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Every year, Gambit Weekly calls for nominations for "40 Under 40," our annual look at some of the young people who are making remarkable contributions to the New Orleans metropolitan region. As in previous years, we received hundreds of nominations from a broad range of fields — community service, volunteerism, education, athletics, art, business, technology, music and more. In many cases, the nominees were accomplished in more than one arena, a testament to the spirit and determination of rebuilding that has characterized the area for more than three years now.

Meet our 11th annual "40 Under 40." They range from a teenage filmmaker to a thirtysomething sustainable-coffee entrepreneur, from a Katrina first responder to a pair of software developers. Many of these people and their life stories may be new to you, but remember their names: They've all accomplished much in their young lives, and their good works — and the good works of others like them — are a glimpse into the future of a better New Orleans.

Ashley Barkley, 24
Marketing director, Premier Event Management
Vice president of marketing, Desire NOLA

Thanks to Ashley Barkley, New Orleans will be home to another big-draw sporting event.

Though not exactly a Sugar Bowl, Super Bowl or All-Star game, the 2009 Ochsner Ironman 70.3 New Orleans won't pass through quietly. Barkley anticipates the first Ironman competition in a major urban setting to bring more than $5 million to the city, along with 4,000 visitors and 2,500 participants representing 43 states and five countries.

As the marketing director for Premier Event Management, Barkley sealed the Ochsner Ironman for an additional three years in the city. Not bad for a 2008 college graduate.

The Our Lady of Holy Cross alumna worked full-time in public relations while in school, including event management for Tales of the Cocktail, now one of New Orleans' premier summer events.

But Barkley is no stranger to athletics. Since 2000, she has completed five marathons, one half Ironman, and several half marathons and triathlons, with a six-day training schedule that includes 5 miles of swimming, 150 miles of cycling and 25 miles of running.

Despite her dedicated athleticism, Barkley doesn't see herself as a competitor. She considers herself "goal-oriented."

"I really push myself to achieve (those goals)," she says. "I just enjoy having a lot of things to do. I always say "yes.'"

Barkley also serves as vice president of marketing for Desire NOLA, a nonprofit led by a group of young business leaders dedicated to fostering small businesses.

"We want to bring people back — see the city thriving," she says. — Woodward

Lauren Baum, 27
Executive team member, Idea Village
Co-creator, IDEAcorps and 504ward

New Orleans native Lauren Baum left a promising career with a New York public relations firm to volunteer in rebuilding her hometown following Hurricane Katrina. Her contribution through her association with Idea Village will have a lasting effect on New Orleans.

"I thought I would volunteer for a short time, then head back to New York," Baum says. "I've been here two-and-a-half years."

Shortly after volunteering at Idea Village, a nonprofit that helps entrepreneurs succeed, Baum and several other MBA students and professionals created a program that evolved into IDEAcorps, which helps rebounding entrepreneurial ventures with resources and expertise they need to keep their companies solvent.

"IDEAcorps provides entrepreneurs with business strategies," Baum says. "It was founded by Tulane students, but we now have students from Harvard, MIT, Stanford and other universities. People find out about it and it catches on virally, but we also reach out to them. It appeals to volunteers who want to work with their minds instead of their hands."

Baum also led the formation of 504ward, which is dedicated to keeping young professionals between the ages of 23 and 35 working in New Orleans. "Our goal is to retain young talent in the city," she says. "The brain drain challenge is not unique to New Orleans, but the opportunity to engage them in rebuilding the city is. The leadership in the business community and the civic community is so welcoming to them. The challenge is to keep them here for the long term."

504ward is sponsoring a competition for an entrepreneurial business plan that will appeal to the 23- to 35-year-old demographic. The winner will receive $100,000 in cash to start the venture, plus another $100,000 worth of donated assets such as free rent and business support. Deadline for the business plan is Dec. 4. — Graves

Jainey Bavishi, 27
Director, Equity and Inclusion Campaign of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation

There is power in numbers and unity, especially when trying to influence federal policies and garner funds for low-income, vulnerable or marginalized populations along the devastated Gulf Coast. Jainey Bavishi recognized this and in only a year organized 150 diverse groups into a coalition that carried its message to both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.

As director of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation's Equity and Inclusion Campaign, she brought together nonprofits, national and international entities and volunteer groups to force the federal government to fulfill its promises to find solutions for the persistent poverty and inequity in communities in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

"First and foremost, we are trying to provide a space for a regional collaboration agenda," Bavishi says. "We thought there would be more power if we brought those communities together and advocate together" to help people who are marginalized or vulnerable because of their race, age, social or economic status.

'Our goal is to have policies made and get money from the federal government," she says. "The things that are a challenge are not unique to this area, but the opportunity to rebuild (because of devastation caused by hurricanes) is unique to these areas. But the models we establish can be adopted to other parts of the country."

She has been so successful in establishing a regional coalition that the Equity and Inclusion Campaign coalition soon will become its own entity separate from the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, she says. "The Equity Coalition made a region that didn't know it was a region act like a region." — Graves

Gill Benedek, 24
Jon Graboyes, 24

Founders, Moishe House New Orleans

Jon Graboyes and Gill Benedek both moved to New Orleans after college, and found a need for a place where young Jews could meet for Shabbas meals, holidays and just hanging out. The result was Moishe House, a residence in the Broadmoor neighborhood that's become an informal center for Jewish celebrations and socializing.

