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Each year, Gambit Weekly seeks to honor those individuals among us who are working to make the communities of metro New Orleans better places to live. As in past years, the 40 men and women honored in 2004 come from diverse backgrounds and offer diverse talents. From entrepreneurs to physicians, from writers and artists to community activists and organizers, from the Northshore to the West Bank and everything in between, the members of this year's class are living proof that life begins long before 40. The only thing more remarkable than what they each already have accomplished is the promise of what great things are still to come.

Terrance Osborne, 30
Artist and Teacher, Alice M. Harte School
Terrance Osborne is taking his art to new dimensions -- literally. The artist, whose work has been seen on MTV's Real World, on the official state certificate for the Louisiana Lieutenant Governor's office, on then-mayoral candidate Ray Nagin's campaign posters, and in giant murals at the Louis Armstrong International Airport and on the Hilton Riverside Hotel, is finishing up a new commission, the Jefferson Parish General Government Building. There, he is using a new approach: a three-dimensional mural combining wood sculpture and paint. "I haven't seen that before," Osborne says, explaining the process of cutting out shapes in plywood with a jigsaw and placing them on the surface of the building before painting them. "That's where my art's going; I'm getting more into sculpture." Osborne, an art teacher at Alice M. Harte School, honed his skills for several years as a gallery employee and apprentice of the painter Richard Thomas. Through Thomas, he got his first commission, painting a substantial portion of the airport mural. "Just to step down and see the mural of that magnitude that I worked on was just mind-blowing to me," he recalls. It was Osborne's wife and business partner, Stephanie, who first suggested the idea of creating an artwork of even bigger proportions, on the side of the Hilton. She pitched a proposal to hotel executives, who were impressed by the idea. It took Osborne five weeks to complete "Hilton Sunset," the 105-foot-by-41-foot mural. Today, Osborne continues to sell his artwork through his Web site, www.galleryosborne.com, and to accept commissions from all over the state. He also continues to inspire his students. "I've just encouraged them to keep working and they'll eventually get what they're after," Osborne says. "I try to eliminate the idea that artists aren't successful."

Karen Swensen, 35
Reporter and Anchor, WWL-TV
As usual, Karen Swensen is pulling a juggling act, but in the past few months it hasn't always involved just news reports and deadlines. Today, she succumbs to a phone interview -- admitting it's weird to be the one answering questions, not asking them -- as she struggles to secure her 1-year-old daughter Catherine in a chair. "I thought life was hectic before she came along!" Swensen laughs. "Then I realized I had no appreciation for the true meaning of the word." The demands of long-awaited motherhood haven't sidelined Swensen as one of New Orleans' most popular TV anchors and reporters. She recently won her second prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award, this time in the Writing category, for a package of three writing samples; she first won the award for investigative reporting in 2002, after she uncovered an abnormally high number of people in Morgan City suffering from autoimmune disorders, most likely linked to nearby industrial pollution. This year, Swensen also won the New Orleans Press Club's "Best in Show" honor, the Jim Metcalf Memorial Award for best television writing. "My passion is writing," she says. "At Channel Four, we report as well as anchor, so we write all our own stories." It's in Swensen's nature to stay connected with the subjects of some of her reports long after they've aired: One, foster parent extraordinaire Eloise Burt, has become "like my second mother." The type of story Swensen seeks out is "about inspirations -- people in the community who are living these incredible lives, and you may not realize they're your neighbor," she says. "It's just a joy to be able to tell their stories." Even so, the best career accolades take a back seat to her new role in life. "To be able to have a child was the greatest gift," Swensen says. "It defines your life -- there's a new identity. All I ever want to be is Catherine's mom."

George Messina, 38
Owner, Messina's Inc.
As a third generation restaurateur, George Messina knows first-hand the long hours and back-breaking labor involved with restaurant work. When his grandfather, George, and father, Andrew, first opened Messina's on Williams Boulevard in Kenner in 1961, "I was always around the restaurant," he says. "I was working as soon as I could walk. I was a 12-year-old bussing tables. I fell in love with it." Following that work ethic and passion that's required of any successful restaurateur, Messina has built the family business into a multi-dimensional food service company with expansive operations all across the metro area. Messina's Inc. now includes restaurants, catering and concessions management in some of the top local facilities. Messina's touch can be found on the private plane of the New Orleans Hornets, at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner, Tulane basketball and baseball games, Rivertown Repertory Theater, and Zephyr Field, just to name a few. In addition to his namesake restaurant, Messina recently went into business with friend Scott Korndorffer and transformed the Jazz Seafood and Steakhouse in Kenner. Like Messina's, Jazz Seafood and Steakhouse now stands as a favorite Kenner dining spot. "The challenge has always been to grow just a little bit at a time, a grassroots kind of thing," Messina says. "The goal was to bring in quality managers to run the thing. That's what's good about contract work, you grow your business with time, and you don't have to invest a huge amount of money at once, like if you buy property. It grows internally." Messina's Inc. has grown to include 75 full-time employees, with Messina estimating that in the busy season, he will employ as many as 200 on a given weekend. "That's the thing about restaurants and catering," he says, "if you're doing a good job, it'll grow and grow and continue going."

D. Ryan Gray, 31
Archaeologist, Earth Search
Whenever he digs down to soil from the early 19th century, archaeologist D. Ryan Gray sees this city's diverse history. He finds pieces of French faience -- a French-manufactured ceramic -- along with ceramics made in Spain and England and pieces of Native American pots. "It's an amazing thing to actually see that coming out of the ground, all of the different cultures that made New Orleans what it is today," says Gray, a field archeologist with Earth Search Inc. Often the historical record describes the lives of famous and well-off people, but not everyday working folk. So Gray goes digging, looking for what those people left behind -- their trash, often dumped into their outhouse. "Everyone produces garbage," says Gray. "It's the great equalizer." He and his Earth Search colleagues have learned much in their digs at St. Thomas and Iberville housing projects, the latter the former site of the Storyville District. "We learn what people ate, what sort of medicines they used, what was important to them," he says. Gray's career path was decided early on, after his kindergarten class took a field trip to an Indian mound near his hometown of Grabelly Springs in northern Alabama. In New Orleans, his particular interest is the archeology of African-American dock workers and laborers. Earth Search allows him to use company equipment to follow that interest. Recently, when the historic jazz buildings at Rampart and Common streets were demolished, Gray tried, to no avail, to get permission to look at the site's history through its soil. That convinced him that he needs to do more to educate the public about the value of archeology in this historic city. "People don't even think about what lies beneath their back yard," he says.

