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New Orleans has always had high achievers, but the last few years have seen a large increase in innovative businesses and programs aimed at improving the quality of life here as well as the environment, technology and public institutions. Every year (except for 2005), Gambit honors 40 people under the age of 40 for their accomplishments and the contributions they've made to New Orleans.

Here is our 15th annual 40 Under 40.

 

Murtuza "Zee" Ali, 36

Associate program director, Interventional Cardiology Fellowship Program, LSU Department of Medicine; Director, Cardiac Catheterization Lab, Interim LSU Hospital; Chairman, LERN

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Born at Touro Hospital and educated at Charity Hospital, Murtuza "Zee" Ali returned to New Orleans in the summer of 2008, after completing his medical residency at Stanford University and a fellowship at Boston University. He planned to rebuild the LSU Interventional Cardiology Training Program, which educates medical students about the branch of cardiology that treats structural heart diseases using catheters in order to avoid scars, pain and long recovery periods.

Since then, the LSU School of Medicine faculty member has won nine awards from peers, residents and students and has served as the associate program director for the Interventional Cardiology Fellowship Program in the LSU Department of Medicine and director of the Cardiac Catheterization Lab at the Interim LSU Public Hospital.

Ali also is chairman of the Louisiana Emergency Response Network (LERN), where he directs the creation of a statewide network of hospitals that will provide coordinated and timely care for heart attack victims. Ali has garnered assistance from emergency medical services, primary care and specialty practices, patient advocacy groups and public health officials.

"To be able to participate in the design of a system that hopefully will improve the care and increase the access to great quality care for all residents of the state regardless of where they live is a very cool thing," he says. — Megan Braden-Perry

 

 

A.J. Allegra, 27

Artistic director, The NOLA Project

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

A.J. Allegra acts, directs, writes, produces, is stage manager, builds sets and is the artistic director of theater company The NOLA Project, and he's working hard to build New Orleans' vibrant theater community on a national scale.

"Theater arts in New Orleans have grown tremendously, with help from our theater company," he says. "We hope it has inspired others to do the same."

Founded in the spring of 2005, The NOLA Project has produced two dozen shows, including recent acclaimed runs of Shakespeare classics and the ambitious Balm In Gilead, staged in collaboration with Cripple Creek Theatre Company.

Allegra wants to showcase New Orleans as a national venue for theater, and its sprawling community of smaller companies that don't have permanent theater homes — groups like The NOLA Project have only a limited number of venues for theater, so they've come up with creative options, like staging performances at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

"We want to work to raise the bar for producing theater in the city and work to make it really great," he says. "New Orleans has a tendency to be lackadaisical, to say, 'That's good enough.' One thing we do is say, 'That's not enough. How do we fine-tune and make it better?'

The NOLA Project is producing a one-woman show, She Remembers, for Fringe Fest, November's citywide theater event. In March 2013, the company premieres the full-scale production Catch the Wall, which chronicles students' relationships to the charter school system and bounce music.

Allegra also teaches theater at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where he gives students their first taste of national ambitions.

"What we try to do as a company is create an environment [in which students say], 'Hey, my hometown is a great place to work,'" he says. "I have an obligation to my students to develop that." — Alex Woodward

 

 

Kellie Axelrad, 33

Dentist

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Dr. Kellie Axelrad will do anything to fire up the public about the importance of dental health. She even has the New Orleans Saints in on it.

Axelrad, a New Orleans native who graduated from Loyola University and LSU Dental School, contacted the Saints and NFL Play 60 to partner with the New Orleans Dental Association to present a dental screening at the LSU School of Dentistry in January 2013.

"[The Saints] are going to run a basic training camp on the fields and we are going to host a traditional event inside," says Axelrad, who will open a private dental practice in Lakeview next fall.

The event, which aims to educate the public about the importance of healthy teeth and gums, is for children from St. John the Baptist and Plaquemines Parishes because of the number of families affected by Hurricane Isaac. The dental association has held the annual event for the past 10 years, targeting groups of children based on need, but it is the first time the group has partnered with the Saints and NFL Play 60.

During Children's Dental Health Month in February 2013, Axelrad will visit young patients at Children's Hospital, handing out toothbrushes and teaching them how to take care of their teeth. She also volunteers for a range of other organizations focusing on pediatric care.

Axelrad says she has wanted to be a dentist since she was in the fifth grade, when her brother got braces and she learned that teeth could be moved. She was inspired to specialize in pediatric dentistry after working with someone who showed her the ropes of caring for kids.

"It is my passion, my craft, and it doesn't feel like much work when you love what you do." — Marta Jewson

 

 

Andrea Bourgeois-Calvin, 37

Water-Quality program director, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation

Andrea Bourgeois-Calvin knew from an early age that she wanted to be in science, and she considered a career in medicine. "But I realized that I wanted to do something outdoors, do something that was good for the environment," she says.