Benedek was in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, working with Americorps; Graboyes met him while doing field research for his thesis on post-storm recovery. They found common ground in their faith as well as their desire to help New Orleans rebuild.

"There are groups out there that try to network young Jews," Graboyes says. "But we saw the need for something in an informal, noninstitutional environment." The answer was Moishe House New Orleans, one of a loose network of communal homes; there are Moishe Houses in cities around the United States as well as in Uruguay.

Now Moishe House sponsors half a dozen events a month, about half of which are "connected to Jewish values and ideas," Graboyes says. "But we also have movie nights, barbecues, parties." It also sponsors fellowship events with the greater Broadmoor community, such as last month's Broadmoor Harvest Festival.

Graboyes and Benedek are committed to seeing the communal house grow (they're looking for a third roommate) and providing more intradenominational community service — for both reform and Orthodox Jews as well as their neighborhood as a whole. "We incorporate everyone, and we've seen the whole spectrum come through the house," Graboyes says. — Allman

Forest Bradley-Wright, 31
Sustainable rebuild director, Alliance for Affordable Energy
Co-founder, Louisiana Green Corps

When Forest Bradley-Wright discusses building green, he uses academic terms like "critical mass" and "energy performance enhancements." But don't let that fool you; Bradley-Wright takes broad concepts — education, job training, business development and governmental policy — and puts them into action.

With thousands rebuilding homes in New Orleans, Bradley-Wright in 2007 started the BuildSmart Expo, which for two years has been part of the annual New Orleans Home and Garden Show. The expo educates people about practical ways to improve energy efficiency for new or existing homes. Once a year is nice, but year-round is better, and Bradley-Wright and the Alliance for Affordable Energy have unveiled the New Orleans BuildSmart Learning Center, which showcases local green and energy-efficient products, contains a resource library and has a learning space for workshops.

Knowing there would have to be a workforce to match the public demand, Bradley-Wright, a Eugene, Ore., native, partnered with three other civic organizations to create the federally funded Louisiana Green Corps, a service learning and "green" job skills training program. The corps teaches 16- to 24-year-olds basic, energy-efficient practices.

The final part of Bradley-Wright's vision is government, and in July, the City Council passed Energy Smart, a citywide, comprehensive energy policy, which he helped write.

For Bradley-Wright, it's not enough to have just an idea. It's taking that idea and making it a reality. — Winkler-Schmit

Simone Bruni, 37
Owner, Demo Diva

Recently, when faced with the choice of buying a new pair of diamond earrings or ordering a set of bright pink dumpsters for her demolition business, the Demo Diva, Simone Bruni chose the dumpsters.

She got the idea for buying equipment in her company's signature pink color from a movie producer who was working on a documentary (scheduled to air on TLC in March) about Make it Right, a charitable foundation that hired Bruni's company to do site prep work for the new, eco-friendly houses it's building in the hurricane-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward.

"He said, "You're the Demo Diva with the dangling earrings and the pink scarf. Now you need pink dumpsters and excavators. You should have your own reality show,'" Bruni recalls. Although she's not banking on a TV deal just yet, Bruni says a Demo Diva show would be about "a city that is being rebuilt and how to give people hope after a disaster."

Getting into the demolition business was the last thing Bruni — formerly an event planner — thought she would end up doing. But since she was the first person to move back to her flooded neighborhood after Hurricane Katrina, her neighbors often asked her for advice. At first, she was just referring people to demolition crews, but eventually she decided to become a contractor and start her own company.

Bruni credits her crew of workers for Demo Diva's success. "They take pride in their work, they're diligent and they follow through," Bruni says. "That's what the great American company is built on."

She passes on the lessons she's learned to preteen and teenage girls at the K-Bar-B Ranch youth home in Lacombe, encouraging and fostering an entrepreneurial spirit in them.

"I want them to know that once you get past the fear of failure, the world is yours for the taking," she says. — Nelson

 

 

 

 

 

Andrea Chen, 26
Co-founder, Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans

When she arrived in New Orleans with Teach for America, Andrea Chen, an East Bay transplant and Stanford University undergraduate, was ready for whatever the city could throw at her — until she stepped into the city's schools.

"I didn't realize how dire the situation was," Chen says. "It really opened my eyes to how bad things are."

Upon learning a student of hers had been shot, Chen knew something much greater was at stake. "I realized, if you're not doing everything in your power to prevent this, you're only part of the problem."

When Hurricane Katrina prevented her from finishing her master's degree in education policy at the University of New Orleans, Chen completed her degree at Harvard University, only to return to the post-Katrina city with what she calls a "big-picture perspective."

Chen and co-founder Morgan Williams resurrected Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans (SENO), an umbrella organization that fosters emerging social problem solvers. (Think of a social entrepreneur as a solutions investor.)

