It's not difficult to find young people in the New Orleans area who have risen to the top of their fields or have developed innovative programs and products to make life better. We have been constantly amazed over the past 16 years by the quality of candidates for Gambit's 40 Under 40 Awards and what they've accomplished.
Here's our 16th annual 40 Under 40.
Darren Alridge, 22
Recreation assistant, Youth Empowerment Project
The week before Halloween, Darren Alridge was hard at work putting together a free haunted house for the children in New Orleans Providing Literacy to All Youth (NOPLAY) and their families.
In 2009, as an alternative to incarceration, a judge sentenced a then-18 year-old Alridge to the Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), a local nonprofit that provides case management, mentoring and educational services to at-risk youth. By 2011, Alridge had earned his GED and was a para-instructor in the very program in which he once had been enrolled.
This year Alridge became the first YEP graduate to be hired as a full-time staff member; he works for NOPLAY and helps with after-school activities. He also was YEP's 100th GED graduate.
Alridge says he can relate to the young people at YEP because they trust him.
"I was in the same situation they're in now," he says. "I wanted to reach some of the guys in my neighborhood, to let them know that dropping out of high school isn't the last option."
Alridge has referred friends and family members to the GED program and has tried to convince them that a high school degree is something worth attaining. He is the youth representative for Mayor Mitch Landrieu's NOLA For Life Group Violence Reduction Strategy.
Though YEP's staff helped motivate him to complete his GED, Alridge says his 2-year-old son and a desire to continue his education are what make him work hard in his current job.
"My goals are becoming a proud father, getting into school, being a young entrepreneur and opening up new programs like the one I'm involved in," he says. — Jeanie Riess
Brian E. Anderson, 38
Co-owner, AGL Architecture & Interior Design
When Brian Anderson's Lakeview home was destroyed in the 2005 levee failures, he and his wife faced the difficult decision of whether to rebuild or move from Anderson's native city. As they weighed their decision, the architect, not one to be intimidated by a building project, told his wife they were either going to be all in or not at all.
"What we try to preach in my family (is) if you are going to be here, you need to be a part of the city, so you need to try to get involved in things here in the city," Anderson says.
Once the couple decided to stay in New Orleans, Anderson worked to rebuild not only his home but the city, quickly becoming involved in the Lakeview Civic Improvement Association (LCIA), where he is co-chairman of the Economic Development and Marketing Committee and a member of the board of directors. He also is on the board of directors of Kedila Family Learning Services, which works with at-risk youth.
"If you're going to be here you've got to be part of solving the problems," Anderson says. "It's so easy to sit here and complain that the schools are bad or that the crime is bad ... but if you are completely immersed in the city the way my family is, you have to figure out a way to get involved."
Anderson and business partner Nita Liggio are co-owners of AGL Architecture & Interior Design. Founded in 2003, AGL focuses on commercial construction and interior design, renovations of historic buildings and adaptive reuse.
"I really enjoy owning the business," Anderson says. "I enjoy being in charge of my own projects. Renovating is part of what drives me. I like creating new things. I like the idea of starting a company from scratch and making my way through the pitfalls." — Marguerite Lucas
Christine Audler, 25
Founder, Fight Fat Forever Inc.
Christine Audler founded Fight Fat Forever Inc. in 2011 at the urging of a friend who encouraged her to turn her passion for public health into a career. Although at the time Audler didn't have a set business plan, she says a vision of kids going up a mountain chanting "Fight fat forever" led her to establish the company and write the book, What Lou Can Do, which centers around a young girl battling obesity.
Through readings of her book and conducting healthy living seminars at schools and local community events, Audler is giving her company an active hand in changing the obesity epidemic in America.
"If I can implement my ideas into action, I know 80 percent of people will not be overweight," she says.
The Kenner native's passion for health care began when she was 15 years old and worked at Curves for Women after school. She then worked for three years at Ochsner's Elmwood Fitness Center. Because of her experiences at gyms, the meaning of the word "fat" shifted for her, Audler says.
"The No. 1 question I get is 'Were you ever fat?'" she says. "I tell people the word fat [stands for] Fight A Temptation.
"We all fight something. We would have the sexiest women come in (Curves) and they would complain about their bodies and be so thin. ... It didn't matter if you were 128 pounds or 328 pounds. We all fight something."
In addition to Fight Fat Forever, Audler writes for Break Thru Media magazine and sells medical weight loss equipment.
With What Lou Can Do now available in Spanish, Audler says she wants to expand her company internationally.