As water-quality program director for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, Bourgeois-Calvin has realized that dream. The nonprofit organization has proved critical in engineering the energies, strategies, funds and policies that have returned the lake's southern shore to a safe place to swim. On the Northshore, where Bourgeois-Calvin says our vital watershed's environmental health now faces its biggest challenge, her duties regularly take her "out in the field, out on the water."

Typically working the Bogue Falaya, Amite and Tangipahoa rivers in St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes, Bourgeois-Calvin — who earned a doctorate in geochemistry from the University of New Orleans (UNO) — surveys the waterways that collectively contain more than 700 individual water and sewage systems.

"It's a piecemeal system, " says Bourgeois-Calvin, who earned a bachelor's degree in biological sciences from Loyola University and a master's degree from UNO. "And because it's piecemeal, we have a harder time keeping track of it all.

"On the south shore, a big key to running around the water quality has been working with the parishes and concerned citizens in a regional approach."

Bourgeois-Calvin, who also is key in securing funds and analyzing field reports, says digital mapping advances are vital to the foundation's mission: "We've been finding sources of pollution since 2002, but the last few years of comprehensive mapping has really brought it to the next level." — Frank Etheridge

 

 

Nicholas Braden, 34

Vice President, Global Hunter Securities

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Investment banker Nicholas Braden explains his transition from Wall Street to Poydras Street as he steps out of a meeting in New York City to take the call on his cellphone. "Daunting. It's swimming without a life preserver" is how Braden describes his initial impressions of Wall Street, where the Newcomb graduate worked following his matriculation at the University of Pennsylvania's renowned Wharton School of Business. At Wharton he earned a Master of Business Administration with triple concentrations in finance, public policy and entrepreneurial management.

He last worked on Wall Street as a vice president at Citigroup. "There's a lot of type-A types," Braden says. "Not a lot of Southern hospitality, so it takes a lot of adjustment for someone born and bred in New Orleans (to get accustomed to New York). It requires an extraordinary amount of discipline."

At Wharton, Braden met his wife, Shirin, a U Penn graduate from Austin, Texas. After school, Braden returned to New Orleans to raise his family — and for what he describes as "an amazing opportunity." He joined the energy-focused investment bank Global Hunter Securities where he raises capital and advises companies on mergers and acquisitions.

"New Orleans is an usual place to do something similar to what's done on Wall Street," says Braden, who lives in the Warehouse District. "And when people think of an energy-focused bank, they think it would be based in Houston."

"We're bringing Wall Street to Poydras Street," he says. "We're attracting the talent down here that typically works on Wall Street. We're making New York-type deals and they're earning New York-type compensation, but we're doing it all from New Orleans." — Frank Etheridge

 

 

McKenzie Coco, 37

President, FSC Interactive

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Upon returning to New Orleans after a stint on the West Coast, McKenzie Coco realized there was a void here that she could fill.

"(On the West Coast there was) a lot more innovative online marketing than I had seen in New Orleans," she says. "I saw there was a real need for people to be able to market outside the New Orleans community, because the New Orleans community had really dwindled after the storm."

In 2009, Coco founded FSC Interactive, an online marketing firm which this year surpassed $1 million in annual sales revenue. The firm provides social media management, search engine optimization, email marketing and other services. Some of FSC's clients include the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and Loyola University.

Aside from her duties as founder and president, Coco stays involved in the outside community. She currently is chairwoman of the Junior Achievement Rising Stars Soiree and, as a self-proclaimed "bleeding heart" animal lover, she volunteers as a foster parent to rescue dogs.

She attributes her success and that of her company to the staff and clients with whom she works.

"One thing I've been very smart about is you always hire people who are smarter than yourself," Coco says. "There's such great talent at FSC, and I feel lucky that I get to work with the people [who] are in my office every day and lucky we have the clients that allow us the freedom and ability to really be partners with them." — Lauren LaBorde

 

 

Stacey James Danner, 38

Co-founder, Sustainable Environmental Enterprises

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Stacey James Danner decided he would do anything he could to help New Orleanians after Hurricane Katrina, so the Minnesota native headed south and co-founded Sustainable Environmental Enterprises (SEE), which helps low-income individuals access sustainable energy systems.

"Our real goal is to make sure all people, regardless of their income or where they live, can access renewable energy at a price affordable for their family," he says.

Danner received a Rockefeller Fellowship in 2008 and the next year received a Rockefeller Foundation Innovation Fund award. He has participated in White House round tables on domestic policy and green and sustainable industry.

Louisiana has one of the country's best state credit programs for financing solar energy systems, offering a 50 percent credit for installing panels, Danner says. He also hopes SEE can help people on fixed incomes convert to sustainable energy. "It's much cleaner and cheaper to do it this way (use solar energy) than worry about whether or not the utilities are going to cut off your lights," he says.