"There is a growing social change movement — a lot of energy, idealism, hope," Chen says. "New Orleans is a magnet for (social entrepreneurs) from all over the country — a center for social organization."

SENO's objectives are threefold: profile and address the movement to a global audience, build a community of social entrepreneurs, and connect them to the necessary resources. The group's social entrepreneurs include members of Ashé Cultural Arts Center, Café Reconcile, Green Light New Orleans and Student Hurricane Network.

"Every citizen can act as a change agent," Chen says.

And with First Book of Greater New Orleans, Chen is cracking into social entrepreneurship herself. The nonprofit provides a steady diet of books to children from low-income families and has raised more than $100,000 since its inception last year. The program, run completely by volunteers, has provided more than 35,000 books to more than 6,000 children in the New Orleans area. — Woodward

 

 

 

 

 

Kelley Strain Collins, 32
Attorney, Gieger, Laborde & Laperouse
Big Easy Rollergirl
Charter School Committee, Junior League of New Orleans

It's hard to imagine the associate attorney in a power suit and pearls dish out "can openers" in a pair of fishnets and roller skates. But for Kelley Strain Collins, what's the difference?

"The only good thing I could do was rollerskate," says Collins, remembering her childhood stint as a leftover wide fielder on the soccer field.

Now the Big Easy Rollergirl (aka Mudflap Girl, No. 10 for the Story Villains) squashes opponents in the rink and in court with a no-holds-barred attitude tested in New Orleans schools, in which she taught while attending night classes at Loyola University's College of Law.

"[Being a Rollergirl] has taught me to work with different people of different backgrounds. It has taught me patience," she says. "You have a defensive and offensive strategy, you evaluate strengths and weaknesses. There's a referee in roller derby and a judge in court. It does play hand-in-hand."

When not serving pain in the rink or practicing insurance, oil and gas law for Gieger, Laborde & Laperouse, Collins also serves on the Charter School Committee for the Junior League of New Orleans, assisting students with comprehension and social behavioral skills.

Collins also serves on the national Women's Flat Track Derby Association as the South Central region's insurance representative, but she still finds time to skate around her French Quarter neighborhood, darting through Royal, Decatur and Bourbon streets.

"I just do what I can do," she says. "I can't spread myself too thin." — Woodward

 

 

 

 

 

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Davell Crawford, 33
Musician

Coming from one of New Orleans' musical families, Davell Crawford started hammering tunes on a toy piano at age 3 and began playing in public at 7. Legendary vibraphonist Lionel Hampton invited 12-year-old Crawford to jam with him at a specially arranged show. Since then, he's opened for Etta James and recorded with a list of artists as diverse as it is long, from Irma Thomas, the Wild Magnolias and Dr. John to Rockin' Dopsie, New Orleans Gospel Soul Children and the jamband, the String Cheese Incident.

In a town known for piano players — including Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, James Booker and Dr. John — the precociously talented Crawford earned the nickname "Piano Prince of New Orleans."

Crawford's immense talents have defied labels. He's well versed in jazz, funk, blues, R&B and gospel and has released CDs that have stretched in those different directions. Both solo and with various bands, Crawford has toured four continents, and for his mix of roots music has solidified his identity as one of the Big Easy's native sons.

He is the grandson of James "Sugar Boy" Crawford, the legendary R&B artist who wrote "Jock-A-Mo," later released as "Iko Iko" by the Dixie Cups. James recorded for Chess and later with Dave Bartholomew for Imperial. He turned his back on secular music in 1963, but crossed the line once to appear on one of Davell's albums and played a gospel set backed by his grandson at the 2008 Ponderosa Stomp.

Davell lost his home and studio in the levee failures following Katrina. Since the storm, he's split time between New York and New Orleans. He spent much of the first year after the storm volunteering his talents to play at funerals and benefits. — Coviello

 

 

 

 

 

Michael Dewenter, 36
Electrical engineer, GrayMatter

Matthew Dooner, 23
Computer science engineer, GrayMatter

Jorge Nagel, 31
Mechanical and biomedical engineer, GrayMatter

Neil Traft, 23
Computer science engineer, GrayMatter

Paul Trepagnier, 28
Computer science engineer and lead programmer, GrayMatter

What better job could there be for a group of young engineers than to develop a robotic car — not a remote-control toy but a system that can turn any road vehicle into a machine that can maneuver through various landscapes without a driver?

That's exactly the job the five engineers at GrayMatter have.

The Metairie-based business was formed in 2005 by Eric, Michael and Walter Gray, owners of Gray Insurance (which deals in high-risk worker compensation insurance), who recruited the five men to develop an autonomous vehicle system (AVS) to compete in a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency field test of AVS vehicles across a 135-mile desert course after one of the Grays saw a story about the challenge in Popular Science. The team finished fourth. It improved the system and was a semi-finalist in a 2007 challenge, and was featured on a Discovery Channel special earlier this year.

It may sound like science fiction, but GrayMatter has a very marketable product.