Dix deLaneuville, 37
Val McKay, 34
Margaret Coble, 37
Co-founders, Girl Gang Productions
With Margaret Coble working the media, Val McKay working the sound and updating the Web site (www.girlgangproductions.com) and Dix deLaneuville working the stage, Girl Gang Productions has its bases covered. These three women picked up where Georgie Friedman and her She Loves Me/Loves Me Not production company left off when the latter took off for New York City, leaving behind a lesbian community dying for an active social life and venues in which to enjoy it. Girl Gang has rushed in to fill that void, making the queer social scene not only active but activist. "It's mixing my two worlds," says deLaneuville, a poet and performance artist who helps announce shows and handles the artists during Girl Gang events. "Most of the people we get to work with are activists, and I find it energizing." During their two-year run, Girl Gang has played host to some of the more popular "dyke rock" bands in the nation including the Dolly Ranchers, the Butchies, and Bitch and Animal, who keep returning thanks to solid crowds at the Hi-Ho Lounge (Girl Gang's home base) and the women's hospitality. "These are small shows," says McKay, who by day works at Peter Mayer Advertising. "We don't want to just give them enough money for the van. If we get five bucks to cover our bar tab at the end of the night, that's fine with me. It helps me to sustain my commitment to activism. There's a lot of criticism of the New Orleans activist community, that it's fickle, it's fractured. I just feel totally psyched about moving forward." A career journalist and part-time DJ, Coble has served as music editor for Girlfriends magazine, writes a nationally syndicated column on queer music and contributes to publications as large as The Advocate. Coble and the others take great pride in making Girl Gang an avocation more than a vocation, with profit being an afterthought. But they get excited when, at events like their two-year anniversary party in July at the Hi-Ho (cover charge, $2), bands such as Tragic Girls End Up Like This played to a crowd of 200 delighted fans. "We were so surprised by the turnout, and how excited everyone was that we were doing this," recalls Coble, who along with the others attends the annual Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. While there, they hear the same thing over and over: There's not much for the lesbian community. "Georgie says it's worse in New York because it's harder to organize things. Here, when we have a Girl Gang event, we know everyone will show because there's nothing else for them to do." It's catching on, for as July's event showed, fans straight and gay love what Girl Gang does. Potential future plans include a possible 'zine and a queer-friendly musical festival, but more concrete is a benefit on Dec. 10 for the Rock-n-Roll Camp for Girls in the Pacific Northwest. But the Gang wants to keep the events low to the ground and not get too big for the three of them. "Because bigger isn't always better," McKay points out. "We want to keep it as we like it, and we don't want to have to compromise. And just the nature of who we serve, they're not bigger bands. We don't want to forget that."

Brad Grundmeyer, 36
Manager of Public Affairs, Cox Communications

Brad Grundmeyer's job title as manager of public affairs merely scratches the surface of his extensive efforts in the community. Heavily involved in area education and volunteer efforts, Grundmeyer has perhaps the greatest impact with Louisiana Cares, a nonprofit with increasingly diverse beneficiaries that initially formed as a response to 9/11. "Strange things happen to people in those moments," Grundmeyer recalls of Sept. 12, 2001, when he was driving to work and inspiration struck at the intersection of Clearview Parkway and Earhart Expressway. Louisiana Cares initially raised more than $500,000 for disaster relief efforts after 9/11. Grundmeyer delivered a symbolic check to Ground Zero, where he then readily agreed to volunteer for an extended period, something he now reflects on as a "life-changing experience." Louisiana Cares has since annually raised money to assist families of local firefighters through the sale of Memory Bells -- to be rung every Sept. 11 -- and has grown to help Louisiana hurricane victims and local military families with loved ones serving overseas. Also, Grundmeyer works with the volunteer-outreach group Each One Save One and is the chairman of Jefferson Dollars for Scholars, a lauded grassroots college scholarship campaign. Grundmeyer says friends always joke to him that he has "two jobs": his career with Cox, where the New Orleans native has worked since graduating from Loyola University, and his public service. But add to that his attending the University of New Orleans for his MBA and roles as husband and father to daughter McKenzie and 3-month-old son, Aidan. Grundmeyer, however, brushes off any worries about his hectic schedule, saying, "If your heart is in the right place, then nothing else really matters."

James Perry, 29
Executive Director, Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center

James Perry's first job was here in his hometown, at Operation Comeback in Central City, where he still teaches first-time homebuyer classes on Saturday. But last year, he became one of the youngest fair-housing directors in the region, when he became head of the Gulf Coast Fair Housing Center, which covers the southern five counties of Mississippi. "At first," he says, "everyone told me, 'We don't have a problem with discrimination.'" Perry set out to test that assumption. Under the federal Fair Housing Act, discrimination in housing is prohibited on the basis or race, color, religion, national origin, gender, disability or familial status -- whether or not the family has children. So he set up a study, using a standard method that pairs teams of white and black "testers" and pairs teams of testers with kids with a tester with no children. The results made headlines. "We found that African Americans were discriminated against in 61 percent of transactions; families with children were discriminated against 59 percent of the time," he says. Then people began calling and saying, "That's what happened to me." So far this year, Perry's office has filed 14 suits. (In 2003, advocates had filed only four housing-discrimination suits in the entire state of Mississippi.) Perry grew up hearing stories about the civil-rights struggle from his father, who played piano once for the Rev. Martin Luther King, and from his mother, who told stories about a childhood lived under Jim Crow laws. Those stories motivate him to ensure that everyone has equal access to the American dream -- a place to call home. "Where you live determines what school you go to, who your friends are, how much crime is in your neighborhood," he says. "It's a fundamental right."

Matthew Wisdom, 32
Co-founder and Chief Technical Officer, Turbo Squid
"Nobody wanted us to run a Super Bowl commercial; we were a second-generation Internet company with a real business model and plan," Matthew Wisdom says. The co-founder and chief technical officer of Turbo Squid says the company has succeeded where so many Internet technology companies before it failed because "we ran it like a normal business." (And, incidentally, didn't purchase that Super Bowl spot.) Turbo Squid is a Web site that serves as a marketplace for selling 3D models and software, with customers ranging from the U.S. Marine Corps to Time and Pixar, the company that made Toy Story and, more recently, The Incredibles. The site started in 2000 when Wisdom and his partners hustled to get a beta version ready for SIGGRAPH, a major computer technology conference located that year in New Orleans. They not only met their deadline but generated so much excitement that, despite the number of Internet ventures crashing, companies like Kodak, Intel and Advantage Capital invested $5 million in the company. "There's a point when we said we had to grow the company 20,000 percent to break even," he laughs, "and we've hit that point." Wisdom, a Brown University graduate, has also been instrumental in revitalizing the New Orleans Video Access Center (NOVAC). The economic downturn in recent years seriously hurt funding for NOVAC, which was forced to cut back services. He came on as a member of the board of directors in 2001 and was asked to be president. "That was a lot more responsibility than I expected," he says. Wisdom has had to make hard choices -- selling the building, laying off staff to clear debt -- but with new partnerships and reendowed grants, the organization is once again strong and focused. "We're looking at a different curriculum for people who want to work in the (film) industry," he says. "New Orleans has always been long on creativity, but we haven't had the infrastructure to profit on that creativity."

Ashley Murchison, 28
Program Manager, Tulane Xavier National Center of Excellence in Women's Health

Ashley Murchison knew she wanted to be a catalyst for positive change. Early on, however, she realized it would not be through using her bachelor of arts degree in religion and comparative area studies from Duke University. And she soon figured out that law wasn't the right vehicle for her either. "Like every other recent college grad, I wanted to change the world," she says. "But at graduation, law school just didn't feel like the right path for me. I wanted something with more creativity, something a little different than the legal, medical, investment, consultant paths of the masses." A singer/songwriter who played in a college band, Murchison continued to perform music but knew it wouldn't help her make a meaningful impact on people's lives. She found the inspiration for her career at Research Triangle Institute International in North Carolina, where she worked as a health and social policy analyst in the mental and behavioral health division. At 24, she got a job as program manager at Tulane Xavier National Center of Excellence in Women's Health (TUXCOE). In just four years, Murchison has helped to nearly triple the center's staff and its number of programs and has secured more than $8 million in funding. She also has completed a master of public health degree and has begun a doctoral program. "I've always been interested in being an advocate for the underdog," says Murchison, who also serves as a program coordinator for Girls First, a nonprofit sports and health camp for at-risk girls. "My TUXCOE experience has further refined what I had already known to be my personal mission of improving the status of women." Murchison hasn't totally given up on music. She has recorded a demo of her music at a Los Angeles studio, although she admits music as a job is on a back burner. "I would love to return to [my rock 'n' roll dream] one day."

