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
Zak George, 34
Dog trainer/ founder, Dog Training Revolution
Atlanta native Zak George moved his dog training business to the Crescent City last year. His Dog Training Revolution classes offer a unique set of communication tools to help dog owners build relationships with their pets.
"I have a very firm conviction in teaching dogs from the inside outwards, and making them want to do the behaviors," George says, adding that his teaching philosophy is about good communication, not choke chains and punishment.
After competing for two years in dog Frisbee competitions and winning several titles, as well as spending three years with the Extreme Canine Stunt Dog Show, George saw potential in teaching the same kind of relationships he had with his dogs to other pet owners.
"That opened my eyes to the bigger picture of teaching people about their dogs," he says. His border collie Venus also inspired him.
George also has been active on YouTube since 2006, and his channel, which offers free training clips, has attracted 15 million views. "I thought, 'I love entertainment, I love dogs, let's combine them,'" he says. "My first eureka moment was my first video that had 500 hits." He pitched television projects which led to a starring role in Animal Planet's Superfetch and the BBC's Who Let the Dogs Out, as well as appearances on late-night hotspots including CBS' The Late Show With David Letterman and NBC's Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
George also gives back to animal rescue groups through Dog Training Revolution. For every registration promoted by local groups such as Animal Rescue New Orleans and the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, George donates 25 percent of registration fees to those groups (about $50 per sign-up).
"It's important and it's the right thing to do," he says. Dog owners can sign up for classes via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. — Alex Woodward
Darryl Glade, 35
Co-founder, SNAP Real Estate Photography
As a real estate agent in New Orleans, Darryl Glade saw firsthand the need for high-quality photographs of buildings that were on the market, leading him to co-found SNAP Real Estate Photography in the summer of 2012, during his third year at Loyola University New Orleans' College of Law.
"While I was a real estate agent I saw the need for photography for listings," says Glade, a New Orleans native who also earned a Master of Business Administration degree from Loyola. "I saw how it helped listings sell for higher amounts and quicker."
Since its founding, SNAP has grown into the largest real estate photography service in the region, serving New Orleans, Baton Rouge, the Northshore and the Mississippi coast. He plans to enter six to 10 more Southern cities in the next few years. Glade says one key to his company's success is the ability to produce the photos in less than 24 hours.
"My drive is to create a sustainable business that is able to grow organically within the city of New Orleans, and to continue to create jobs and have a positive impact on local economy," Glade says.
SNAP has hired nine employees, Glade says, and the company is growing by one to two hires per month. He says he expects that growth to continue for a long time.
"It's very exciting to have a direct impact on the economy in New Orleans," he says.
Glade also has served as an executive mentor at Loyola, where he introduced incoming freshman to the local business community in an effort to encourage graduates to stay in the area.
"It's a lot of fun and I'm really excited about being in New Orleans and the future of New Orleans," Glade says. — Marguerite Lucas
Candice Gwinn, 38
Fashion designer/ owner, Trashy Diva
Seventeen years ago Candice Gwinn moved to New Orleans from suburban Atlanta with a bag of vintage clothes and $5,000. She opened Trashy Diva with a partner in a small shop on Decatur Street that's now a nightclub restroom. In 1999, Gwinn launched the Trashy Diva clothing line, a collection of vintage-inspired frocks ranging from size 0 to 24.
"We couldn't get vintage (clothing) we liked at affordable prices anymore," Gwinn says. "We added more and more dresses. Every year, we doubled our collection."
Today, there are seven Trashy Diva locations throughout New Orleans: two dress stores, two shoe stores, two lingerie stores and one accessories shop. More than 75 boutiques worldwide carry the Trashy Diva clothing line. Celebrities ranging from Taylor Swift to Sophia Bush have been spotted wearing the dresses.
"We've sold to ... well, name any young celebrity who has come to New Orleans," Gwinn says.
Gwinn gets inspiration for her designs from her customers and the 30 women she employs in her stores, as well as gaps in her own wardrobe. "Usually, it's something I want," she says. "I think, 'I want this,' or customers say, 'I wish I had this.'"
The dresses are manufactured in a private workshop in China, and Gwinn creates original prints with New Orleans-centric designs ranging from sacred hearts to French Quarter scenes. Though she plans to open Trashy Diva stores in other states, Gwinn hasn't yet found the boutique culture she's looking for outside the Crescent City.
"There aren't a lot of places that have that New Orleans feeling," she says. "We're grateful New Orleans is such a wonderful city: People are interesting and wear colorful, fun clothing, so I can design what I want and have people be receptive to it." — Missy Wilkinson
Jason Hemel, 38
Founder, Peristyle Residences
Jason Hemel's vision for Peristyle Residences is an assisted living facility that feels like home for elderly people living there. He founded the business in 2011 as a way to help seniors and their families by providing direct care, using the knowledge he gleaned from working in larger institutions and applying it to Peristyle Residences.
"There are some beautiful buildings I have seen that are nice and extremely home-like, but no matter how nice it is, when you have 75 to 100 people living in the same structure, it still has an institutional feel," says Hemel, who has worked in the senior living industry since college, including stints as chief operating officer and later vice president of development at St. Margaret's. "You still have a laundry department. [Residents] still have to eat when everyone else is eating."