"Right now we're focused on three areas (of application): tire and vehicle testing over rough terrain, mining and hauling, and military applications," says lead programmer Paul Trepagnier. "When you're testing tires or vehicles over rough terrain or speed bumps, it's hard (for a human driver) to be consistent, and that's what manufacturers need for the testing." A system that can go over the same course at the same speed without reacting to jostles and bumps gives more accurate results, he says. In addition, the repetitive tests are tough on a human body. In mining, the equipment used for hauling is very expensive and the job of driving is very boring and slow. The AVS would keep such equipment on track without introducing human error caused by fatigue.

For the military, AVS could be used for convoying supplies, acting as a target for bombing practices and many other tasks, both dangerous and mundane, that now must be performed by enlisted personnel.

"Our system can do pretty much what a human being can," Trepagnier says. "[The military] wants to take soldiers out of the equation. By 2020, they want one-third of all their vehicles to be unmanned."

The GrayMatter team now is refining its system and trying to make the AVS more economically viable to mining concerns, vehicle testing facilities and the military.

"We've got a lot of interest [in our product], but it's such leading-edge technology that people are waiting for the cost to come down," Trepagnier says. "We have gotten our internal costs much lower" in the last months, he says, and expect to make an initial production run in the near future. Then, they must convince potential customers of the value and safety of the product.

"It's such a new technology that people are still uncomfortable with no one being in the car," he says. "But it is safe. We haven't crashed a vehicle since we became a business in 2005. We have all these fail-safes so we won't crash a vehicle." — Graves

 

 

 

 

 

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Peter Gardner, 29
Real estate developer
Founder, Freret Business and Property Association

While others assumed Freret Street was a lost cause after Hurricane Katrina devastated the neighborhood, Peter Gardner assembled the Freret Business and Property Association to help revitalize the community, both economically and physically.

Why Freret? Not just because it is down the street from his alma mater or an address for a former place of business — Domino's pizza, from which he delivered pizzas in college.

"The older people remember Freret Street the way it was, and its dramatic turn (after Katrina)," says Garner. "And the younger people just drove by at 45 mph. I wanted to bring people back to Freret."

Hoping to restore the neighborhood's former glory, the association pushed for a streetwide market modeled like a farmers market, but "more local, less touristy and more fun," Gardner says. The market, which held its one-year anniversary Oct. 4, showcases local food, art and music with pet adoptions and other community resources. Held on the first Saturday of every month, it draws 1,500 to 5,000 attendees per event.

Gardner is planning a nights-only market, the Freret Cocktail Market, to start early next year.

While he may have a stake in the Freret neighborhood, Gardner isn't exclusive. After he bought his first property on Laurel Street as a 19-year-old college sophomore, the Chicagoan, then attending Tulane University's A.B. Freeman School of Business, bought his first house with the pocket money he made bussing tables. His knack for real estate earned him an award for excellence in restoration from HDLC in 2007 after renovating historic buildings throughout the city. — Woodward

 

 

 

 

 

Michelle Ingram, 39
Owner, Zeus' Place
Co-founding board member, Freret Business and Property Association

Michelle Ingram just couldn't pass up the For Sale sign in front of the former Eve's Market on Freret Street. The post-Katrina vacancy was a gamble she was willing to take to kick-start her dream job: working with animals.

That dream came at 8 years old, when Ingram filled out a career questionnaire for Girls Scouts. When she found that questionnaire years later, her answers were no coincidence.

'Katrina made everyone change a little bit," she says. "You do what you love because you never know how long you'll have."

As she gutted and stripped her flooded home, Ingram turned the Freret Street building into Zeus' Place, "Your Pet's Home Away from Home," a pet boarding and grooming facility with plenty of amenities and facilities for every pet's needs, including full-color Web cams for pet owners away from home.

Down the street, Ingram, along with fellow 40 Under 40 inductee Peter Gardner, organizes the Freret Market, which hosts up to 5,000 attendees right outside Zeus' front door the first Saturday of every month. As a co-founding board member of the Freret Business and Property Association, Ingram and the board planned the market as a means to revitalize the neighborhood.

The Cut Off native's love for animals helped her find homes for more than 300 animals within the last 15 years. Now Zeus' Place replaces her living room for hosting adoptable pets and gives Ingram a chance to rescue "on a larger scale," she says, and adoptions have skyrocketed since. — Woodward

 

 

 

 

 

David M. Jacobs, 37
Project manager, Unisys Corporation

David M. Jacobs believes New Orleans holds potential for expanding its information technology industry and has the workforce to support such businesses. He knows what he's talking about.

After Hurricane Katrina, Jacobs was the sole employee of Unisys Corporation's New Orleans facility, and much of its work was done remotely from Maryland. He now is Unisys' project manager, and the international company employs a dozen people at its local facility.

"We run a human resource system that covers a third or quarter of the federal government (or about 300,000 employees)," he says. "Unisys functions in partnership with the federal government. We help them maintain the software and hardware for their human resources." It keeps track of such things as employee awards, promotions, transfers, education, performance reviews and payroll information.

"We have partnered with the government to bring in best practices and to help it work more efficiently and economically."

The company also works with small, local companies and helps them partner with institutions outside the city.

"I think people underestimate the technology sector in New Orleans," Jacobs says. "We have not had a hard time finding very qualified and competent people. Post-Katrina, many businesses are moving work out of New Orleans. We're moving [business] into New Orleans." Unisys also has hired IT workers who have been trying to return to the city since the storm displaced them.