Michelle Gibson, 29
Instructor of Dance, New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts

"This is more than about just dancing; this is about making a living." Michelle Gibson is a choreographer, dancer and teacher at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA), the school she once attended herself. She works to help her students understand not just dance, but making a living as a dancer, telling them the hard truth sometimes. "I try to be a mentor for them," she says. The Tulane University graduate knew she wanted to dance at an early age. "Every time I heard music in church, I couldn't keep still," Gibson says. "When I heard music in church, out of church, I had to move." Her love and gift for dance led her mother to end her piano lessons and put her in dance school. Gibson also serves as the director of Exhibit Dance Collective, artist-in-residence at the Ashé Cultural Arts Center and an instructor for the New Orleans Ballet Association. She studied at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center in the mid-1990s, and during that time, she saw a performance by choreographer Ronald K. Brown's Evidence and says it was revelatory. "All I had was ballet, jazz and tap," she says, but Brown's company used those techniques as well as African and hip-hop techniques. That style struck a chord with Gibson, who now employs it and refers to it as "fusion." "I'm able to connect with my technique and with my African ancestors," she explains. "After seeing his company, I knew this could work." Gibson is one of the featured dancers in the movie Ray, shot here in New Orleans, and is onscreen during the performances of "What'd I Say" and "Mess Around." "The energy was amazing," she says. Once when director Taylor Hackford yelled "cut," Gibson recalls, "Jamie Foxx kept playing and people kept dancing." She's not necessarily easy to spot in the film, though: "I had hair in the movie; I'm bald now."

Sander Florman, 37
Director of Liver Transplant, Tulane Center for Abdominal Transplant

Few people have the opportunity to make a positive impact on people's lives on a daily basis. Even fewer have the ability to save lives as part of their chosen profession. Transplant researcher and surgeon Dr. Sander Florman, director of liver transplant at the Tulane Center for Abdominal Transplant and assistant professor of surgery at Tulane, does both. Not only has he contributed to books that help other doctors hone their skills in transplantation -- including a chapter for The American College of Surgeons' Principles and Practice and his own book, Liver Transplantation, to be published next spring -- he also performs surgeries at one of the country's top transplant centers in the country: Tulane. "I actually trained here in general surgery at Tulane ... then went to Mount Sinai in New York and trained with the gurus in the field," Florman says. "I came back and joined what I think is the best team I've ever worked with. ... We work from the bedside to the (research) bench and the bench to the bedside." For patients, the result is a team that performs cutting-edge techniques such as laparoscopic liver resections and liver and kidney transplants -- and even transplants for some patients who are HIV positive, which previously was improbable. The HIV-patient transplants are possible because research has found better anti-rejection drugs that not only help the body accept transplanted organs but also help fight the virus that causes AIDS. Results of Florman's research on those drugs were so positive that he was invited to present his findings at the 20th annual International Congress of the Transplantation Society in Vienna, Austria. Additionally, Tulane recently was selected to be part of a National Institutes of Health-sponsored multiple-center liver transplant study with HIV patients. In addition, Tulane next month will open a special transplant-only center, Tulane Abdominal Transplant Unit, in which patients can go from intensive care to recovery treatment in the same bed with specially trained transplant nurses, a novelty in the current medical field.

Natalie Lartigue, 37
Teacher, Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary School
This past year has seen no shortage of accolades for Natalie Lartigue's work at Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary School in Algiers. She's among five Louisiana finalists for the prestigious Presidential Awards for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, a contest administered by the National Science Foundation. (Lartigue expects the final decision to be made in mid-December.) She's been named the Teacher of the Year in Orleans Parish as well as the State Farm Bayou Classic Teacher of the Year. For Lartigue, the best thing about the awards is that her school shares in the benefits. "State Farm is a big supporter," she says. "They donated computers to the school, and with those computers, we were able to start up a computer lab and make Eisenhower a signature school for technology." Currently the numeracy facilitator at Eisenhower, Lartigue says her own struggles as a student make her a better math and science teacher. "The most ironic thing is I actually failed math a couple times in high school. It doesn't come to me naturally and I had to work at it, which makes me a better teacher. I know how humiliating it is to fail." As Lartigue sees it, being a public school teacher means understanding more than test scores. "You build a community, and you build relationships with people," she says. "It can't be just about grades. People need to believe that you truly care about their child and you're not trying to put them down." Lartigue, a native of Slidell who grew up in Marrero, acknowledges that she's had offers from other schools and school districts. She has no plans to go anywhere else -- in fact, she has spent the past two summers working with the Orleans Parish Teaching Fellows program to bring more teachers into the district. "As the school goes, the city goes," she says. "I truly believe that."

 

Darryl Reginelli, 39
Owner, Reginelli's Pizza

Darryl Reginelli got his first taste of the restaurant biz as a University of New Orleans student, when he worked as a busboy at Arnaud's. "I started from the bottom and worked my way up to captain," he recalls. "I actually thought of going into the restaurant industry." But he instead followed through on his plans to go to law school. After an unfulfilling summer in New York working for an attorney, Reginelli came back to New Orleans and took a job as a manager at Flagon's Wine Bar. At age 24, Reginelli decided to strike out on his own. He opened Reginelli's: An Eating Gallery, a full-service Italian bistro. After a few years, Reginelli sold the business and, with his brother, dove into another passion -- renovating blighted housing. He bought several properties around Lyons Street where he lived with his physician wife, Angela, and the brothers went to work. In 1998, the Preservation Resource Center recognized them with its Renaissance Award. "We really turned the neighborhood around," Reginelli recalls, "but I had an itch to go back into the restaurant business." In 1997, he opened the first Reginelli's Pizza, focusing on pizzas, salads, sandwiches and Italian dishes featuring fresh breads and quality ingredients. The concept flourished, and so did the accolades -- recently, Pizza Today magazine listed Reginelli's as No. 22 on its Hot 100 Independents of 2004 list. With five franchises going strong in the metro area, Reginelli plans to expand outside New Orleans. He credits longstanding staff members and partners with his success, along with the traditional Italian cooking favored by his and his wife's families. "I used to love going up to my wife's grandmother's house in New Jersey -- it's a really old-school family and an Italian community, and it's really something," he says. "It just makes you so much more proud of who you are and where you came from."

