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Gambit's 40 Under 40 (2013) 

An annual look at 40 New Orleanians who are making the city a better place

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click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber

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



click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber

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



click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Dr. Benjamin H. Levy III, 34
Gastroenterologist/ musician

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



click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber

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



click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber

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



click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber

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



click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber

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



click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber

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



click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber

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



click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber

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



click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber

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

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