By Sophia A. Niarchos
Oyster Bay, N.Y. – When the Women’s Economic Round Table presents its Rolfe Award to, among others, Senator Paul Sarbanes this November 3, he will not be the first Greek-American to hold a place of honor in the organization’s annals. According to Dr. Amelia Augustus, the president and a co-founder of WERT and a Greek-American herself (“my Greek name is Amalia Augoustatou”), the history of this group and its Greek roots can practically be traced as far back as World War II.
WERT, an organization that seeks to educate women about financial and economic topics, and to provide visibility to women of achievement in these areas, is the brainchild of Maria Rolfe. Born in Egypt of Greek heritage, Mrs. Rolfe grew up in England, and during World War II worked with her uncle in the shipping business.
“Early in my relationship with Mrs. Rolfe and WERT,” Dr. Augustus says, “my mother asked me to ask Mrs. Rolfe what her maiden name was. When I told her it was Vernikos, she said that she knew both her mother and her son during the war when they worked together on Greek War Relief in the U.S.”
It wasn’t until another thirty-plus years had passed that the two daughters of these activist women (they were also among the founders of Philoptochos and helped to establish St. Basil’s Academy) would take on activist roles of their own in the founding of WERT.
After the war, upon her uncle’s death, Mrs. Rolfe and her first husband, John Carras, took over the business that included investments and financing. She came to the U.S. in the 1960s, where she met and later married Sidney E. Rolfe, a University of Chicago graduate with a Ph.D. in economics (he was a disciple of Milton Friedman), a professor at Long Island University, and author of books about economics. The couple had many gatherings in their Manhattan apartment featuring such notable guests as Paul Volcker and Alan Greenspan, but while Mrs. Rolfe would make a point of inviting young people to these events, she noted the absence of women in financial circles.
When her husband died in 1976, despite many offers by institutions to set up a wide variety of memorials to him, Mrs. Rolfe, after consulting with a group of about sixty prominent women, decided she wanted to create an organization dedicated to helping women play a greater role in the economic affairs of this country. It would seek to provide a forum to educate men and women and inform policymakers on global economics, business and finance, primarily through the efforts of women in positions of authority in those areas.
“The group was not interested in the women’s movement because it wasn’t addressing the issues of business and finance and it didn’t want to duplicate any of their programs,” said Dr. Augustus. “Mrs. Rolfe was instead very interested in having the women contribute to the country rather than complaining about what they hadn’t gotten from it.”
Mrs. Rolfe solicited the assistance of Dr. Augustus, with whom she had become familiar because of Dr. Augustus’ work with the United Nations and Amnesty International.
“As the UN representative for Amnesty International,” Dr. Augustus notes, “I had submitted AI’s grievance against the junta in Greece.”
With the assistance of then-U.S. Representative John Brademas, who also helped to establish the organization, WERT held its first program in January 1979 with Nancy Teeters, first woman governor of the Federal Reserve System, as speaker. It drew national and international media coverage, and helped launch the organization.
Another Greek-American, the Hon. Peter Petersen, Chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of N.Y., chairman of the Council of Foreign Relations, and chairman and co-chair of the Conference Board Commission on Public Trust and Private Enterprise, has been a staunch supporter of the organization and participated in its roundtable discussion on corporate governance last fall.
WERT holds bimonthly roundtable discussions on timely economic issues, which are open to the public. At these events, well-known speakers give a ten-minute presentation, and are first questioned by a panel of women experts before taking questions from the audience.
“The idea is not to provide increased visibility to the speakers, which include men and women; rather, it is to provide people with the opportunity to learn from them,” Dr. Augustus says.
Adding to the educational impact of the bimonthly roundtables, summaries of past programs are available on the WERT web site: www.wert.org.
Ten years after its founding, in 1988, WERT inaugurated the Maria and Sidney E. Rolfe Awards to honor distinguished individuals for their contributions affecting national and global economic policy and in educating the public about economics, business and finance. It is this award that Senator Sarbanes and Representative Oxley will receive for their sponsorship of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act for corporate accountability.
“Their work is significant because it has had a major impact on accounting. It has changed all the accounting rules. When the CEOs of the various companies were brought to testify in the cases of Enron and WorldCom, they said ‘we didn’t know; we hired accountants.’
“Now [as a result of Sarbanes-Oxley], CEOs must sign that they are aware of everything in the accountant’s report.”
Dr. Augustus is somewhat concerned about the consequences of WERT’s choices for the Rolfe Awards (the women journalists who were the whistleblowers on Enron and WorldCom and Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year 2002 will also receive a Rolfe Award).
“I’m worried we’ll only have [a few] people attending,” she says, noting that WERT is still looking for a host or underwriter for the event. “Some people are angry about the choices. But I believe when people are deserving, they should be recognized no matter the consequences; we should be ready to challenge conventional wisdom and do the right thing.
“If I did everything I was supposed to, I’d still be in Philadelphia acting like a Quaker lady,” she adds.
The organization also gives $20,000 Journalism Prizes for Lifetime Achievement by Women in Financial Journalism as well as entrepreneurship journalism grants to writers writing about small business enterprise.
Other Greek-Americans involved with WERT include Orestes Varvitsiotis, who has provided financial support, helped to enlist members and solicited donations from the maritime industry; and members Dr. Julia Alissandratos, Sr. Portfolio Analyst-Retirement Fund, Senior Securities Analyst, TIAA/CREF; Linda G. Kyriakou, Vice President, Sequa Corp. and Prof. Miranda Kyriakides, University Chair, Pattern Technology Dept., Fashion Institute of Technology.
WERT members, many of whom are CEOs and CFOs, hail from a broad spectrum of fields including retailing, fashion, academics, government and foundations in addition to financial organizations.
Asked what she thought the most common mistake women make when it comes to their own economic situation, Dr. Augustus said: “They do not budget and they don’t pay themselves. You should pay yourself first, and then put something in the bank for yourself. They also don’t take advantage of the IRA. Women should also be more hands on with their own finances.”