Ryan Rilette, 31
Artistic Director, Southern Rep

"The major goal I set from the beginning was for Southern Rep to become a leading regional theater," says New Orleans native Ryan Rilette, who took over as artistic director in June 2002. "And I wanted us to be one of the leading creators of new works in the country. We were founded in the beginning to be a true professional equity theater, and New Orleans has never really had one." Rilette, who helped found the Rude Mechanicals theater company in New York City, doesn't take his charge lightly. During his nearly two-and-a-half-year reign, Southern Rep is indeed the place to go in New Orleans for some of the most critically acclaimed new works, as well as regional works. This aggressive focus paid off in the spring when the company led all others with seven Big Easy Entertainment Awards on the strength of three new productions: Bat Boy: The Musical, In Walks Ed, and House of Plunder. The latter production, a commissioned work by New Orleanian Jim Fitzmorris (himself a Big Easy nominee), is but one example of Southern Rep's desire to encourage local and regional playwrights. During his tenure, Rilette also has beefed up the staff at Southern Rep, which now has nine part-time employees, and has greatly increased revenue. He's tapped into the social aspects of theater-going to make it more marketable and coordinated with other theater entities (Le Petit, for example) to better stagger their premieres and spread the productions more evenly throughout the season. "Theater is a different entity than other live events," Rilette says. "There's a core group of 3,000 to 3,500 total of theatergoers in this town. When it grows to 10,000, we'll have a hell of a theater community. Part of it is getting our younger people to realize this is a fun thing to do. We do (high school) student matinees for all of our shows. It's pretty amazing to see an 11th grader who's never been to a play see Yellowman. People were coming out saying, 'I'm coming back, and I'm bringing my parents.'"

Tim Williamson, 39
Co-Founder and President, The Idea Village
Like other ambitious college graduates in the mid-1980s, Tim Williamson left New Orleans to pursue a career in finance. "It was the beginning of the 'brain drain,'" he says. "I lived in New York; I lived in Boston, Atlanta and Pittsburgh. And in the 11 years I was away, I learned more about New Orleans than from being here," he says. "You learn how unique we are. You see the tremendous positives we have and the challenges." A manager with Cox Interactive Media in Pittsburgh, Williamson lobbied his higher-ups to move him to New Orleans. He then launched one of the city's first Internet companies, InsideNewOrleans.com, in 1998. He also began networking with other business leaders, discussing ways to build the city's economy. In 1999, Williamson and a handful of other entrepreneurs sat in the Loa bar downtown and decided to start a contest: They would award $10,000 to whomever could come up with the best entrepreneurial idea. The so-called "Loa Group" got 75 responses, and the Idea Village was born. The Idea Village provides support and resources for entrepreneurs and helps build relationships between key components of New Orleans' economy: the city government, academia and the business sector. Since its inception, the Idea Village has helped launch more than 50 new companies. "At least two-thirds of all new jobs are created by entrepreneurs," Williamson says. "We have what it takes to create a world-class entrepreneurial community. We have the universities, we have the creative culture, we have the talent. How many cities have created their own food, music and holidays?" he asks. "In the new economy, you don't need to be near a river or mountains or New York. Technology allows you to be where you choose to be. We have this incredible city that has these assets and this soul and this spirit. We can be one of the best places in the country to start a business because most of it has to do with a sense of place."

Kerrie Ann Frey, 33
Owner, Fit Mom

As a freelance fitness writer, Kerrie Ann Frey always intended to acquire a personal trainer certificate as part of her professional development. When she found out she was expecting a child, she decided to get certified as part of her personal development. "All the rules for fitness change when you're pregnant," she says. When Frey had a hard time finding a class that fit her fitness needs, she decided to establish her own. "Basically, it started out as me training all my girlfriends -- and friends of friends -- and it just kind of evolved," Frey says. "It" is Fit Mom (www.fitmomneworleans.com), an innovative, informal exercise program for women that not only allows young children to tag along, but actually incorporates them into the workout routine. "We lay them on the ground, and we do kiss-the-baby pushups for the little bitties," Frey explains. "If you lay on your back and bend your knees, you can put the baby on your knees; as you're doing a sit-up, their body weight adds extra weight for you to have work. Everyone feels silly doing it, but the kids are rolling with laughter. Clearly, they're all about the love," she says. "But it's a nice little interaction for them, and they're learning how important exercise is subconsciously." The Chicago native, who also serves as editor of Family Living Magazine, keeps the Audubon Park classes small -- two to seven adults, plus their children -- and is looking to soon expand to a metro-area indoor location, as well as to Baton Rouge and Lafayette. "I'm all about families right now," says the mother of two, who plans to launch Fit Kid locally in the spring, a toddler-and-up program designed to combat childhood obesity which she describes as "exercise the way kids want to get exercise -- running, playing tag, dancing all around, having a good time. It's basically an aerobics class for kids; they're just not going to understand that they're working out." Frey's main motivation is getting women -- moms, nannies, herself -- up and moving. "I'm kind of ridiculous about it," says Frey, who offers free first classes to new participants. "I'm more about getting the moms out there being active for themselves than I am about being more of a savvy businessperson."

Ian Neville, 22
Musician

Some musicians' stage debuts are more prestigious than others. While many start at talent shows or wedged in the corner of a bar playing covers for three hours, Ian Neville was 13 when he joined the Funky Meters onstage at a private party the night before the Rolling Stones' Voodoo Lounge tour. "Keith (Richards) was playing guitar, and Ron Wood was playing washboard," he recalls. Ian is the son of Art Neville of the city's famed Neville Brothers, and he is currently on tour with the band in support of the excellent new Walkin' in the Shadow of Life (Back Porch). He plays rhythm guitar on the album and appeared on a track on the Funky Meters' 2001 release Fiyo at the Fillmore. When Neville Brothers' duties slack off, he and cousin Ivan have their own funk band, DumpstaFunk. Ian's first experience playing with a band that didn't involve family members came when he was in seventh grade. "We had, like, 15 different names," he laughs, remembering names like Skam -- "We were trying to be a ska band then" -- Double Helix and Stone, for a band that covered the Meters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against the Machine and Green Day. "It was a lot of fun." After that, he went to Jesuit High School and then Loyola for two years, working in gigs with the Funky Meters whenever possible. Growing up Neville means being funky almost as a second nature, but his father's advice is the sort of advice you'd expect from any parent. "Practice, practice, practice, practice -- he heard Keith telling someone that and liked it," Ian says. "He also said, 'Less is more. Don't go ripping a solo every time. You've got to give funk room to breathe.'"

Helen Scully, 28
Author
Even before moving here, Helen Scully made a literary connection with New Orleans. Her father, Frank Scully, is the dean of arts and sciences at Loyola University, and in 2001, he asked Helen to attend a dramatic reading of one of John Biguenet's short stories. The reading was held in Symphony Space on Broadway in New York, and afterwards there was a reception for Loyola alumni. "My parents had told me that if I ever got a chance, I should talk to him," Scully says. "Well, at the reception, Biguenet introduced me to his agent. I had the beginning chapters of In the Hope of Rising Again with me, and I gave them to the agent. Later, he wrote me saying he liked it. I signed an agreement with him, and three years later the novel was published." Scully's novel, a fictionalized account of her great-grandmother's life in Mobile, Ala., received a number of positive reviews including one from Janet Maslin of The New York Times. Maslin noted that not only was the novel "a spiritually rich yet unassuming book," but also that it was hard to believe that Scully "is an author in her 20s." This kind of acclaim pumped the book's sales, and it will be coming out in paperback in August 2005. Scully, who just returned from a seven-city book tour, is pleased with the novel's reception but relieved to be back in New Orleans, where the pace is slower and more conducive to her reflective kind of writing. As for Scully's next book, the novelist is provocatively evasive. "I'm working on a classic surreal tale about original sin," she says. "It's the idea that 'we're guilty, but we don't know why.'" Perhaps with a patient author whose talents belie her young age, this next book might provide an answer.