"It's the only thing that makes me happy," Audler says. "It's my baby. ... I tell everyone I'm the New Orleans Steve Jobs." — Marguerite Lucas
Kiki Baker Barnes, 38
Athletic director, Dillard University
President, Gulf Coast Athletic Conference
"I was going to be a radio or TV host, but this was the way to get there," Kiki Baker Barnes says of taking her first coaching gig at University of Louisiana at Lafayette while earning a master's degree in communications. "But once I got into the field, it felt like it was what I was supposed to be doing."
Shortly after graduating, Barnes, then 25, became head coach at Southern University at Shreveport, where she also was in charge of the dance team and cheerleaders. That's when she began considering a career as an athletic director and went back to college to earn a doctorate in higher education administration at University of New Orleans.
"I felt like I needed to have all of the credentials necessary." Barnes says. "I was black and a female, so that's like a double whammy, so I felt like I needed to get this Ph.D. and work under someone for about 10 years as an assistant [athletic director], and maybe by the time I turned 50 there would be an opportunity."
The opportunity came sooner than expected. In 2004, Dillard University hired Barnes as assistant athletic director, and she was promoted in 2006 when the school's athletic director left for another position.
"I was like, 'Are you kidding me? I'm getting it at 32 before I finish my doctorate. Really?'" she says.
During her tenure, Barnes has improved conditions for Dillard athletes and coaches and enhanced the experience for spectators. In 2009, she became the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference's first black female president.
"I believe in not being afraid to fail, not worrying about what other people have to say, doing your best, working hard, having integrity," Barnes says. "I'll outwork anybody. I may not be as talented, but I will outwork you. If I want it, I'll do whatever it takes to win." — Megan Braden-Perry
Emily Bellaci, 28
Founder, Within Reach — Center for Autism
When Emily Bellaci was in Houston working toward a master's degree in behavioral analysis at the University of Houston-Clear Lake, the New Orleans native realized there was a void of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) in her hometown.
"I met people from New Orleans who moved their whole family from New Orleans (to Houston) to get services for their kids," Bellaci says.
In January 2011, she opened Within Reach, which provides ABA therapy for 2- to 6-year-olds diagnosed with autism and related developmental disabilities. Within Reach works with children to improve their communication, play, independence, motor and academic skills in both group and one-on-one settings. Bellaci, who recently was elected chairwoman of the Licensing Board for Behavioral Analysts, says she hopes to expand her business to keep up with the demand from families with autistic children.
"I do want to grow the business but keep it small ... so kids receive quality, individualized service because that is when they see the most progress," she says.
"It's so rewarding to have kids who come to you (and talk) who haven't been able to talk at age 3 or 4 and nothing has worked for them up to that point," she says. "Having ABA therapy works so well ... and the kids are so funny. They always keep us laughing." — Marguerite Lucas
Miles Berry, 18
"The funny thing is that I'd kind of be screwed if I didn't have the saxophone," Miles Berry says when asked if music was his lifelong dream. "I really just kind of fell into it."
The 2013 graduate of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA) says hard work, NOCCA training and supportive friends and family are more responsible for his music success than any inherent gift.
"When I went into NOCCA ... I knew nothing," he says. "Most of the musical knowledge I have now, I learned at NOCCA. They teach you a lot of things that you don't necessarily want to learn at the time, but you're just thankful that you've learned it in the future."
For 18-year-old Berry, the future is off to a promising start. His accomplishments include playing with Herbie Hancock at International Jazz Day at Congo Square, being recruited for the Thelonious Monk Institute National Performing Arts High School All-Star Jazz Sextet, playing with trumpeter Terell Stafford in Los Angeles, performing at the Mendocino Music Festival in California and competing in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in Washington, D.C.
Berry has a standing gig with Delfeayo Marsalis Wednesday nights at Snug Harbor, the teenager's favorite place to perform, and he's recording an album next year with the Thelonious Monk sextet,
Berry not only plays with the greats, but also finds motivation in them.
"My biggest inspirations, being a saxophonist, would probably be Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane," Berry says. "My dad is a big inspiration — everyone is an inspiration around me at certain times." — Megan Braden-Perry
Jody Braunig, 37
Executive director, Girls on the Run New Orleans
After leaving her last job, Jody Braunig wrote a list describing what her "perfect job" would look like, with the assumption that it didn't exist. Her list included being part of a nonprofit and using skills like fundraising and social work, but it also included preferences such as running, being outside and wearing T-shirts.