Peristyle Residences offer single-family dwellings that have been modified to conform to Americans With Disabilities Act requirements for doorways and bathrooms. The complex also offers 24-hour care. Because there are only six residents living in the complexes, they can create their own schedules, Hemel says.
"Others are homelike, but Peristyle Residences are home," he says. "Our caregivers are cooking home-cooked meals. ... If the residents want a late breakfast, that's fine. If they want to sleep until 10 a.m., that's fine."
There are Peristyle Residences in New Orleans, Metairie, Gretna and Hattiesburg, Miss., and Hemel says he wants to add two more in the New Orleans area in the next year.
The New Orleans native also serves as president of the board for A Shared Initiative, a nonprofit founded by ASI Federal Credit Union to help small businesses and low-income residents. He also is on the board of Bayou Boogaloo.
"It's very rewarding to get to know [the residents] as people," Hemel says. "A lot of people look at me and ask if I really like taking care of old people and I [say] 'Yes, we give meaning to their life.'" — Marguerite Lucas
Dr. Tracey L. Henry, 32
Internal medicine physician, Ochsner Health System
An Alabama native with Louisiana lineage, Tracey L. Henry has combined career focus with deeply held convictions about establishing herself as an expert in public health policy.
"I'm driven by the idea of being a complete doctor," she says. "Advocacy is usually an overlooked part of our profession, but we must care for the people that need our help — and not just the ones that make it in the doors."
In college, Henry majored in psychology "to better understand myself and how to better help others," she says, before earning a master's degree in neuroscience at Tulane University. She completed medical school at Georgetown University. Her tenure in the nation's capital allowed Henry access to politicians and policymakers, whom she successfully lobbied via the Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines for funding to distribute the HPV vaccine to girls in developing countries.
As a physician with Ochsner, Henry has donated services to the homeless and indigent through The National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics. In her position on the Louisiana Medical Society's Board of Governors, she has written opinions on public health policy that were delivered to Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Henry also has visited local schools as part of the Doctors Back to School program. "It's helpful for those students to see a woman of color that's a physician," she says.
While lightheartedly saying she enjoys shopping, photography and the New Orleans Saints, Henry is concise when stating a professional philosophy that doubles as a career goal: "Health care is a right, not a privilege," Henry says. "I want everyone to have access to ... quality health care, and I believe that this is possible if we change the way we deliver and finance health care." — Frank Etheridge
Darren Hoffman, 29
Kristen McEntyre, 34
Founders, Tutti Dynamics
Want to take music lessons from a New Orleans jazz master? Thanks to Darren Hoffman and Kristen McEntyre, there's an app for that.
Hoffman and McEntyre founded Tutti Dynamics and earlier this year launched the Tutti Music Player, an app that provides videos of musicians such as Jason Marsalis, Shannon Powell, Lucien Barbarin and Steve Masakowski performing in ensemble settings. Users can get the instructive views they want by manipulating videos to focus on specific musicians from multiple angles or isolating specific instruments. The app also provides access to traditional teaching tools like tempo control, video looping and sheet music.
Tutti Music Player caught the attention of education administrators at Jazz at Lincoln Center, who brought Tutti Dynamics on board for its 2012-2013 Essentially Ellington series, a high school band competition that requires students around the country to learn an entire program of big band compositions. The team at Tutti Dynamics recorded Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, then made the performances available for participating bands to study.
"In the past, they sent out sheet music and audio recordings, but nothing really interactive that can get the student closer to the masters," says Hoffman, who already is working on recordings for next year's Essentially Ellington program.
The Tutti Music Player is being used in more than 300 high schools and at Tulane University and Boston's Berklee College of Music, where instructors can record content to use in lieu of textbooks or other conventional instructional materials.
Hoffman got the idea for the Tutti Music Player after graduating from film school at Florida State University and moving to New Orleans to study percussion at the University of New Orleans. He wanted to document the techniques he was learning, so he used his background in filmmaking to create a proprietary recording system that uses more than 20 cameras to capture musicians in the studio.
"I had a vision in my mind of all these locked-down cameras so the information would stay consistent while the viewer can observe it and learn from it without any distractions," he says.
As Hoffman prepared to launch Tutti Dynamics, he found a kindred spirit and business partner in McEntyre, who moved to New Orleans in 2008. McEntyre studied digital media and finance at Stanford University, and she bonded with Hoffman over a mutual appreciation for New Orleans jazz.
McEntyre calls the Tutti Music Player "a new standard for interactive music" that gives students and teachers access to a wide variety of jazz players and styles.
"We're really excited about the potential for Tutti," McEntyre says. "There are incredible musicians here and great support for the entrepreneurial community, so we think New Orleans is the perfect place to build this company." — Brad Rhines
Daniel Jatres, 30
Program manager, Regional Planning Commission bicycle and pedestrian programs
If he's not biking on the Mississippi River trail Uptown or installing bike racks with Where Ya' Rack? on city sidewalks, Daniel Jatres likely is doing something big with a bicycle.