Jon Sherman, 34
Owner of Flavor Paper
Some people just feel it's their duty to make the world a better place, whether it is improving the community or designing lovely things for people's homes. Jon Sherman is a young entrepreneur who works toward all those goals. As a businessman, he bought equipment from a failing wallpaper company in Oregon and set up shop in a Bywater warehouse, producing Flavor Paper -- handmade, silk-screened wallpaper -- which in just a year and a half has achieved international acclaim and graces the walls of rock star Lenny Kravitz's homes in New Orleans, New York and Miami. Sherman also plans to put his wallpaper in actor Laurence Fishburne's New Orleans home. Never one to rest on his laurels, Sherman now plans to design silk fabrics to match his wallpaper designs and hopes to work with YaYa, Young Aspirations/Young Artists, to produce that group's artistic designs on wallpaper and fabric while teaching the youngsters how to approach art as a business. "We want to have the kids in here from start to finish, so they would understand the dynamics of what goes into the whole business cycle from the idea to sales," he says. Armed with a master of business administration degree from Tulane, Sherman knows how to overcome obstacles to achieve goals. "It's been full of surprises," he says of the Flavor Paper venture. "We had a fire the night before I was to print my first job. We barely made it in time for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair." After the fair, Flavor Paper was featured in national and international media and was chosen to paper the designer menswear section in Bergdorf Goodman department store in New York City as well as that city's KOS bar, which is owned by Kravitz, Fishburne, Denzel Washington and Dallas Austin.

Monique Harden, 36
Environmental Attorney and Co-founder, Advocates for Environmental Human Rights
"There's this public mindset that the environment is something that is 'over there,'" says Monique Harden. "But it's the most important thing we have on this planet -- the quality of the air, the water, the land we live on and all the natural resources we have." Harden is currently working with Gert Town residents who are demanding a comprehensive cleanup of the abandoned Thompson-Hayward Chemical Company facility on Earhart Boulevard. There, the company manufactured pesticides and the herbicide Agent Orange, sometimes in large outdoor vats. "Those chemicals have found their way into sewage systems and into people's yards," she says. A children's playground, she notes, is located right across the street from the facility. Harden is also preparing an advocacy campaign with residents of the Agriculture Street community, which was built atop a toxic landfill in eastern New Orleans. Once Harden gets involved, she stays involved. She worked for four years with Norco's Diamond neighborhood, an African-American community sandwiched between two Shell Oil facilities. In June 2002, Shell agreed to relocate all Diamond residents and to invest in pollution-reducing improvements. Through her work with nonprofit agencies such as the Alliance for Affordable Energy, Greenpeace and Earthjustice, Harden has fought for social justice in South Africa and all along Louisiana's Cancer Alley, especially in Mossville and Convent, where she worked to defeat Shintech's plans to build an incinerator and three chemical factories. "We really have to start thinking about the environment from a human-rights standpoint," says Harden. "When I meet people who live in the shadows of chemical plants or on top of these landfills, they know that these are human-rights violations -- no one needs to tell them that."

Dimitri Papadopoulos, 22
Karate Champion

Tulane University senior Dimitri Papadopoulos wanted to follow in his father's footsteps. But instead of this path leading to the family business or other, more typical destinations, the love of martial arts Papadopoulos shares with his father has taken him to Russia, Japan and many other locales as a winning member of the United States National Team for karate. "I started getting into martial arts when I was 8," the history major says. "My dad was into martial arts, and he started teaching this class at Tulane. And one day I asked, 'Will you take me with you?' I've been doing it every day since." As Papadopoulos faces graduation, his plans are open, though he's strongly considering law school or some academic-related graduate school, such as continued work in history or political science. "But karate will always be a part of my life," he says. "Whether it's full- or part-time professionally." His record as a member of both Tulane's club sport team and the U.S. national team should provide plenty of encouragement. In the summer of 2003, Papadopoulos was one victory shy of earning a medal, but was still good enough to place in the top six. However, the Americans came in first in team fighting competition, a rare feat for a Western squad. Papadopoulos just returned from competition in Japan, where he placed fifth individually. He gives much credit for his success to his longtime mentor, Takayuki Mikami, a renowned teacher based in New Orleans. The combined teachings of Mikami, his father and martial arts discipline in general has prepared the young student in myriad ways. "The main thing I've learned is to be always humble," he says. "To never think you're reaching the height you wanted to reach, to never be content. It's not win or lose; it's to learn more and better yourself."

John Besh, 36
Chef and Partner, Restaurant August and The Besh Steakhouse at Harrah's Casino
John Besh possesses that rare gift that separates the great chefs of New Orleans from the merely good ones. As the chef and partner at Restaurant August and, more recently, The Besh Steakhouse at Harrah's Casino, Besh has pulled off the deft, elusive trick of placing traditional regional cuisine in a more modern context. "Hey, if I call something a gumbo, it's going to be one of several types of gumbos," says Besh, a native New Orleanian who trained at the Culinary Institute of America before serving as the chef at Artesia on the Northshore. "But on the flipside, we have so many incredible regional products that are just incredible natural products that I like to experiment with. That balance of the two -- pushing the envelope on one hand and not turning my back on the tradition -- that's the tradition that's made August a success." The world has taken notice, and the accolades are piling up. Restaurant August last year was included in Gourmet magazine's "Guide to America's Best Restaurants," while The New York Times Magazine/The Sophisticated Traveler recently noted August as a key reason why New Orleans' restaurant scene is "right up there with New York and San Francisco and may be superior to either." He has cooked on The Today Show and for the famed James Beard House in New York City and won "The Great American Seafood Cook-Off" held locally in July. For the next Super Bowl, he will serve as a judge on The Food Network's "Great American Tailgating Cook-Off" program in New Orleans. Meanwhile, Harrah's is so excited about the success of The Besh Steakhouse that there are plans to add two or three more restaurants to its casinos -- though Besh is wary of overextending himself. "I could get out there and open up a number of them, but I have to be careful of diluting myself." says Besh. "I have to remain true to August."

Grant Estrade, 25
Owner, Laughing Buddha Nursery

Grant Estrade might be just one math class shy of a bachelor's degree in philosophy, but the young entrepreneur has shown he already knows how to solve a problem. A longtime gardener and outdoor enthusiast, Estrade found that his growing interest in the organic movement was quickly outstripping local sources of products and information. "From a consumer's viewpoint, I didn't want to use any chemicals," Estrade says. "And there really weren't that many products available. Quite honestly, I'd go to a garden center, and they weren't really able to help me. Actually, they'd kind of look at me like I was a little crazy. Because I couldn't find any of the products anywhere after looking really hard," he continues, "I kind of decided that this town -- and the state, really -- needed a retail store. People didn't have an option; it's kind of hard to say, 'Hey, maybe there's something better for you to use,' but then not have it available." Laughing Buddha Nursery, a strictly organic/natural gardening and supply store, began as a kiosk inside Adventure Sports, Estrade's former employer. By February 2004, Laughing Buddha was big enough for its own permanent location on Clearview Parkway. The store continues to offer natural gardening product alternatives and now includes nursery stock, a demo garden and twice-a-month seminars that cover everything from environmentally friendly pest-control practices to ways to create a bird-friendly and edible landscape. And Estrade isn't done yet -- his demo garden already regularly produces more vegetables than he can consume, and he hopes in the coming months to carve a place for Metairie in the metro area's burgeoning farmers' market scene. "The biggest challenge for us is actually educating people," says the Eagle Scout, who frequently give talks to garden club gatherings. "But the Boy Scout in me has always been kind of like a teacher anyway. A real big paradigm of thought is that you really can't do chemical-free gardening here. Let me show you that we can."

