught anthropology, helped found the Black studies program, and served as the program’s first director. She was named “Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year” in 1970.

In 1987 she became the first Black woman president of Spelman College, the country’s oldest college for Black women. She also served as president of Bennett College.

After retiring from academia, Cole directed the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. She was also the first Black chairperson on the board of United Way of America and has held leadership positions in numerous other boards and organizations.

She currently serves as chairperson and president of the National Council of Negro Women, dean of the Herndon Directors Institute, and member of the Dr. Maya Angelou Foundation.