The Regional Planning Commission's (RPC) bicycle and pedestrian program director also serves on statewide advisory boards for bike safety and infrastructure, works with national bike groups, and advocates for Louisiana's two- (or several-) wheeled community. Jatres helped create and pass the city's Complete Streets legislation, which ensures all city planning projects are built for all users, whether on feet or wheels — and not just cars.
"The end product is going to be something good for the neighborhood, for the people using the roadway, regardless of how they're using it, and not the '50s and '60s mindset of moving cars from point A to point B," he says.
Jatres joined the RPC in 2007 and has managed a multi-million dollar transportation safety program and outreach campaign, working with law enforcement statewide to ensure bicyclists' safety, and launching a media campaign to make drivers aware of bike riders. This past summer, RPC updated its bicycle map along with a guide to safe cycling, now available in Spanish and Vietnamese at www.norpc.org. Over the last year, he has worked with Jefferson Parish to update its bicycle master plan, which will be made available to the public for comment later this year. With Where Ya' Rack?, he helped install bike racks throughout the city to expand bike-parking options.
"The benefits of having transportation choices — whether health, economic, or quality-of-life benefits — touches on so many areas it gets to the point where you develop interests and allies across professions," Jatres says, adding that he has helped build bike-friendly relationships with the city's health and public works departments. "New Orleans is at a point where those interests are becoming increasingly cohesive." — Alex Woodward
Tamika Jett, 26
Choreographer/ dancer/ owner, Passion Dance Center
Tamika Jett has had visions of becoming a choreographer and owning a dance school since she was a child. She looked up to her teachers at Benjamin's School of Dance in New Orleans and credits the instructors there with teaching her the craft and equipping her with life skills.
"It wasn't just about dance," Jett says. "It was about being a lady, (having) grace and poise." One of her favorite teachers, Fernand Jackson, was a dancer for the prestigious Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York City. "I didn't know what being an Alvin Ailey dancer meant at the time, but I knew that I wanted to do everything Fernand did so that I could be like him," Jett says.
Jett's goal has always been to leave an impact on the city and to provide young people with better opportunities than she had. She attended the University of New Orleans for a year, hoping to teach at Benjamin's School of Dance, but she was displaced after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. She enrolled at Louisiana State University and founded Legacy Dancers with three other New Orleanians.
"Legacy, I think that was major," Jett says. "We used to do jazz, hip-hop. After my summer internship in New York at Broadway Dance Center where I learned from great choreographers like Frank Hatchett, Luam and Rhapsody James, I was ready to go back and teach everything I'd learned."
That meant not only choreography, but work ethic and the mission-driven approach to life she found common among New Yorkers.
In 2010, at the age of 23, Jett founded Passion Dance Center, where she works with other choreographers teaching hip-hop, ballet, jazz, tap and tumbling. She choreographs for musicians and background dancers and books talent. On Mondays, Jett hosts "Twerk and Werk" classes, though she says the word "twerk" is not in her vernacular. "I call it p-popping," Jett says. "I don't know what 'twerking' is." — Megan Braden-Perry
Amy Johnson, 34
Amy Johnson spent her childhood emulating the dance moves she saw in old movies and on MTV, when that network still showed music videos. So as an adult dancer, she cites those two categories as her biggest influences, with an emphasis on Michael Jackson and Vera Ellen.
The Minnesota native moved to New Orleans in 2007 and was a street performer, meeting musicians and other dancers with whom she still performs today.
"My story isn't very original," she says. "I followed the music."
Johnson has helped re-establish the city as a destination for swing and jazz dancing. She primarily is a dancer and tours globally with Meschiya Lake and the Little Big Horns. She also started the New Orleans Swing Dance Festival and Ultimate Lindy Hop Showdown five years ago, a festival of dance classes, contests and performances that draws dance enthusiasts from all over the world. Johnson founded and operates the Welbourne Jazz Camp in Middleburg, Va., a music and dance camp for adults that's open to beginners and professionals alike.
As if those things didn't comprise a full-time job, Johnson also is the brains behind The Chorus Girl Project, a set of vintage dance classes for adult women that began about a year ago at the New Orleans Healing Center. Johnson says she already is considering adding another class.
Asked whether the projects could exist anywhere except New Orleans, Johnson says probably, "but they wouldn't be as cool. Dancers here have access to so much music." — Jeanie Riess
Ted Joyner, 32
Grant Widmer, 31
Ted Joyner and Grant Widmer formed Generationals in 2007 after the power-pop duo returned to New Orleans from their Baton Rouge digs, where the band performed in The Eames Era. After regrouping as a duo in New Orleans (and naming themselves after a popular 2008 election-season term), Generationals released their debut album, 2009's Con Law, as well as its follow-up, 2011's Actor-Caster, on Park the Van Records, the then-New Orleans-based indie rock label. This year, Generationals released Heza on Polyvinyl Records, home to Deerhoof, of Montreal, Xiu Xiu and other influential indie rock acts. Following Heza's release, the band embarked on a sweeping, headlining national tour followed by a European tour in August. After three years on the road, the band now headlines and sells out shows across the country. (Generationals will perform at the 2014 Buku Music & Art Project.)
"We kind of grew into being a headlining band on the road," Widmer says.
"A year or two later, we're still doing it," Joyner says. "(There's) this great realization that, 'Wow, we can do this as our job for a little while as well.'"