Jenni Lawson, 38
Audio engineer, WWNO, New Orleans Hornets, New Orleans VooDoo
Jenni Lawson enjoys her membership in the boys' club. While busy enough with her day job as the production manager of WWNO 89.9 FM, Lawson can also be found on press row at New Orleans Hornets games, rubbing elbows and sharing electrical outlets with even the most cantankerous of men on the gritty sports beat. "If you would have asked me four years ago if my life would revolve around sports, I would have laughed in your face," Lawson jokes. "But I love that job. It's so much fun, it's not even like working." Her change of heart came after a Cub Scouts project for her son Logan took them to a game of the now-defunct New Orleans Brass. "I went into that game, and was just immediately hooked. From the minute I saw it, I fell in love with it." Lawson grew up all over the United States, spending her childhood in Long Island, Calif., and her formative years in North Carolina. She first became involved with radio, KSLU specifically, while a journalism major at Louisiana State University. She later attended a school for television and ultimately earned a degree from the University of New Orleans. Having lived in New Orleans for the past 14 years, Lawson has brought local audiences broadcasts of mostly classical music, handling concerts such as those by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. While admitting she became "burned out" on doing just music, she's found a home as one of the few female faces in the NBA. "I've done a lot of different work, from TV to film, and I've always been friends with the boys," she says. "But I never really knew what sports would be like. There are not a lot of women audio engineers in general, let alone in sports. Everyone is extremely nice. Though I still can't go record in the locker room."

Patrick Miller, 33
Sculptor
When he was a kid, Patrick Miller's family made it clear that "art was a good hobby, but not something you can seriously make a career out of," Miller recalls. "Which is true, for the most part. I'm really lucky." Miller satisfied his passion for art as a child by making clay sculptures of dinosaurs and horses and in high school where he took art classes. But in his hometown of rural Golden Meadow, "if you didn't trawl or work offshore, you couldn't make a living," he says. "I wasn't going to trawl or work offshore, so I went to school to study veterinary science, and I was going to draw on the side." His first lucky break came when he met his future wife, Julie, who encouraged him to pursue art full-time. "She saw I would have been really miserable had I gone into anything else." His second came when he won honorable mention for a public art competition in Ponchatoula and met artist Bill Ludwig, who had a foundry and showed him how to cast bronze sculptures. "He gave me the final push I needed," Miller says. He soon abandoned plans to teach art and delved into the niche of creating public art sculptures in bronze. His more notable commissions include several life-sized sculptures of Marine Corps Gen. John Archer LeJeune, reproduced for several locations including the general's rural Louisiana birthplace; at Camp LeJeune, N.C.; and at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. Miller's 9-foot bronze statue of former Gov. John McKeithen stands near the Superdome, and he recently completed a larger-than-life Madonna for the St. Bernard Parish cemetery. Word of mouth has kept Miller busy. "There are so few people who do this, so if they want a piece of public art, they'll find you," he says. "That's sort of my portfolio, out there on the street corner."

E.J. Encalarde, 39
Gina Charbonnet, 37
Co-Founders, The Beautiful Foundation

Anyone who's attended an Essence Music Festival can tell you there's more to it than just great music. The festival embodies a sense of unity, community responsibility and empowerment -- exactly the type of spirit that Essence producers Eugenie "E.J." Encalarde and Gina Charbonnet were able to spin off into their nonprofit, The Beautiful Foundation. "We wanted to do something for young women to identify with and find their voice in," says Charbonnet, who produces films, videos, special events and other productions through her arts and entertainment development firm, GeChar. "E.J. and I were talking about how we can empower young women, and we were wanting to start a magazine initially for young African-American women." After more discussion, the women settled on a nonprofit. "My daughter Christina said, 'Mom, there's nothing out there that addresses our unique needs, and we need something like that,'" Encalarde recalls. "One of the main concerns of youth is that no one listens to them. Christina said 'Just remember to keep listening -- don't talk too much, Mom. Just listen.'" Today, the Beautiful Foundation mentors, encourages and supports teenage girls, focusing especially on topics such as sexuality, self-esteem, leadership and education. The foundation regularly sponsors forums that bring young girls together to share their experiences and learn from one another. These get-togethers, Charbonnet says, "opened my eyes to a lot of things they experience. They really educated me ... These girls are taught at a young age that sex sells, and they feel sometimes they have to give away a part of themselves in order to be accepted," she says. "It's not just for African-American girls -- that's what we're geared toward, but in these forums you have Latina girls, Caucasian girls ... It puts them in an environment where they discuss these issues, and by voicing where they are, it gives them ownership of themselves more." Both women themselves serve as role models to girls participating in Beautiful Foundation programs. Encalarde became a successful music festival and event producer by working her way up through the ranks of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. After studying banking in college, Encalarde got a job with a temp agency, where she planned to make ends meet while working her way through law school. Encalarde took a job as the "assistant to the assistant of the producer -- how's that for the bottom?" she laughs. "I landed in the middle of this wonderful world of music entertainment." She scrapped the idea of law school and stayed on, later winning a promotion as the assistant to producer Quint Davis, who became impressed by her skills, energy and drive. "Quint had a lot of faith and trust in me," she recalls. "We worked well together -- long, hard hours." Today, Encalarde serves as senior vice president and managing director of Festival Productions Inc., which produces major music events across the country. Charbonnet came from a New Orleans family that's become known for its longstanding funeral-home business. Her own company, which she founded in graduate school, has been steadily building upon its reputation as a producer of feature films, commercials, music videos and special events; Charbonnet herself wears many hats as a grant writer, producer and arts consultant. She says she specifically seeks out projects with a positive social message. "We (in the entertainment industry) know in our hearts and minds that we impact not just ourselves and our families, but we impact communities," Charbonnet says. "When you try to create a message or image or product, you really have to keep that in mind. We have to own our stuff. We have a voice and opinion about how things are shaped in this world, and for us it's hard because you have to do what sells. But we have responsibility -- we should take ownership over everything we do."

Bryan Lagarde, 35
Owner, Cctvwholesalers

As a former investigator for the New Orleans Police Department and the Orleans Parish district attorney's office, Bryan Lagarde was familiar with the frustration of trying to obtain evidence against wrongdoers after a crime was committed. In his private business, Cctvwholesalers, he has developed high-tech surveillance tools to make investigators' jobs easier as well as to help private citizens, business owners and even the government protect themselves and their property. In the six years since he started his company in Harahan, Lagarde has supplied surveillance equipment designed by his team to investigative reporters from 60 Minutes, the BBC, WWL-TV, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal, as well as NASA, the Navy Seals, the U.S. Army, day-care centers, companies large and small, and private citizens. "When I was both with the police department and the DA's office, I was always getting involved with crimes after they happened," Lagarde says. "It was very frustrating to know that the offender wasn't going to get caught because there wasn't enough evidence. I recognized the need for video surveillance equipment, but there wasn't much out there and what was out there wasn't very good -- and it was overpriced." His systems are designed for individual customers and are put together at the Harahan plant. The popular PC Witness starts at $325 for a residential set-up with four cameras and allows homeowners to view their residence from a computer or cell phone while they're away; businesses can use a modified version. "What we mostly do now is commercial," Lagarde says, "but we never turned our backs to affordable residential systems. Whether it's mom and dad wanting to watch the babysitter or the military securing Baghdad International Airport, the important thing is helping people with their problems, whatever they are." The business is set up to accommodate specific needs, solve individual problems and make systems easy to use. "The people who develop our equipment are the same people who talk to our customers every day," Lagarde says.