To further help the New Orleans business community, Jacobs mentors about a dozen freshmen business majors at Loyola to show them how real business works and what opportunities are present in New Orleans. He also volunteers with the Preservation Resource Center and Crescent City Farmers Market. — Graves

 

 

 

 

 

Courtney A. Johnson, 36
Program director, International House of Blues Foundation
Gospel Tent coordinator, Jazz & Heritage Festival

Courtney A. Johnson's love of music made the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival a suitable place to work, which she did for a decade as the music bookkeeper. The music of the city has now become a more central passion in her life, however, as she has become both Jazz Fest's Gospel Tent coordinator and the program director at the International House of Blues Foundation.

"I'm like a mini-Quint," Johnson says, referring to Quint Davis, producer and director of Jazz Fest.

The International House of Blues Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to music and education. It is supported by donations, grants and support from the House of Blues Foundation Room. Its activities include awarding an annual $10,000 scholarship to a college-bound student, providing education workshops about music and folk art at the House of Blues and providing instruments and art supplies for programming at area schools.

Johnson also has worked with Sherman Washington, the longtime organizer of Jazz Fest's gospel tent and someone she has known since childhood through her church community. Johnson books local and national gospel groups for the gospel tent and is in regular contact with Washington, the only other person who's held the position.

Johnson also is active with her church, the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and she volunteers with the nonprofit Giving Back to the Hood.

"Truly, I have been given a lot," she says. "There is a scripture that says, "To whom much is given, much is expected.' There's a responsibility to give back."

By working with cultural education programs, she hopes to help New Orleans children develop their talents.

"We need to find avenues and venues for kids to give of themselves," she says. — Coviello

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Johnson, 23

Katrina volunteer, educator and founder of Blanket New Orleans Photo by Tracie Morris Schaefer Happy Johnson came to the city to work with the Red Cross driving a first responder vehicle in the months after Hurricane Katrina. He went on to found Blanket New Orleans, a group designed to get blankets to the needy. It was only the latest step in a remarkable journey that has taken him from a life in the Chicago housing projects and a series of foster homes to academic and athletic excellence, political experience (two years as the Youth Mayor of Chicago and two summers working for Chicago City Hall), and a 2007 degree from Georgetown University. His Web site (www.happyjohnson.org) traces his remarkable achievements and includes photos of him with Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Mitch Landrieu and Barack Obama.

In 2007, looking for a way to commemorate the storm, Johnson came up with "Bike Katrina" — tracing the hurricane's route from Pensacola, Fla., to New Orleans on a bicycle, stopping to speak at schools along the way about the importance of preserving the wetlands. He repeated the ride this year, but his next project is his most ambitious yet: helping create the Blanket New Orleans Green Service House, a residence for young adults working to improve conditions in the Ninth Ward. "It's directly adjacent to Musician's Village," Johnson says, "and we hope to have it open by next August."

When we talked to Johnson in late October, he was in the Florida panhandle, volunteering for the Obama campaign, but he was heading back to New Orleans soon to continue his work with Blanket New Orleans and the Green Service House. "I call myself a local now," he says confidently. — Allman

 

 

 

 

 

Michelle Kirtley Johnston, 39
Director, Executive Mentoring Program and associate professor of management, Loyola University New Orleans College of Business

An innovative mentoring program at Loyola University is helping to retain students enrolled in the College of Business, but it may also have the long-term effect of keeping young professionals in the city after they graduate.

"We were just trying to be innovative and find something that would interest the students," says Michelle Kirtley Johnston, director of the Executive Mentoring Program and an associate professor of management at Loyola's College of Business. "We wanted a link to show there are a lot of good opportunities in New Orleans. We're also trying to stop the brain drain."

Five years ago, Johnston launched the program in which all freshmen business students are required to participate. Once a month, the students work with a business mentor — including Basin Street Records, Unisys Corporation and others — to get a taste of a professional workplace.

"What students really need when they're 18 or 19 is direction," Johnston says, "and not from a teacher or a parent. Before the program, our retention rates were really low. Within one year of starting the program, our retention rates rose. Now students say they are excited to be in business."

After Hurricane Katrina, college students were drawn to Loyola because they wanted to be a part of the recovery, she says. Now the university is showing students a way to make New Orleans their home after graduation by introducing them to professionals who can help them enter the workplace.

"There are many benefits for the businesses," Johnston says. "Many want to give back, but they also have the potential of later having a qualified and motivated intern or even a future employee." — Graves

 

 

 

 

 

Blake Killian, 27
Food blogger and founder, www.BlakeMakes.com

Blake Killian's night job has made him very popular at his day job. Killian, a Web developer for the funeral services company Stewart Enterprises, is the cook behind BlakeMakes.com, a burgeoning hub for the food-blogging community.

"I'm actually doing one of the worst things a food blogger can do: I'm on a diet," he admits. "That really affects the way I cook. I used to buy a bottle of olive oil a week."