Now back home, the Jesuit High School graduates are working on Heza's follow up with producer Richard Swift of The Shins. The band expects to record in January.
"It's a new chapter in our career," Joyner says. "It's our second record with Polyvinyl, but our first making one on Polyvinyl," adding that they are longtime fans of the label.
"We like them, they like us," Widmer says. "They're helpful, good people and we intend to stick around."
That goes for New Orleans, too — it's their hometown, where they have helped ignite a renewed interest in independent rock. "It's famous for a certain kind of music, a certain kind of food, but there's always a left turn where new directions can be taken," Widmer says. — Alex Woodward
Tiffany Junot, 34
Women's world boxing champion
In 2002, Tiffany Junot read an article about boxer Mia St. John. It was her first inkling that women were boxing. "I thought I'd be good at it," Junot says. Her hunch was right. Nine years later, she fought St. John for the Women's World Boxing Council World Super Welterweight title — and won.
"I was very focused," Junot says. She started taking boxing classes in 2002. Within two weeks, she was competing. "I just kept winning," she says.
Junot rose through the ranks, achieving a No. 1 national ranking as an amateur and turning pro in 2006. In 2011, she became New Orleans' first women's world boxing champion.
"I didn't know about boxing, but I did know how to fight and I was willing to do more than the other person," Junot says. This includes a conditioning plan that was more advanced than those followed by other amateur fighters. "I set the bar pretty high," the New Orleans native says. "My goal was to train like a top male boxer." Six days a week, Junot spent three hours in the boxing gym and two hours in the weight room. She ran more than 30 miles a week.
Junot says she loves the discipline and fairness of boxing.
"It's just you and the other person," she says. "You're the same weight. It's as fair as a fight could be, and the best person wins." She likens the sport to a chess game: "It's very calculated. You have to out-think the other person, not just go out and punch."
Junot, who plans to retire in another year, says she knows the toughness she's gained from boxing helps outside the ring. "[Boxing is] about being uncomfortable and pushing past that," she says. "I know under pressure I'm going to be steady." — Missy Wilkinson
Rebecca Kreston, 28
Microbiologist, writer for Discover magazine
Microbiologist Rebecca Kreston is fascinated by things that make most people squirmy and eager for a vat of bleach. Botulism, cockroaches, tapeworms, rabies and other infectious diseases and parasites are among the topics of her award-winning science writing for Discover magazine. Her enthusiasm is, for lack of a better word, infectious.
"I really dig parasites," Kreston says. "I love learning about the history of diseases, too."
Kreston started her blog, Body Horrors, in 2011 while a student at Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. It takes Kreston hours to write each meticulously researched, playfully worded post — and that's in addition to the demands of medical school and its 12- to 14-hour days.
"I just started med school (at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center) two months ago, and it's tough to balance both of these equally important obligations," says Kreston, who is specializing in internal medicine and infectious diseases.
Kreston's blog has drawn acclaim, appearing in the Scientific American anthology Best Science Writing Online 2012, as well as netting her a writing gig for Discover magazine and offers of two book deals. Kreston says she does plan to write a book someday — after she finishes med school and a residency in infectious diseases.
Born in Norway and raised in Malaysia and Singapore, Kreston cared for people with leprosy during a nine-month internship in Mumbai, India, and she organized hurricane-related medical evacuations as an intern for the Department of Homeland Security. Kreston wrote the Louisiana Office of Public Health's 2013 manual for schools on handling infectious diseases including flu and scabies.
"I wrote the manual on how to tackle them, prevention and control," Kreston says. "Transmission of infectious diseases never occurs in a vacuum. There are mitigating factors, and that's what I explore in my blog — the history, sociology and anthropology of infectious diseases." — Missy Wilkinson
Dr. Benjamin H. Levy III, 34
A recent New York Times article, "Is Music the Key to Success?" explores the correlation between musicianship and high achievement in other fields. Dr. Benjamin Levy could be a poster boy for the story. He is a gastroenterology fellow at Louisiana State University New Orleans and serves on the American College of Gastroenterology's Patient Care Committee. He also is a cellist who majored in music at the University of Virginia and received a Fulbright fellowship to research the music and musicians of World War II at the Sorbonne and with the Orchestre de Paris.
"I'm passionate about music and medicine and had a difficult time trying to decide which field to go into," says Levy, a native of Savannah, Ga. "I really wanted to be a doctor, but also introduce classical and jazz music to younger audiences."
In 2003, Levy found a way to merge those passions by organizing the Music Inspires Health Initiative, a national health education campaign that teaches adolescents and adults about issues ranging from depression to HIV prevention.
"We organized concerts in Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles ... and worked with musicians like Trey Songz and Ingrid Michaelson," he says.
In 2011, Levy came to New Orleans and he is working to organize his next health education concert with the help of students at Tulane University, where he is a volunteer lecturer in public health classes.