Ann Rogers
President, Sponsor One

"I put sponsors and projects together," says Ann Rogers. Her company, Sponsor One, created the Southern Comfort Cocktail Tour, a drinking and dining tour of some of the French Quarter's more notorious and prestigious bars and restaurants. The tour was named "Most Creative Tour of 2002" by Gray Line Worldwide and, this year, to celebrate the first anniversary of the event Rogers added "Tales of the Cocktail," a program that puts writers and raconteurs associated with the Quarter in the mix. "It celebrates our culture," she says. "I want people to love [the French Quarter] as much as I do." Rogers figures she was destined to promote events. "When I was a kid, I used to pull ads I liked out of magazines," she says. The University of New Orleans graduate has been in the marketing and promotion business for more than 15 years, but she first made a big splash opening Three Dog Bakery. At that point, no one was doing anything like it, and she remembers loan officers looking askance when she approached them. Still, she says, "It was a fun project and a lot of fun to start and market." She sold that business because her true love is the creative part of marketing. "I love to have an idea and bring it to fruition," says Rogers. That creativity has earned her awards including the 2001 Emmis Communications Great Idea Contest winner, Emmis Communications New Business Director of the Year for 2001, Revenue Development Systems Rookie of the Year for 2000, and the Fox 8 Spirit Award in 1999. As a hobby, Rogers trains herself and others for marathons -- "For me, it's part of my social life" -- and ran the New York Marathon this year, but new projects and events give her the biggest thrill. "It's fun for me to organize an event, she says. "It's always something new. You're putting in new features, new elements; it's always exciting."

Michael Cunningham, 38
Adolescent-development Expert and Professor in the African and African Diaspora Studies programs, Tulane University
"Adolescence is probably one of the most misunderstood time periods of people's lives," says Tulane University professor Michael Cunningham, who has been researching African-American children and adolescents for more than a decade. Cunningham studies children's vulnerabilities and resiliency -- the ability to cope with adversity. "I think we're all born with the propensity to thrive," he says. "We're all born with something. But what makes me strong may make you weak." His work examines why, when faced with the same challenges, some kids struggle and others seem to thrive. Kids do better, he's found, if parents ask questions -- where are they going, with whom, when will they get home. "Kids think that parents are bugging them, but it actually helps," says Cunningham. For parents who hear the response, "You can't tell me what to do," he's reassuring. Kids go through that phase, he says, but it doesn't last long. Cunningham grew up in a middle-class family in Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C. He received a bachelor's at Morehouse College and a doctorate at Emory University. His first job was as an elementary-school teacher, where he puzzled why his students' lives took the trajectories they did -- what made some kids do well. He loaded up on child-development research, but found it lacking. "I had a happy childhood," he says, but, in child-development books, the sections about black kids were filled with descriptions of pathology, of abnormal behavior. "I realized that we don't have enough information about the day-to-day experiences of black kids," says Cunningham. He set out to change that. His research has since been published in numerous publications and books. He's also lectured and presented his work across the United States, at numerous conferences and before the National Academy of Sciences.

 

Sarah Newell Usdin, 35
Regional Strategist, The New Teacher Project

Sarah Newell Usdin traces her passion for education to her 1991 major in religion from Colgate University in upstate New York. "I truly believe if we're going to establish any sort of social justice in this world, we're going to have to establish excellent education for all children," she says. To reach that goal, Usdin devotes herself to the task of bringing excellent teachers into classrooms, often through alternative means. After teaching in Germany on a Fulbright Scholarship, she signed up with Teach for America, the national organization that trains and places teachers in underserved schools. Usdin spent the next three years teaching in Baton Rouge before becoming the program's state director in 1995. In that position, she oversaw teachers in 21 parishes. Still, she believed that much more needed to be done to bring certified teachers into local schools, and she spearheaded The New Teacher Project in Louisiana. The group partners with five universities across the state (including the University of New Orleans) to increase the number of certified teachers in public schools -- in 2003, the group placed more than 130 certified teachers in Orleans schools, and so far this year has placed more than 100. "People were worried that there wouldn't be enough interest," Usdin says. "But we've had an overwhelming response. It's very inspiring to see how responsive teachers have been to wanting to teach where they're needed." Usdin is well aware of local public school politics (school board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz says he'd trust her to "back me up in a knife fight"), but she says that her work with The New Teacher Project -- along with her involvement in the New Orleans Center for Science and Math and groups such as KID smART -- helps her keep focused. "Teachers need support in the long haul, they need to be empowered, they need good facilities and leadership," she says. "Success is going to be incremental -- we didn't get into this situation overnight. Do I feel hopeful? Absolutely."

Todd Murphy, 39
Vice President, OMNI Bank

Luckily for Jefferson Parish -- and by extension, the entire metro area -- banker Todd Murphy's steadfast commitment to community and career has resulted in a more cohesive approach to tackling a range of issues from infrastructure to public education. As the chairman of the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce in 2003, Murphy's leadership in a year of change proved fruitful. As the region-wide Greater New Orleans Inc. formed, the East Bank and West Bank councils merged into a single body to represent Jefferson Parish. With both sides of the river now working in unison, the new entity led by Murphy successfully lobbied for an expansion of the Huey P. Long Bridge that many foresee as a great economic boon to the parish and region. "When we first got together, we took a look at our initiatives, at what should be the top priorities for the parish," Murphy says. "And the number one thing is the expansion of the bridge. This parish can no longer be served by a bridge that was built in the 1930s for trains." Beyond helping jump-start the bridge expansion, construction of which is expected to start in January, Murphy oversaw a year in which the Jefferson Chamber recruited 175 new members and exceeded its fundraising goal by 75 percent. (Such growth dovetails nicely with Murphy's role at Metairie-based OMNI Bank, which opened three new offices this summer and since 2000 has enjoyed a 45 percent increase in branches.) Last month, the chamber's 10-month initiative dubbed "Smart Summit," a series of discussions with public education officials, business and civic leaders, parents and others discussed the issues facing the parish's public schools. Reports on the group's findings are expected soon, with Murphy saying various committees will work on achieving the long-term goals established by Smart Summit. "We started a process of open communication that will hopefully serve as a catalyst for years to come," he says. "I've always had the philosophy that if you get involved in the community, you can make it stronger," Murphy says of his service. "Everyone has that same opportunity."

Tim Hammond, 27
Elizabeth Coulon, 26
Co-founders and co-owners, Louisiana Casting

The idea was so simple it's amazing no one thought of it sooner. But then again, Tim Hammond and Elizabeth Coulon deserve plenty of credit for jumping on the exploding New Orleans film industry. Louisiana Casting has served as an invaluable resource for aspiring film-industry types in the area, as well as for incoming film production companies from Hollywood and beyond. Hammond and Coulon had both graduated from UNO's Film Production Program when they signed on for Taylor Hackford's recently released Ray. "Toward the end of the film, the extras kept calling and saying, 'Do you have any more jobs for me?' So we found an online way for people to network and keep in contact over time," says Hammond. "They could change address or phone number, and we'd still be able to keep track of them." And this isn't some seedy-agent deal: hopefuls simply register on the Web site for a $10 membership, and the networking begins. "The actual number of members grows everyday," says Hammond, who puts it currently around 1,680. The company's latest coup was Glory Road, a movie about the first-ever all-black starting five at Texas Western University that won the NCAA basketball championship. It wasn't easy filling all the casting needs, Coulon points out, but they got the job done, and that will lead to still more work for everyone. "Once you do one good show and you do it well and you're well liked, it just goes from there," she says. "Your reputation just speaks for itself. This show was a monster, and we pulled it off. Glory Road had its problems, and extras were one of them because we needed people for so many days straight. There are very few full-time, professional extras. You've got people doing this taking days off from work, and as schedules change as they do, you lose people. But we have more people who understand the industry now."