While Killian cuts calories, he says his colleagues are reaping the rewards. "I cook it, taste it, photograph it, blog about it and give it away," he explains. "I'm making a mushroom and farro pie this week. It's going to photograph fantastically. I'll bring that in to my vegetarian friends on Monday."

Giving away food is how Killian got his start. The food-obsessed techie was fooling around with a peanut butter dulce de leche and, on a lark, posted a giveaway on his site. "In less than 60 seconds [a dozen] jars got claimed," he says. "I was like, "Hmm. There's something here.'"

Twelve bottles became 80, and soon Killian was receiving products from companies like Lipton and Hershey's. Though BlakeMakes.com began as a whim, it is now a veritable movement, with a staple audience of 500 bloggers and several spin-offs in spec: BlakeBakes, BlakeSips, a communal magazine and two cooking shows.

"It never stops," Killian says. "I tell people all the time: If you want to blog, great. But you have to realize that they're little monsters. Their hunger is never satiated. You have to constantly feed them or they'll die." — Pais

 

 

 

 

 

David Lago, 35
Cofounder, Ideabreaker

Jeffrey Lyons, 28
CEO, Ideabreaker

"There's an old saying: Ideas are worthless — they're a dime a dozen — but execution is where the party's at." So says Jeffrey Lyons, CEO of the emerging ideation and project management company Ideabreaker (www.ideabreaker.com). For the last six months, Lyons, technologist David Lago and five partners have been hammering out the details of a Web-based software — code name Anvil — designed to bring a "cradle-to-grave" approach to the innovation technology sector.

In layman terms: If necessity is the mother of invention, consider Ideabreaker the midwife.

"What we really attempted to do is to build a (project management) platform that takes some of the creative aspects of ideation — meaning the ability to actually sit in a group, bring collaboration into the mix, and take something as simple as a concept that could be written on a bar napkin and bring it through fruition," Lyons says.

The two stages of development — conception and management — are too often disconnected by the tools created to assist them, Lago explains. "There are currently two spaces we're tackling," he says. "(With) ideation tools like mind-mapping, not many are Web-based. Then people are required, once they flesh out an idea by themselves or with a team, to manually take that info and build it out to the project management space. They're forced to recreate the project at that point."

When it launches in the first quarter of 2009, the subscription service should be one-stop shopping for small ventures and global enterprises alike, Lago and Lyons say, bringing a scalable and universally accessible application to ideation, as well as allowing users to manage their portfolios in the project space with no reworking necessary.

"It's not so much how the application works, but how people interact with it" that matters most to clients, Lago argues. "[Ideabreaker will] give them a more powerful visual metaphor for the information they collect, share and manage within a team. If I had to summarize our philosophy, it would be to bring a little right-brained thinking to a traditionally left-brained space." — Pais

 

 

 

 

 

Andrew Larimer, 23
Actor
Founder, NOLA Project

A streak of dark humor runs through the NOLA Project, Andrew Larimer says of the theater company he founded during college and convinced to move en masse to the city.

"New Orleans embraces entropy with a smile," he says.

The company was beginning a run of wickedly dark-humored Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's The Cripple of Inishmaan as its first show when Hurricane Katrina hit. The company moved the production to New York City, where members were still in school at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. The destruction from the levee failures strengthened their resolve to return to New Orleans.

"New Orleans has creative energy that New York didn't," Larimer says. "There's that deep-rooted sense that something's going on, especially after Katrina."

A New Orleans native who grew up in Lakeview and started performing in church and school plays at a very young age, Larimer had no doubts about wanting to produce theater in New Orleans. The NOLA Project enjoys the artistic freedom to choose productions and write original material. Its first post-storm performance was Get This Lake Off My House, a twist on Shakespeare's The Tempest, performed in the water's edge of Lake Pontchartrain for an audience sitting in beach chairs with coolers of their own drinks. Audiences have embraced the company's free spirit and zest for taking risks. At Tulane's Albert Lupin Experimental Theatre, the group performed a Jim Fitzmorris play written both for and about them.

"I got to play a slightly evil version of myself," Larimer says.

He has his eyes set on a grand outdoor production on Bayou St. John. Though he harbors a desire to do a suitably epic version of The Odyssey, the company will adapt a more local tale in an original work about Jean Lafitte. — Coviello

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTO BY RONNIE LEBOEUF
  • Photo by Ronnie LeBoeuf

Ryan LeBoeuf, 18
Filmmaker/ college student

The absurdity of everyday life has defined the budding career of teenager Ryan LeBoeuf, who made his first short film when he was only 8 years old and entered his first film festival at the age of 12. Over the past decade, he has completed 20 films, most of which he wrote and directed, including a feature-length movie he made last summer with a cast of 30. Over the past year, LeBoeuf has won 10 awards, including the Audience Program Award for Best Experimental Film at the Big Easy Shorts Festival for A Game of Pool and the President's Honor Award at New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA).

LeBoeuf, who attended Mandeville High School and NOCCA before he graduated last year, is now enrolled at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. He says his future is in making dark comedies for the big screen.

"Dark comedy is what I feel most comfortable with; I really enjoy it," says LeBoeuf, who counts the Coen brothers, Monty Python and Stanley Kubrick among directors who have influenced him. His scriptwriting is inspired by the insane side of the mundane or what he calls "the absurdity of any aspect of the day. I get ideas from talking to people and taking note of it."

