Social work roots shaped entrepreneurial success for CHHS Honor Alumna Melissa Pappas ’85

Melissa Pappas stands outside in a photo with graphics about the 2022 Distinguished Alumni Awards

Celebrating her outstanding impact on social welfare policy and workforce development, and her engagement as an active leader and donor to the College of Health and Human Sciences, the Colorado State University Alumni Association named Melissa Pappas (social work, ’85) the CHHS Honor Alumna for 2022.  Pappas returned to campus for the Distinguished Alumni Awards during the university’s Homecoming and Family Weekend festivities October 13-15. “We are grateful to Melissa for her leadership and generosity,” Dean Lise Youngblade said. “We are so proud to celebrate her as the CHHS Honor Alumna.”

Melissa Pappas and CSU System Chancellor Tony Frank at a sporting event
Pappas and CSU System Chancellor Tony Frank cheer on the Rams

Pappas came to CSU as a first-generation student from outside Chicago and leveraged her CSU education and experiences into a rewarding career that improves lives across the country. Her award-winning business, ATHENA Consulting, specializes in recruiting health, human service, and behavioral health professionals for temp-to-hire, full-time, and part-time roles throughout the United States. Employing thousands of professional social workers on the front lines of safety-net services, Pappas is having a profound impact.

Shaping the place that shaped her

As ATHENA blossomed, Pappas looked for ways to reconnect with her alma mater. She got involved with the College of Health and Human Sciences Executive Leadership Council as a volunteer. “Melissa has been an energetic and inspiring leader on our council,” said Youngblade. “Her entrepreneurial acumen and heart for student success are at the core of her servant leadership, keeping us focused on key goals and strategies. Her CSU spirit and Ram Pride ensure our work together is engaging and purposeful.”

Three women wearing green at a student dining hall
Pappas enjoys meeting CSU students every time she visits campus.

Pappas knew she wanted to help not just the college, but individual students as well. In honor of her parents’ support of her education, she created the James and Katherine Pappas Scholarship in Social Work, which supports first-generation students. She has met every recipient. “Their stories have been so moving,” she says. “I love learning all the things they want to do.”

As a parent, she also knows what it’s like to send her children off to college. Two of her three sons are alumni, and the third has CSU on his shortlist. Applying her community organizing lessons from social work, she is nurturing a growing community of mutual support for Rams: She recently hosted a gathering in her Maryland home near Chesapeake Bay for new students and their parents to meet CSU alumni in her local area.

Route to success via CSU

“I was so happy, so energized,” Pappas said about coming to campus, having dreamed of living in the west during summer vacations to the Rocky Mountains. Although neither of her parents had a bachelor’s degree, during her childhood, they prioritized college for Pappas and her brother. Coming from the gray skies of the Midwest, she flourished in the Colorado sunshine. She built community quickly, engaged in classes and clubs, and spent her days on campus in the Morgan Library, Eddy Building, and the Lory Student Center.

A snapshot of a young woman in the 1980s with event posters behind her
Pappas as a CSU student.

Social work was her major from the start. During high school in her working-class neighborhood, where most of her peers didn’t have the opportunity to pursue higher education, Pappas observed the injustices of income disparity, and the unintended consequences some public assistance programs and policies could have on families. “I thought that was wrong, and I wanted a major that would help me work on welfare policy,” she explained. The values and practices her studies reinforced have driven her career ever since.

Community organizing for policy change

An influential mentor was Bruce Hall, now retired from his 35-year career in the School of Social Work, who taught a community organizing class. “We had to take on an initiative and make a change,” she explained. Building on her minor in women’s studies, she found a tricky issue at the intersection of culture and policy: she wanted to stop an annual fundraising event put on by a residence hall. “They would rent out the movie theater and sell tickets to three showings of a pornographic film,” she explained. “Every showing sold out every year.”

Pappas was concerned about the exploitative nature of the films and the implicit message to students on campus that female subjugation was not only tolerated but celebrated in this event. She ran into institutional policy issues aligned with constitutional free speech rights that the U.S. Supreme Court had reviewed in recent cases.

A snapshot of a young woman in blue looking over her right shoulder at the camera
Pappas honed her confidence and passion at CSU.

Pappas approached the dean of students, who didn’t want to speak with her about it. She went back to Hall saying she needed a new initiative. Hall explained that community organizing doesn’t begin or end with one conversation with one person in a position of power. He drove her to action that would attract the dean of students’ attention. “He said, ‘make him call you,’” Pappas remembered.

She returned to the initiative by activating her network. She mobilized peers to write letters to the editor of the student newspaper. She organized events with sororities. She addressed the student council, immersed herself in university policy, and planned a rally at the screening of the film – notifying the media, including the Denver Post, and Rocky Mountain News, of the photo opportunity.

A black and white newspaper photo of group of people standing outside with signs protesting a pornographic film.
Pappas and fellow students protested the film screening and advocated for policy changes.

Media coverage before the screening impacted ticket sales. “Students didn’t want to be photographed attending a pornographic film that ended up in the newspaper that their parents would see,” Pappas explained.

Her efforts caught the eye not only of media outlets and students but also of her initial target: “The dean of students called me,” she recalled with pride. The conversation led to the creation of a task force to review and revise policy regarding the use of campus facilities for private events.