Copey Pulitzer, 39
President, Chiliwear
The decision to branch off from the successful Wemco Inc. tie company came down to a seven-second "watershed moment" for Copey Pulitzer. He had been working in the family business, running Wemco's thriving Tabasco boxer-shorts line and starting its sportswear division. "At the board of directors' meeting, they voted to not go forward with the sportswear," Pulitzer recalls. "That's when I literally had seven seconds to say, 'If you're not going forward with it, can I?'" From that split decision came Chiliwear, whose bold Tabasco sportswear is a favorite of pro golfers including Kenny Perry and Kirk Triplett. "We courted them" to help design golf clothing, Pulitzer says, "and they courted us." More recently, Chiliwear has contracted to produce the apparel for more than 40 colleges and universities, a youthful market that Pulitzer calls a natural fit for Tabasco's irreverent designs. "We have done a lot of traditional styles," he says, "but the bolder ones sell better, and so that's our direction." Creativity is Pulitzer's personal direction, too. Not only are Tabasco's clothing lines flourishing, but he's found success in areas that have nothing to do with sportswear. In his mid-20s, he self-published a book geared toward teenagers called How to Manage Your Parents, a humorous guide to parent-child relationships that "is about having open and honest communication," he says. "Parents have come up to me to thank me ... which was meaningful to me." He's also planning another company that will design and manufacture avant-garde glass tables based on one he created for himself. "I'll do the whole thing -- design, contract and fabricate them myself," Pulitzer says. "They're fashioned together to make the tables look like they float. They're wicked looking." That's in the works for next year. For now, Pulitzer continues to lean on his small but productive staff at Chiliwear. "My company is where it is because of the people here -- working smart, working hard. So work isn't work, it's fun."

Nurhan Gokturk, 33
Architect and Partner, Hometime

It is historic or is it Hometime? If you pause to answer that in front of the house at 7937 Olive St., credit Nurhan Gokturk. Gokturk custom-designed a modular shotgun house specifically for the city of New Orleans. His company Hometime hopes to build 80 of them in the next nine months on blighted lots across the city. The goal of his ambitious Project 2020 is to build on 2,020 of the city's blighted lots within the next 10 years. Each house is designed to be different. Most are three-bedroom, two-bath. All have 9-foot ceilings, hardwood floors and traditional design elements outside -- a transom over the door, brackets in the front and a gable on the roof. With a $20,000 government subsidy, the final price tag comes to $79,000, or a monthly mortgage payment of about $490. Gokturk grew up in New York City, in the Sunnyside section of Queens. "Because my family was poor," he says, "I collected popsicle sticks." With those sticks, he would construct cottages -- "I was obsessed with that," he says. He also saved his money and bought kits for rockets and aircraft carriers that he would build -- without looking at the directions. He tested into New York's competitive Brooklyn Technical High School, where he studied architecture. He continued his studies at the Pratt Institute for Architecture and at Harvard University. Before he moved here, he was the United Nations Habitat for Humanity liaison in New York and Istanbul. Gokturk's modest roots gave him passion for affordable housing, he says, something desperately needed in New Orleans, where there's a shortfall of about 20,000 houses. "We're doing a large-scale urban intervention, one house at a time," he says.

Maurice Brown, 23
Musician

"Every time I play, I try to play like it's my last time playing," says jazz trumpeter Maurice Brown. With a fiery style that seamlessly meshes the swinging melodies of traditional New Orleans jazz, the avant-garde tendencies of his native Chicago and even the rhythms of hip-hop, Brown has caught the attention of top players, including Wynton Marsalis and Clark Terry, and jazz fans around the world. Brown first came to Louisiana to study with Alvin Batiste at Southern University. While many young jazz musicians head to New York, Brown found himself drawn to New Orleans. Since settling in the city three years ago, he has made it his mission to bring top musicians to New Orleans and let the rest of the world know that "the scene is hot down here." Hip to Bop, Brown's first album, features the music he wrote for his jazz quintet, which performs to large crowds every Tuesday at Snug Harbor. Brown financed, produced and distributed the album, which has gotten play on jazz stations around the country and made inroads onto the jazz charts. Several major music labels have courted Brown, but for the moment he prefers to release music on his own label and maintain complete control of the final product. Currently, he is making plans to record his soul and funk group, Soul'd U Out. That album, which will feature some big-name guests singing and rapping, should be available before Jazz Fest. Brown has recently felt the pull of New York, where there are more opportunities to play and jazz reputations are made. He plans to keep his home in New Orleans, while spending a few months a year playing in New York. "I like the pace in New Orleans," Brown said. "I'm more creative when everything is not so busy. That way my mind can be more busy."


Rita Benson LeBlanc, 27
Co-owner and Executive, New Orleans Saints; Director of Marketing and Special Events, New Orleans VooDoo
The excitement of growing up as the granddaughter of businessman and Saints owner Tom Benson was never lost on Rita Benson LeBlanc, though it didn't always involve the gridiron. Sure, she remembers chasing her granddaddy onto the field after a win -- "I vividly remember leaping over cords and dodging camera guys, trying to keep up with him" -- but equally exciting was visiting Benson at his car dealerships or accompanying him to NFL executive meetings. "Seeing him at work, at the office, was always fascinating. It was where the action was." LeBlanc followed her interest to Texas A&M University, where she majored in international business and spent holidays interning with the NFL and the Saints. Today, she serves as co-owner/executive of the Saints and sits on the organization's board of directors. But her primary role is director of marketing and special events for the VooDoo, the Saints' sister franchise in the fledgling Arena Football League. The work has paid off -- New Orleans has embraced its newest franchise, and LeBlanc this year was named the AFL Executive of the Year. Though New Orleans was only recently introduced to the fast-paced action of arena football, LeBlanc and other VooDoo principals have been formulating the concept for years. "Seeing it evolve from the beginning is a great thrill," she says, "to watch these AFL owners and then see people on the NFL side, and imagining what it was like when [NFL owners] were younger, and the league was forming. ... I'm so proud to be affiliated with the AFL." Though she's surrounded by football, LeBlanc continues to find excitement in the offices, more so than on the field. "That's not to say I'm not a fan," she says. "But when you're in business, you have to be able to detach and be non-emotional so you make better decisions. But there are things I get to do, venues I go to where I completely appreciate the power of the shield, and the power and respect that [NFL owners] hold. There isn't a person in the room who doesn't have an amazing story, and I would be so proud to be in that number."

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    The class of 2015: 40 New Orleanians you need to know
    • Nov 2, 2015
  • Gambit’s 40 Under 40 (2014)

    Our 2014 class of 40 accomplished people under 40
    • Nov 3, 2014
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