His latest film, Of Golden Sands and Crystal Brooks, centers on a family who moves to a gated community. "It follows each of the three members of that family over the course of a week and watches them go crazy," LeBoeuf says. "There's an apocalyptic theme to it. It's about these people living in suburbia and losing their minds."

(See some of LeBoeuf's shorts by logging onto www.youtube.com and searching for Ryan LeBoeuf.) — Graves

 

 

 

 

 

Gene Meneray, 35
Director of the Arts Business Program, Arts Council of New Orleans

Art in all its forms is an economic engine for New Orleans and draws fans from all over the country, but artists often have a hard time making a good living from their crafts. Gene Meneray is trying to change that.

As director of the Arts Council of New Orleans' Arts Business Program, Meneray counsels artists and conducts workshops for nonprofit arts organizations about how to make art pay off as a business. In addition to teaching artists basic business practices, he formed the Entertainment Law Legal Assistance Project (for which he won the Governor's Arts Award) with support from the Tipitina's Foundation and Tulane Law School to help artists with contracts, copyright, trademark and licensing matters.

In addition to helping artists protect the work they produce, Meneray teaches them how to diversify their income by doing things such as licensing their music for movies or commercials or licensing artwork for uses beyond a single sale.

"The idea is that in New Orleans [the arts] is a significant driver of the city's economy," Meneray says. "There are tons of potential. If culture isn't driving the train, it's certainly in the co-pilot chair.

"New Orleans has always been voted one of the top cultural arts destinations by AmericanStyle Magazine. It's always been a haven for artists. I think it's a place that is going to be able to attract artists of all stripes."

Meneray has gained support from the state and businesses in New Orleans who understand the arts industry attracts tourists who spend money all over the area. "If people who have their hands on the lever of power [understand the economic value of the arts industry], New Orleans could be ahead of places in the area in terms of production." — Graves

 

 

 

 

 

Tess Monaghan, 24
Director, Build Now

Build Now was not Tess Monaghan's idea. Her father William, a New York architect and contractor who had grown up in New Orleans, started the nonprofit to help middle-income families build new houses on lots they own to replace those damaged by Hurricane Katrina, particularly in Gentilly. He drew up plans for several styles and sizes of homes that were designed to be energy efficient and affordable and started building a model home to show prospective customers.

Monaghan, however, made Build Now a business when her father finally talked her into leaving her management consulting job in New York to move to New Orleans last year.

"When I came down, all Build Now was was a house 80 percent complete and some house plans," she says. "I made the idea into a workable business." The nonprofit now has a staff of two — Monaghan and Sales Director Nikki Najiola — and provides clients with house plans, a contractor and someone to walk through all the permitting and building steps, all for a guaranteed price.

"We're just providing one solution," says Monaghan, who over the past four months has begun work on five new homes. She estimates Build Now needs to sell 15 houses a year to be viable. "I'm amazed at the number of steps that need to be coordinated to get [a house built in New Orleans]," she says. "One of the main reasons that progress on the building of single-family homes is so slow is that people are overwhelmed. Now they can hand the whole job over to us.

"It's been incredibly worthwhile. In New York I was working for a huge corporation. It's been great down here experiencing a totally different way of life and being able to help families. One guy we're building a house for is now living out of his car. It's wonderful to be able to help someone on that level." — Graves

 

 

 

 

 

Jean Montes, 36
Director of orchestral studies, Loyola University

"I always had an interest in the French-Creole culture of Louisiana," says Jean Montes, who was born and raised in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and grew up speaking Haitian Creole. "This is the closest place [in America] to where I grew up."

The son of an Anglican priest, Montes was raised around liturgical and classical music, and took up piano and cello at a young age. When he was 14, he became first cellist in the Port-au-Prince orchestra and won a full scholarship to study the instrument at Pittsburgh's Duquesne University. Since then, Montes has taught and conducted all over the United States, arriving at Loyola last year.

He's also the artistic director of the Greater New Orleans Youth Orchestra (GNOYO), where he teaches music to local children from elementary- to high school-age. He will take the GNOYO to its biggest venue yet: a performance at New York's Carnegie Hall in June 2009. In his spare time, Montes volunteers as a music instructor in New Orleans public schools ('I'd like to get an instrument into the hands of every young person in the city"), and he and his wife Sarah, another cellist, perform at local nursing homes.

The Monteses also are busy raising two sons, Soley and Jaz. "We had Jaz before we moved to New Orleans!" Montes says. "Now he has to tell everyone he meets "It's Jaz with one Z.'" — Allman

 

 

 

 

 

Suzanne Perron, 39
Fashion designer

The dresses created in Suzanne Perron's Magazine Street design studio are the stuff of little girls' dreams.

Because she specializes in custom couture gowns — for brides, debutantes and Mardi Gras court royalty — Perron can match that dream dress right down to the ribbon, lace, pleat or satin-covered button. When designing a gown, she works with each client to come up with a flattering silhouette and a dress that is "beautiful and fashionable, yet somewhat timeless."