When she learned of a job opening at Girls on the Run New Orleans, a local branch of a national organization dedicated to helping girls learn healthy habits, she says, "I couldn't say no. I knew that it was the perfect job for me. It was meant to be and I love it. I absolutely love it."
Girls on the Run New Orleans' goals are to help young women from all backgrounds learn healthy habits, adopt a healthy body image and build confidence.
"The running piece is like the lagniappe," says Braunig, who also is a float lieutenant in the all-female Mardi Gras Krewe of Nyx. "The curriculum, it's an empowerment curriculum, and it's so necessary today with all the bullying."
Girls on the Run partners with 16 schools in the greater New Orleans area and plans to expand to 12 more schools in the spring.
As executive director, Braunig's major responsibility is fundraising, with most money coming from the SoleMates program in which adults train for an event while raising money for Girls on the Run. Each SoleMate raises a minimum of $262 (a full marathon is 26.2 miles) and gets to train for an event the girls are running. Braunig raised $3,530 as a SoleMate.
"It is so easy because it's such a great cause. We're raising money for the girls here in New Orleans," Braunig says. "These are our girls. This is our community. These are our future leaders. It's totally easy, it's totally fun and we so appreciate it." — Megan Braden-Perry
Jacqueline M. Brettner, 32
Attorney, Carver, Darden, Koretzky, Tessier, Finn, Blossman & Areaux
Owner, Greenhouse NOLA
Getting an early start on the day as well as juggling duties as an attorney and a new mom to Sophia, now 6 months old, inspired Jacqueline M. Brettner and her partner, Lauren, a pediatric nurse at West Jefferson Hospital, to establish Greenhouse NOLA child day care at their Broadmoor home.
"Long hours go with the territory in being a young attorney," Brettner says. "I'm an early bird; I like to get to the office early to get organized and accomplish some things in the quiet before the day begins. That's when we realized the need in the city for Greenhouse NOLA." The center is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., has flexible pick-up and drop-off hours, and has an open-door policy for parents.
Brettner's path to New Orleans began in Panama, where she moved as a 9-year-old and explored her family's culture of food and festivals. She also discovered she had a voice that allowed her to tour Panama as a popular singer and guitarist a year before she enrolled at Tulane University Law School. She graduated in 2006 and worked at Phelps Dunbar law firm until moving to Carver, Darden, Koretzky, Tessier, Finn, Blossman & Areaux in 2011. Her pro bono work drafting the Louisiana Language Access Guidelines for English-as-a-second-language clients in civic and criminal cases earned her a Good Apple Award from local legal advocacy group Louisiana Appleseed.
Her schedule is busy, but Brettner says she makes time for exercise. She is a Big Easy Rollergirl, where she enters the rink as Persephone Danger. She's also a marathon runner and triathlete.
"At the end of a long and stressful day, I just have to blow off some steam," she says. "It's a great release and helps keeps everything balanced." — Frank Etheridge
Dr. Rebekah Gee, 37
Medicaid medical director of Louisiana
Dr. Rebekah Gee became interested in women's health at age 16, when her mother died of breast cancer. "She wasn't just a patient, but an advocate for women," Gee says. "I wanted to keep advancing the cause."
A native of Bountiful, Utah, Gee trained in obstetrics and gynecology at Harvard University. She moved to New Orleans in 2009 after falling in love with her now-husband during a trip to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and from 2010 to 2012, Gee directed the Louisiana Birth Outcomes Initiative (BOI).
"[Louisiana is] 49th or 50th on many health indicators for moms and kids, whether that is prematurity ... or our breastfeeding rate, which is lowest in the nation," Gee says. She addressed the problems by implementing state policies and working with physicians, nurses and hospitals to improve the health of babies — including a push to end the practice of delivering babies before the 39th week of pregnancy. One thousand fewer babies were admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit in 2012, Gee says.
In March, Gee became Medicaid medical director of Louisiana. "This program is in charge of taking care of almost 70 percent of the kids and moms in our state," she says. Gee works with the city in Hollygrove, where she is lead investigator for the "Best Babies Zone" project, which aims to reduce infant mortality by half in the next 10 years by improving aspects of the community and environment that impact women's health.
When Gee's not helping other women raise healthy children, she is parenting her own. "I have five kids — twins, and I am stepmom to three," Gee says. "I'm interested in making sure we're as healthy as we can be and improving New Orleans communities." — Missy Wilkinson