|Debora Spar addressing invitees at the awards ceremony|
On the red carpet, Rosie O'Donnell shared her walk with heart disease and story of surviving a heart attack, after her HBO documentary, Rosie O'Donnell: A Heart Felt Standup premiered in front of a live audience.
"When they tell you that they don't know why you lived, that you really shouldn't be here - it's very jarring," said O'Donnell. No matter how rapid the pace of New York City living can get, the comedian urged how important it is for women to slow down, take preventative measures and take their personal health seriously.
Gina Prince-Bythewood also shared on the red carpet what a momentous occasion it was to be honored with other women with whom she respects tremendously. She discussed the challenges of having her films backed in Hollywood, that in many respects it can operate as cookie-cutter industry with not as much attention given to ethnic diversity or the stories of strong female characters.
"We are deeply committed to creating cultural conversations about women and leadership," said Kathryn Kolbert, Constance Hess Williams Director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies and co-founder of the festival.
Foster, who's stages of life unfolded on screen, always felt surrounded by males aside from the usual make-up artist and or actress selected to play her mother in roles.
"There I was, a young girl wanting to be director," she said. "And never seeing a female director's face, I thought it was something I couldn’t do, that I'd never be allowed to do."
With time the amount of female faces on set, from crew members to executives, began to increase. Her hope was in that change she experienced over the recent years, and with the next generation to come.
“The most wonderful thing to come here is to see all these exciting, interesting, talented women,” said Foster.
Producer of Love and Basketball, the Secret Life of Bees and currently playing Beyond the Lights, Prince-Bythewood accepted her award from longtime fellow friend in film and mentor Susan Fales-Hill.
Hill recounted Prince-Bythewood's beginnings as an apprentice then writer on television show A Different World and connected that to how her career has greatly blossomed before her eyes.
"I really feel that thing of overcoming has really sustained my career," said Prince-Bythewood, who went from changing her acceptance into UCLA's film school to now producing works that is widely-recieved.
"An now being in the position that I’m in and being a filmmaker, it is a tremendous gift and it is a tremendous fight as well," she said. "I am not discriminated against, but I’m discriminated against for my choices of focusing on stories of women and women in color."
"Two things you think of as a filmmaker: Am I proud of the film? and Are the people who have seen it moved by it?," Prince-Bythewood said.
Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, was presented her award by Rosie O’Donnell and referred to her mother as an inspiration for all the narratives she's worked to share.
Due to a rare disease that claimed her mother's arm below the elbow, she mentioned that she would typically tie the end of her sleeve. While the two were at lunch, an onlooking woman at expressed disgust at the sight of her mother’s arm, stating that she was trying to eat.
“Well, it was really a turning point,” said Nevins. “Because I realized I was going to tell stories about people who wanted to pull up their sleeve, no matter what was underneath.”
"I’ve been in this business for a long time, and long enough to really intimately understand that longevity is special and deserves kudos," said Chase. "When you combine longevity with someone whose really pushed boundaries, whose had a voice, whose taken risks, whose fought really hard to get great movies done - that is someone who deserves much respect."
During her career Schulman, credited men and women who she's learned valuable lessons from about film, ambition and overcoming obstacles. Through embracing problems and difficulty, she learned to focus her drive, build strength and gain perspective moving forward.
Female participation in media was described as vital to her as any other cause because of women being in apart of a population that decides on all matters relating to education, government, politics and society. Her goals continuously remain focused on supporting the progress of women and their careers in media.
"I guess what I've learned is there aren't so many people that you can look up to to say 'show me the way,'" said Schulman. "But sometimes you have to pave the way.
|Susan Fales-Hill (l) and Gina Prince-Bythewood|
|Kathryn Kolbert, director of the Athena Center and co-founder|
|Melissa Silverstein (l), Deborah Spar, Dylan McDermott and Kathryn Kolbert|
|Debora Spar, Barnard president|
|Debra Martin Chase presenting award to Cathy Schulman.|
|Cathy Schulman speaks on film and motivation|
|Kathryn Kolbert, co-founder of the festival|
|Melissa Silverstein with the winners of the 2015 Athena List|
|Sheila Nevins accepting her award presented by Rosie O'Donnell|