"I'm passionate about helping populations without health insurance, and that is one of the reasons I chose to move to New Orleans," Levy says. "I'm excited to give back to the city, because this city gives so much to the world in terms of culture, food and jazz — which I'm personally really into." — Missy Wilkinson
Phillip Lopez, 33
Executive chef/ proprietor, Root and Square Root
Maximilian G. Ortiz, 35
Proprietor/ general manager, Root and Square Root
When Root opened in 2011, it was New Orleans' most ambitious restaurant since Hurricane Katrina, with unusual menu items and preparations more often seen in the fine kitchens of Paris or Chicago than in the Warehouse District.
"We thought it was going to be a huge gamble," says Phillip Lopez, whose unusual cuisine — dazzlingly composed salads, "foielly pops" (foie gras lollipops), Cohiba-smoked scallops served in a cigar box — quickly earned him national attention and devotion from local foodies who weren't intimidated by such creative fare. Keeping customers comfortable with Lopez's culinary vision is Maximilian Ortiz, the maitre d' and front-of-the-house manager, who says, "The biggest part of our job is making sure everything is welcoming."
The two met when both were working at Restaurant August and credit chef John Besh for their training and attitude toward hospitality and fine dining. "We had a common vision of what the restaurant scene should be in New Orleans," Ortiz says.
Lopez has worked at five Besh restaurants, while Ortiz, a graduate of Loyola University, has worked for more than a decade in several New Orleans restaurants. But it was the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, both men say, that shook up the New Orleans dining scene. New chefs moved to town; diners' palates changed. "It was also the explosion of the Food Network," Ortiz says. "People were a lot more open to something besides fish or crabmeat topped with hollandaise."
Ortiz and Lopez' next collaboration is Square Root, a Lower Garden District spinoff that's been more than a year in the making. Square Root will be a chef's table restaurant, with only two seatings per night and 15 to 18 courses per dinner. Upstairs will be a craft-cocktail bar with small plates food, and Lopez says Square Root will import Root's popular charcuterie and cheese program.
"You'll walk in through the kitchen and get to see how everything is made," Lopez says. "I don't want to say it's crazy — but it's fun."
Square Root will open in December or January — depending on how quickly construction can be finished — and the restaurant will begin taking reservations by the end of November.
"I'm looking forward to taking off my tool belt," Lopez says, "and putting on my apron again." — Kevin Allman
Telley Madina, 32
Gulf Coast policy officer, Oxfam America
Telley Madina's call to action in advocating for preserving Louisiana coastal wetlands and the vulnerable communities that call them home is a personal one. An Eleanor McMain High School alum with a degree in social sciences from Loyola University, Madina worked as a political consultant and with the city's Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) initiatives when the BP disaster struck close to home in April 2010.
"My father-in-law is a third-generation oysterman down in Pointe a la Hache, in Plaquemines Parish," Madina says. "When the oil spill hit, he (Byron Encalade) needed help. His business (Encalade Fisheries) lost five boats during (Hurricane) Katrina and was still recouping from that. When I looked at what Katrina and the oil spill had done, to not just my family but at how minority communities and family fisheries were disproportionately affected in what could become a permanent setback for them, I decided to become more engaged in advocacy issues."
In addition to serving as executive director of the Louisiana Oystermen Association and pursuing a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of New Orleans, for the past three years Madina has worked for Oxfam America, an international organization that seeks solutions to poverty and injustice. His duties there range from meeting with state legislators to conducting tours of the West Bank to show leaders of nonprofits how coal refineries relate to high rates of asthma among black children. His latest project with Oxfam America is to fight insurance rates mandated by the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act, which he says would result in unreasonably high bills.
Being a volunteer coach at Norman Playground in Algiers, however, is his biggest challenge and one he takes seriously since he cites childhood coaches at Hunters Field in the 7th Ward as crucial to setting him on a good path in life.
"Giving the kids I coach the guidance and direction they need in life — that's the hardest job I have," Madina says. — Frank Etheridge
Akeem Martin, 26
Poet/ organizer, Slam New Orleans
In his decadelong poetry career, 26-year-old Akeem Martin has earned three national champion titles at the annual National Poetry Slam (NPS) competition. Martin is an organizer and coach with the poetry group Slam New Orleans (Team SNO), and the team bested 70 national teams at the 2013 NPS in Boston. They are almost consecutive wins — 2010, 2012 and 2013. His teams didn't enter in 2011, though he's sure they would have won then, too.
Martin began writing poetry as a 16-year-old student at Edna Karr High School and became captain of his slam poetry team New Orleans Youth Slam in his senior year. The team entered the 2005 Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam and came in sixth place out of 40 competitors.
"Going to Brave New Voices — where you see people doing the same thing though they're different genders (and) races — breaks down that prejudice ingrained in southern Louisiana, and breaks down those barriers," Martin says. During this year's NPS, he says his team, formed from veteran poets and newer blood, did a lot of writing to prepare for the stiff competition. "They had to catch up, and boy did they catch up," he says. "The harder you work, the sweeter it is."
Martin graduated Tulane University with a master's degree in architecture in 2011 and now works at the architecture firm Spectrum Design. He's also a student of taekwondo and ninjutsu, and an aspiring model and actor.
"My schedule is pretty hectic," Martin says. "I never have a dull moment."