Making energy more affordable for New Orleanians while employing local installers is a win-win for Danner and the community. "I'm really proud of our innovative financing, which allows anybody to have renewable energy," he says. — Marta Jewson

 

 

Eliana de Las Casas, 12

Chef

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

While in New York City for an appear-ance on The Wendy Williams Show, 12-year-old Eliana de Las Casas got a taste of celebrity treatment.

"Even though the studio was four blocks away from the apartment (where we were staying), they would have a car service for us," she says.

De Las Casas, aka Kid Chef Eliana, made jambalaya and pralines on the talk show. At her age, de Las Casas already has hit some of the milestones coveted by much older chefs: With the help of her mother, children's author and storyteller Dianne de Las Casas, Eliana has written two cookbooks, Eliana Cooks! Recipes for Creative Kids and Cool Kids Cook: Louisiana, and has a budding line of spice blends called Sabor. She was also featured among 13 local Latinos in an exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, and she hosts a weekly web radio show called Cool Kids Cook on VoiceAmerica Kids.

Coming from a home that's frequently host to large family gatherings, Eliana started cooking at age 4. "I always just loved to be in the kitchen and experiment with food," she says. "Every birthday and Christmas, I always asked for something related to cooking or a kitchen utensil."

The seventh-grader, who says she always puts school first, plans to write more cookbooks in the Cool Kids Cook series, expand her line of spices and create cookware for children. Eventually she wants to attend the Culinary Institute of America in New York. — Lauren LaBorde

 

 

LaToya Devezin, 29

Library Associate, African American Resource Center, New Orleans Public Library

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

LaToya Devezin smashes the librarian stereotype of being quiet, meek and bookish. Passionate, multi-talented and energetic, Devezin aims to make the New Orleans Public Library the most high-tech, inclusive, essential public resource it can be.

"People think the library isn't necessary anymore," she says. "They say 'Why bother, when you can Google everything?'" A bilingual opera singer with degrees in music, library science and museum studies, Devezin is pursuing another in archival management.

"People think I sit behind a desk all day and check out books; they'd be surprised at what I actually do," she says. "I'm writing grants; I'm working on new programs."

Not only has Devezin helped improve the library's computer technology resources and created zones for children and teens, but she also has landed grants from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, among other sources. Through the library, those grants have brought music and arts programs to hundreds of kids.

The library associate has built up other resources, too, including assistance for residents applying for federal loans and college admissions. "It's crucial for our library to be awesome for the community," says Devezin, who wants to expand services even further. She's thinking about a public garden, a tech education lab and multilingual collections and resources.

An American Library Association Spectrum Scholar, Devezin is committed to bringing more diversity into the profession. "We don't have that many librarians of color," she says. "We provide so many different things to people on so many levels, and we want librarians to reflect the community they serve." — Eileen Loh

 

 

Sarah Devlin, 18

Filmmaker

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

In March, then-NOCCA student Sarah Devlin earned a $10,000 scholarship for her student film portfolio. The prestigious 2012 Scholastic Arts and Writing Award, administered by the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers, is just one of 15 in the country. Past recipients include Sylvia Plath and Truman Capote.

"I'm not used to having that much exposure," says Devlin, who accepted the award in front of a packed house during a ceremony at New York's Carnegie Hall. "I'm not sure if that was the best or worst thing, to be in front of that many people."

Devlin's eight-film portfolio included the one-minute film Strophe, Antistrophe, Catastrophe (dans le clair du temps) — she's fluent in French — and the films were screened on a loop at Parsons School of Design. They now are among items in an exhibit touring the country.

Devlin started making films in grammar school, and in 2009 her class assignment — a two-minute film called Writer's Block — earned three awards at the Louisiana Film Festival; it also was named the best film from a student.

This fall, Devlin taught filmmaking and animation to students at Lusher Charter School. While taking a break from Loyola University, where she's a freshman majoring in French, Devlin is working on several small films and music videos, including a stop-motion project and a full-length feature.

"Now that I'm out of school, I'm working on a lot of my own projects," she says. Several of Devlin's films are screening at the Contemporary Arts Center's Cinema Reset through Dec. 2. — Alex Woodward

 

 

Katherine Erny Gaar, 39

Founder, Frenchmen Art Market

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

With its clusters of chairs illuminated by table lamps and holiday lights, the Frenchmen Art Market resembles an intimate courtyard party more than a retail hotspot. That's exactly what Katherine Erny Gaar envisioned when she launched it in April.

"I make it very homey and inviting," she says. "I have it lit and pretty so people act like bugs and just naturally come in." The market is open from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday through Sunday.