Small changes with national impact

Parents with their two adult children, a man and a woman in a gold graduation gown, holding a diploma
Pappas, right, at her CSU graduation with her parents and brother.

After graduating, Pappas found work in the District Attorney’s office in Grand Lake, Colorado, supporting victims of domestic violence. The experience solidified her social work ambitions, and she quickly applied to the University of Chicago in pursuit of her master’s degree in social service administration, with an emphasis on social welfare policy.

MSW in hand, Pappas moved to the hub of policy work: Washington, D.C. She scheduled informational interviews with alumni working in the area. “I was amazed by the opportunities,” she recalls.

She quickly found work with the American Public Welfare Organization. “It was my dream job. I went to meetings in the capital, with senate and house staffers and committees. Even small changes had nationwide impact. It didn’t pay a ton, but that didn’t matter. I loved the work, and I worked hard on interesting issues.”

On the downside, the role had little opportunity for advancement. “It was a great steppingstone,” Pappas explained. After two years, she got married and left D.C., having cultivated a strong network, a deep understanding of social welfare policy, and a reputation for action and results.

Expertise leads to consulting

A call from a headhunter resulted in an interview with the CEO of Maximus, a consulting firm that worked with state welfare agencies. She spent the next eight years working with her mentor and ascending to greater responsibility through her hard work. “I was in my zone, aligned perfectly with what they needed,” she said.

When the business shifted from private to public with an IPO, “The priority changed from quality to profit,” she noted with disappointment. Within one year, her mentor had been pushed out, and Pappas was concerned she would be next. “I had two babies, and needed to figure something out,” she remembered.

A niche fills many needs

That’s when she founded ATHENA Consulting. The name is inspired by her heritage: her parents were both first-generation Greek Americans, whose parents had emigrated to the U.S. in the early 20th century.

“My motto was that I would take any client who would allow me to work from home,” she recalled. Every day, she dressed for work, entrusted her children with a babysitter, and commuted to her basement office where she worked from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. After work, she would put on her “mom” hat and juggle snacks, homework, and dinner while answering emails from her laptop on the kitchen counter.

Thanks to her social work education and experience, she understood systems. She knew how to navigate state, county, and city services, and the roles of contractors who provided key government services. Her first big win was a contract to redesign publicly funded childcare systems. She quickly found herself managing people, payroll, and benefits, finding her niche in staffing human service workers for a variety of state and local entities.

Over the next eight years, she built her business with support from mentors and a group of entrepreneur friends. In 2012 she bid on a large contract for 50 social workers for five years. She pitched ATHENA as a personal connection, where the client would always have access to her – not the twelve staffers below her. Her lean overhead, vast network, and specialized expertise won the contract.

Leverage for growth

“In my head, the clock started ticking,” Pappas reflected. “I knew I had five years to leverage this contract into other big contracts. I worked night and day to find other contracts and to build the business.”

Athena doubled, then quadrupled in size and scope. In 2018, she enrolled in an entrepreneurial master’s program at MIT, which she credits for helping her make impactful changes to herself and her business. In 2019, she hired a business development manager, freeing herself to focus on strategy.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, governments from all over called Pappas asking for help to address staffing shortages in social services. Like in her days organizing on campus, her work secured the attention of decision-makers – she made them call ATHENA by proving the business could meet their needs.

Values drive success

At the heart of ATHENA Consulting’s success are two core values: “We want to make our clients’ lives easier. And we want to make our employees’ lives better,” Pappas said. “Many of Athena’s employees are in public-facing roles, such as in motor vehicle, tax, and public benefit offices.” These offices can be sites where individuals enter with anxiety about their situations. “We know that happy employees provide great service, so we treat our employees well,” Pappas said.

As a leader, Pappas also reaches back to her social work roots. “I try to spend more time listening than talking,” she said. This helps her slow her decision-making, taking in context and allowing time for her values to direct next steps.

A student wearing a CSU polo shirt with his mother
Melissa and her son, Garrett Beloff ’22

And, she has clarity about what is most important to her: relationships. “My number one passion is my three children,” she said. “They make me laugh every single day.” Pappas maintains a strong peer network of friends that has flourished over 25 years, through every stage of life: her single years, marriage, children, business ups and downs, divorce, and new love. “I could not have imagined a teenage heartthrob feeling at age 55, but my partner is the unexpected joy of my life,” she said.

Advice for Rams

When asked what advice she might give if she could whisper in the ear of her freshman self – or perhaps the newest Rams she met at her recent send-off party – Pappas exudes her characteristic focus on things within her control. “Don’t worry so much about how things are going to turn out,” she offered. “Work hard and pay attention. You can’t control everything, but you can keep your knees bent, so you are ready to pivot when life throws you roadblocks.”

Pappas took her advice a step further when she provided a virtual keynote presentation during the Leadership in Social Work Speaker Series, an event during CSU’s 2022 Social Work Month.

Whether she is sharing advice with students, supporting student success through scholarships, influencing College priorities on the Executive Leadership Council, or hosting events to connect students and alumni close to home, Pappas embodies her Ram Pride in meaningful ways, bringing honor to herself and CSU.

The School of Social Work is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.