He hopes Team SNO will be able to compete in the 2014 NPS, where it could be the first team ever to win three consecutive titles — or, as Martin says, "Make it four in a row." — Alex Woodward
Anna Monhartova, 35
Assistant professor, Payson Center for International Development, Tulane University
Co-founder, A's & Aces
Since 2008, Anna Monhartova has been teaching kids to serve — both on the tennis court and in the classroom. She is a professor of International Development at Tulane University and a co-founder A's & Aces, a nonprofit organization that uses tennis to teach life skills to New Orleans schoolchildren.
Monhartova was born in Czechoslovakia, and started playing tennis at the age of 5. After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, which ended communist rule in Czechoslovakia, she played on the Czech Republic national team and earned a scholarship to Tulane University in 1998.
"Tennis made it possible to come here," Monhartova says. "When I decided not to play professionally, I thought coming to the U.S. on a scholarship would be a good compromise between education and tennis."
Monhartova made the most of her opportunity, earning bachelor's degrees in Russian and political science and a doctorate in international development. She co-founded A's & Aces with her Tulane tennis coach, David Schumacher, as a way to put development theory into practice.
A's & Aces provides tennis instruction and academic support to students at six partner schools in the New Orleans area and offers summer literacy and tennis camps to kids from around the city. The camps teach sportsmanship, teamwork, conflict resolution skills, nutrition and more.
"It's character development," Monhartova says. "Pretty much every life skill you may think about, we try to tie to our curriculum."
As a Tulane professor, Monhartova uses A's & Aces to incorporate service learning into her undergraduate courses, giving Tulane students exposure to underserved public schools and the opportunity to tutor and mentor. It's a win-win deal, she says.
"I can connect the service learners with A's and Aces, which allows me to make sure the service learners have a meaningful experience, and to make sure that A's & Aces benefits from the service the volunteers provide," she says.
Monhartova plans to expand A's & Aces and "make it sustainable so it can create a replicable model for others that can be created somewhere else, to serve more children and families." — Brad Rhines
Pierre Moses, 27
Director, Make It Right Solar
Founding member, Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association
Louisiana is often called an oil and gas state, but Pierre Moses, founder of Make It Right Solar, is trying to add a few other energy sources to that moniker.
"We're on the cusp of a rebranding of that tagline," Moses says. "Louisiana should be known as an energy state, not just a gas state, with all forms of energy, both renewable and fossil fuels.
"The right energy solution is a mix of a lot of different fuel types. I don't think one can be relied upon for all of our energy needs."
In 2008, the New Orleans native started working for Make It Right, Brad Pitt's green, low-income housing development nonprofit, as an unpaid intern. A year later he started the solar industry subsidiary of Make It Right, which has built more than 100 houses in the lower 9th Ward since Hurricane Katrina — all of them equipped with solar panels. Moses says solar panels not only decrease residents' electric bills, they also cut carbon emissions that result from some forms of electricity production.
He also is a founding member of the Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association, a nonprofit that drives policy for renewable energy trade groups in Gulf States.
Moses says following the federal flooding in 2005, he became aware of how limited the local solar energy market was. At that time, homeowners had to purchase solar panels outright, and financing options were almost nonexistent. Make It Right Solar allows homeowners and housing development projects to lease solar panels, and offers innovative financing for people who want to purchase them.
For struggling communities, those options are priceless, he says. "The consumers that have really benefitted from the technology have been the ones that really needed it," Moses says. "And they deserve it." — Jeanie Riess
Tami Nelson, 38
Conservatory director/ co-founder, The New Movement Theater
Chris Trew, 32
Creative director/ co-founder, The New Movement Theater
Comedians Chris Trew and Tami Nelson want funny people in New Orleans to stay here.
"One thing that made us sad was people taking comedy classes and getting their feet wet (in New Orleans) and then taking off to Los Angeles or Chicago or New York," Nelson says. "Our goal is to keep people here and to have people moving to New Orleans and Austin (Texas) for comedy."
The founders of The New Movement Theater, both natives of New Orleans, met while taking improv classes. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, they headed to Austin, where they discovered they shared a unique perspective on "the art of improv." While others were celebrating goofy performers in matching T-shirts sketching ideas tossed out by an audience, Trew and Nelson wanted performers to use individual experiences to bring something different to the improv stage.
"No one was really dealing with it as a comedic art form," Nelson says. "We structured the syllabus around smart, interesting comedy that's never happened before. That's a cool thing about improv: You can have something that's never happened before, over and over again. You don't have to reuse old jokes."
They opened The New Movement in Austin in 2009, got the theater on its feet then moved to New Orleans to cultivate seeds they'd sewn for a New Orleans branch.
"Our goal was always to come back to New Orleans," Trew says. "It was the only place in the world we wanted to be, and this is the best thing in the world to be doing."
Out of The New Movement came Hell Yes Fest, an annual event in New Orleans that Trew and Nelson started in 2010. Each year Hell Yes Fest has grown by 20 percent, and this year's event (it runs from Nov. 12-18) will feature 100 local and visting performers.
"It's a testament to how cool New Orleans is and also to the work everyone has done to make New Orleans a good comedy scene," Trew says. "It is the biggest comedy event that's ever been attempted in the South."
Nelson and Trew hope to make Hell Yes Fest a self-sustaining enterprise that can provide New Orleans comedians employment year-round.