By tapping into the vibrant Frenchmen Street nightlife, Gaar puts artists directly in the path of people looking to have fun and spend money.

"Most tourists now want to go to down to Frenchmen," says Gaar, a former jewelry designer. "The entire area is growing that way. It's not like other art markets where the artists have to decide, 'Are the people going to be there or not?' I'm bringing the artists to the people."

Gaar also saw a need to bridge a gap between the established Royal Street art scene and the emerging arts district on St. Claude Avenue in order to provide a platform for new artists as well as to offer everyone a fun way to experience art.

"It's just a lot of people hanging out, and the artists do really well," Gaar says. "Every day we redesign the layouts. People ask, 'Why don't you have premarked spots?' But I don't want this to be a normal market. I want it to be an art event." — Missy Wilkinson

 

 

Kathleen Gasparian, 39

Immigration attorney and partner, Ware|Gasparian

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

A grandchild of Armenian refugees who immigrated to the U.S., Kathleen Gasparian had always believed in the American dream. In her 20s, she was working at Loyola University with international scholars who wanted to move here — and it occurred to her that she could help immigrants realize their dreams.

"I thought, 'This is what I've got to do,'" she says. "I've got to help people get here." A firm push from a colleague led Gasparian to enter law school.

Now a partner at Ware|Gasparian, she's active in the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the Association of International Educators. She spends most of her time, however, helping people pursue citizenship.

It's not easy, due to the public's increasing hostility toward undocumented residents. "A lot of times when people hear I'm an immigration attorney, they say, 'I hope you're the one kicking them out,'" she says. "But that is a great opportunity to educate them and break down the mythology.

"The myths of the undocumented are very harsh: They are all using our health care system and costing us money and committing crimes. That always frustrates me."

The victories make it all worthwhile. Gasparian recalls certain asylum cases — a priest who faced harm upon return to his native Rwanda; Soviet nationals whose homosexuality made their country a hostile environment; immigrant women afraid to leave their abusive husbands — as reasons to keep going.

"I keep families together, and I help people find their future here in the U.S.," she says. "I have the best job in the world." — Eileen Loh

 

 

Kevin Griffin, 29

Radio producer; Founding member of 2-Cent Entertainment

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Anyone who wants proof of the power of a mentor need look no further than Kevin Griffin.

A producer at WBOK Radio and founding member of 2-Cent Entertainment, Griffin is also the product of a horrific childhood spent in the youth prison at Tallulah. Behind bars from the ages of 10 to 15, "I grew up fast," Griffin says. "I experienced a lot of stuff no kid should experience."

Upon his release, Griffin was angry and bitter. Two mentors — teacher Troy Moore and Moore's friend Sean Varnado — helped the teenager change his life. Now, through his media outlets, Griffin produces positive content by and for at-risk youth. That means giving them a voice: their 2 cents.

"They're kids," Griffin says. "They have feelings, and they know what people say about them. Don't underestimate them, because they're smart."

Griffin credits reliable role models for the man he's become. "Sean was there for me through thick and thin," he says. "He made me want to be in the lives of young people and do something different and positive. He was in his 30s, making six figures, single, no kids. He could've been doing a hell of a lot different with his time and money."

Now Griffin is trying to get more adults to step up. "When you see these young kids who are hurting, especially young black boys, please don't sit on the sidelines," he says. "Dealing with them is like doing heart surgery. It's a sensitive process. You can't hold them so tight you hurt them, but you can't be too loose or they'll get away." — Eileen Loh

 

 

Stephen Benjamin "Ben" Hales, 38

Senior Vice President, Marketing and Business Development,

New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Hornets

Ben Hales is a busy man.

In addition to life at home with wife Dr. Kendall Goodier Hales and daughters Madison, 9, and Caroline, 4, Ben Hales is in the midst of a most unusual New Orleans Saints season, his 13th with the NFL organization, as he prepares for his inaugural campaign with the NBA Hornets, acquired earlier in the year by his boss, Tom Benson.

Hales has performed duties for the Saints ranging from broadcasting to stadium operations to game entertainment to community affairs and youth programs. He played a vital role in inking the Superdome sponsorship deal with Mercedes-Benz. In an email, he characterized that deal as "a tremendous benefit to our city" in creating a partnership that now "hosts the many highly rated televised sporting events we host in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that function as an advertisement for our city and region."

Considering all the Saints' successes in recent years, as a brand and as a team, Hales predicts similar results with the Hornets. That franchise has been one of the NBA's worst teams in recent years, but it now holds great promise thanks to Tom Benson's purchase of the team and the addition of budding stars Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers during this year's draft.

"Our teams' long-term success is directly tied to the growth and success of New Orleans and the Gulf South region," Hales says. "It only makes sense for us to be invested in, and be an active participant, in that growth." — Frank Etheridge

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