"We're hoping that this festival is something people can do for their job," Trew says. "So they can work less time at restaurant jobs. It's a long-term goal of ours." — Jeanie Riess
Kristen Preau, 30
Cook Me Somethin' Mister
Known as "Jambalaya Girl," Kristen Preau says she was given the title while stirring her father's cast-iron pot full of jambalaya at her brother's sporting events. Preau has fun with her nickname, saying one goal for Cook Me Somethin' Mister is to make the Jambalaya Girl Louisiana's version of the Wendy's girl from the restaurant chain's promotions.
Preau came up with the concept for Cook Me Somethin' Mister while traveling across the country to raise money for New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. She raised $100,000 for her hometown by serving jambalaya made from her father's recipe at 11 college tailgates. It made her realize that people donated not only because they loved New Orleans, but they also loved the jambalaya.
"It's always been a goal of mine to represent a company that promoted New Orleans and represent a piece of New Orleans culture through my dad's recipe," Preau says.
She founded the company in 2010, and Cook Me Somethin' Mister's jambalaya packages of rice, seasonings and vegetables are sold in more than 100 grocery stores across six states, as well as at 22 Sam's Clubs.
"Once people taste [the jambalaya], they are hooked on it," Preau says. "It stands out with the quality of the recipe and the flavors in it."
Preau says she wants to expand the product line beyond jambalaya and market her products internationally.
"I'm having so much fun with this," Preau says. "We've been growing ... the business is out there and I've just been building it on fans of my product, and think I'm taking it with a good product with a great story and me being a little bit of a character." — Marguerite Lucas
Aesha Rasheed, 36
Editor, New Orleans Parents' Guide to Public Schools
When both New Orleans school districts were struggling to bounce back after Hurricane Katrina, local education advocate Aesha Rasheed went to every open school in the city and gathered data that families could use to make decisions about where to send their children. She collected that information in a book — not as a catalogue, but as an accessible advocacy tool. That guide is in its seventh year now, with information including a school's average class-size and whether it has a garden. New Orleans Parents' Guide to Public Schools aims to help them make an informed decision in a system that can be complicated and difficult to navigate. As editor of the guide, Rasheed uses her knowledge of the schools, acquired in part during a five-year stint as an education reporter at The Times-Picayune, to rally for permanent change.
In 2008, she and a coalition of parents, educators and other community leaders started Morris Jeff Community School, and she still sits on the board of that Mid-City charter school. Rasheed also is helping to organize an informational swap process, where parents from all different schools can come together to share experiences and answer each other's questions about public education.
"The thing that hurt my heart the most was the way I heard adults in our community talk about our children," she says. "... That some people can walk away and other people have to engage with the system. It's a huge injustice."
Rasheed's work was recognized nationally with a 2013 Daily Point of Light award from the Points of Light volunteer mobilization organization, given to individuals who find innovative ways to meet community needs. — Jeanie Riess
Ameca Reali, 30
Adrienne Wheeler, 35
Co-founders, Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana
Loyola University Law School graduates Ameca Reali and Adrienne Wheeler founded the Justice and Accountability Center (JAC) of Louisiana, whose most recent project was an "Expungement Day" in September. More than 500 people came to Christian Unity Baptist Church in Treme to seek help in getting their criminal records expunged. Reali and Wheeler now are sorting through those files.
"When our criminal justice system is as active as it is with arrests and two federal consent decrees, expungements become a vehicle for sustainability," Wheeler says, adding that background checks that turn up criminal records can prevent employment, housing and other services.
"Outside of jobs, it really can affect one's ability to engage in a community, volunteer, have custody of kids, volunteer at your kids' school, walk in a parade with them — it's not just jobs, which is huge, but it also reconnects with the things that help you stay grounded," Reali says.
Expungements typically take a year, though the process isn't uniform statewide and varies from parish to parish. In Orleans Parish, Wheeler says, one must get the records, wait for a hearing date, pay $250 for the expungement, and wait for a certificate of compliance from the state police — which can deny the request or ask for more information before it is processed.
JAC also serves as ground zero for addressing Louisiana's criminal justice anomalies. It works with community partners, from Mary Queen of Vietnam Church to Resurrection After Exoneration, to offer legal clinics and clinics for lawyers to help spread knowledge of how to perform expungements, among other services, such as post-conviction relief, that don't have other organizations promoting them. JAC's goal is to be a model for developing a legal service within the community that would make JAC obsolete.
"We pick one, work the model, hopefully fix it, share it, spread it and pick another piece," Reali says. — Alex Woodward
Dr. Satya Reddy, 38
Ophthalmologist, Louisiana Cornea Specialists
Following medical school at the University of Kentucky and an ophthalmology residency at Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Satya Reddy performed a self-assessment that led him to Chicago, where he completed a cornea fellowship at the Illinois Eye and Ear Infirmary.
"When you're considering the cornea procedures, it comes in very technical dimensions," Reddy explains, noting measurements in microns (one-millionth of a meter). "It's a very high-precision surgery and it's very technologically advanced. It requires a very specific skill set and presents its own unique challenges."
Reddy took on many such challenges with cutting-edge techniques and talents that have made his Covington-based Louisiana Cornea Specialists practice a leader in the region. Specific innovations include applying LASIK technologies for enhanced safety and better results in cornea transplants; using a rare iris reconstruction to restore 20/20 vision to a man blinded by a knife wound when he was 10; and incorporating new technologies to treat macular degeneration.
The ophthalmologist opened a practice on the Northshore in 2009. "I realized the Northshore, which grew tremendously in population after (Hurricane) Katrina, lacked specialist-level cornea care," Reddy says.
A pilot and avid traveler who's been to 51 countries and scuba dived in the South Pacific, Reddy jokes when asked if a recent trip to take his 16-month-old son Viraaj to India to meet his grandparents was an incredible experience. "Traveling with a toddler across three continents on four flights each with long layovers is incredible in a whole other sort of way," he said. — Frank Etheridge
Jacob Robinson, 8
Jacob Robinson is a little guy with big plans. The 8-year-old from LaPlace hopes to turn his passion for acting into a full-time career. Jacob has appeared in popular kid-centric AT&T commercials, and he recently walked the red carpet at the Hollywood premiere for his first feature film, the horror thriller The Monkey's Paw.
"That was really fun," Robinson says. "I thought I did a really good job in my scenes, and I thought they did a really good job of making the movie. It was all just perfect — and I also got to ride in a limo."
When he was 5, Jacob's mother Brandi enrolled him in classes at the John Robert Powers performing arts academy in Metairie. She never imagined where it would lead.
"He's the one that drives his career, not us," she says. "He obviously has a talent for it, he has a love for it, and it's what he says he wants to do."
Brandi quit her high school teaching job last year so Jacob could attend school at home by enrolling in the public charter virtual school Louisiana Connections Academy. That allows the family to keep up with his hectic schedule of auditions, acting and singing and dancing lessons. The family splits its time between Louisiana and Los Angeles, living in L.A. from January to March for "pilot season," the time of year networks cast actors for upcoming television series. Brandi is hopeful that Jacob can land a pilot next year so the family can settle into a regular schedule. But, she says, if it doesn't work out, that's OK, too.
"Jacob takes it in stride," she says. "He understands that if you go in there, if you did your best, if you did everything that you can do, then it's not your fault that you didn't get cast for something."
Jacob is committed to pursuing a career in acting, though he admits there are a few things he misses when he's away from home.
"Mostly the Cajun food," he says, "because I just love shrimp and stuff." — Brad Rhines
Lovie Lewis Rodgers, 30
Assistant professor, pharmacy practice, Xavier University
Lovie Lewis Rodgers knew she wanted to be a pharmacist when she was in middle school. Her mother had been ill for as long as she could remember, and Rodgers says the medical professional most attentive to her needs was her pharmacist.
Rodgers graduated from Xavier University in 2007 and is a clinical assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy, where the graduating pharmacy class gave her the Preceptor of the Year Award in 2010. Of the dozen or so awards Rodgers has collected during her career, that is the one she's most proud of, "because it's all students, so there are no politics," she says.
For her fourth-year pharmacy students, Rodgers provides on-site training in managing patients' medications at Daughters of Charity. Under her direction, students are able to learn in an interactive setting and get real-life experience. Rodgers also is the faculty advisor for Xavier's women's dance team, a role that allows her to mentor young women who are just beginning to think about what kind of lives they'll lead. "They're able to relate to me," says Rodgers, who was on the dance team herself as a student.
Rodgers grew up in Hammond but moved to New Orleans to attend Xavier and has called it home ever since. She volunteers in the community and wants to improve the overall health of local residents by educating them about preventable diseases such as asthma and diabetes.
"New Orleans has a network of people trying to make a difference," she says. — Jeanie Riess
Jermaine L. Smith, 32
Development director, Educare New Orleans
As a kid in Atlanta, Jermaine L. Smith was lucky. The public schools in his neighborhood were good and his teachers nominated him to attend private school with a scholarship.
"To be perfectly honest, just getting that opportunity completely changed the path of my life," he says. "I had a great opportunity to have my horizons expanded and I want to do whatever I can to give other people the same opportunity."
To do that, Smith has raised funds for national and local nonprofits including the United Negro College Fund and Young Leadership Council, taught financial literacy at Walter L. Cohen High School and is development director of Educare New Orleans, a school in Columbia Parc, the successful mixed-income housing complex that replaced a portion of the St. Bernard Housing Development.
Raising funds is only part of his job, Smith says.
"One of the things that's really amazing about New Orleans is that there is an inherent entrepreneurial spirit and people want to do things for themselves, but what we lack historically is access to resources," he says. "I think we're doing a great job of not only creating those resources, but we're doing a better job of expanding the access to them."
Smith, who secured more than $2.5 million in grants as development director of the finance nonprofit A Shared Initiative Inc., feels that being a successful fundraiser is the result of many different things.
"I've been very blessed to work for organizations that have been well-managed and had great reputations," Smith says. "But more than that, we do exceptionally well here because we create great relationships with people — and in New Orleans that's especially important because everybody knows everybody else."
In his spare time, Smith enjoys relaxing with his wife, Megan Jessica Holt, and their 11-month-old son, Jefferson Henry Davis. — Megan Braden-Perry