"One of my specialties is reworking vintage gowns and incorporating heirloom lace," says the Louisiana native who attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, where she received the Bill Blass Award for outstanding graduate.

Having worked under designers such as Carolina Herrera, Anna Sui and Vera Wang during her 13 years in Manhattan, it seems fitting Perron would take young designers under her wing. Since opening her design studio in 2006, she has mentored eight fashion-design students through LSU's summer internship program, two of whom are now her employees.

In her spare time, Perron works with organizations such as the Junior League, the March of Dimes and Grace House. But her latest project is a book — tentatively titled Ivory and White, The Couture Gowns of Suzanne Perron in New Orleans (LSU Press) — scheduled to be released in January 2010.

"I want the book to promote our glorious city as much or more than it promotes me," she says. "I am a small part of the flavor of this city, and I want the book to reflect that." — Nelson

 

 

 

 

 

Brian Peterson, 37
Actor

The first time Brian Peterson went to see Running With Scissors' show Kiki le Bonbon's Cabaret Oh-La-La, he was looking at it as an opportunity. He planned to write a theater review as an audition piece to submit to a magazine. Instead, he met Scissors' founders Richard Read and Jason Toups and liked the company.

Peterson had been interested in theater at Mandeville High School and in college at both Southeastern and Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, but he put it aside and worked in a hair salon after graduation. A decade later, he wanted to find some connection with theater again.

A while after the Kiki show, Scissors' Flynn DeMarco asked if Peterson wanted to do something in the next cabaret, which was only a week away. And DeMarco wanted something with a Spanish angle. Peterson threw together an act, went onstage in drag for the first time and sang Tom Lehrer's "The Masochism Tango."

It went well, and soon Scissors' Read and DeMarco asked him to come up with a "crazy Jewish lady" character for the first edition of Grenadine McGunkle's Double-Wide Christmas! Gladys Finkelstein was born.

"Gladys is so happy, she seems like she's gonna explode," Peterson says. "I've got a Jewish fan club. I get invited to the group's Hanukkah party."

Peterson has gone on to play divas, starlets and singers, like Elizabeth Taylor's character in A Place in the Sun, and Angela Arden in Die! Mommy! Die!

"It's just been fun," he says. "Everything we take on is a challenge; it's a dream come true — to act stupid and wear wigs. It's nice to know people are entertained by it."

He's also gone from cutting hair to making custom wigs at Fifi Mahony's. "It's a little different," he says. "It's colorful and glittery and the clients don't talk." — Coviello

 

 

 

 

Kristy Philippi, 39
Principal, Patrick F. Taylor Science & Technology Academy

Preparing students for business in the 21st century is the sole focus at the 3-year-old Patrick F. Taylor Science & Technology Academy, and under the guidance of principal Kristy Philippi, that goal is being realized. The schoo will graduate its first class of seniors this year and has become a replication model for science and technology schools across the country, of which there are about 35.

"This is where [education] needs to be," Philippi says. "Our focus is math, science and engineering. Technology is a tool."

Taylor earned an Award of Excellence from the National Technology Foundation, and Philippi has won three awards for her teaching and administrative skills in the past two years.

Students learn the skills they need to excel in today's business environment by collaborating on projects. When they receive information on their project, a group of scholars will sit together and make out a contract, then complete the assignment.

"It's truly a 21st century business environment," Philippi says. "You don't hear our students say, "When am I going to use this?' They do their project and it answers that question. Because they are learning something they need to know, they learn it so much better."

Taylor also instills in students a sense of civic responsibility, and the children volunteer regularly at nursing homes, take part in benefit walks and work on wetlands restoration. One of their projects, which was featured on the Discovery Channel, involved students putting together pods of mangrove seeds, which were then dropped by an aircraft in an effort to create barrier islands along Louisiana's coast.

"They learn about the environment by doing," Philippi says. "Our students are always out at the river taking water samples and monitoring pollution. I think we're educating a very environmentally aware student body." — Graves

 

 

 

 

 

Zack Smith, 33
Photographer/musician

Famed photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson called it "the decisive moment," and Zack Smith's concert photography reveals a finely tuned sense of it. Smith's photo essays of the Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Voodoo Music Experience and his work in the pit at Tipitina's dance parties — he's one of the Uptown club's house photographers — further suggest an insider's understanding of live music. Put simply, he is always in the right place at precisely the right time.

This, too, is no accident. When not snapping pictures of concerts, Smith performs at them as the drummer for local rock group Rotary Downs, which begs the question: Does being in a band help Smith to shoot bands?

"Musicians feel more comfortable with me, knowing that I'm not going to make them look stupid," he says. "I'm not going to put them against a brick wall or in front of a chain-link fence or a railroad. That's the trifecta."

In addition to steady portraiture, Smith, who teaches photography at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts, has turned his focus toward galvanizing artists in the local scene. He is a curator at the Canary Collective gallery and an organizer for the New Orleans Photo Alliance, and he says these community projects define his philosophy.

"If you erase the competition in art, in business and in commerce, you open all the doors and all the paths to sharing information," he explains. "And when you share information, you progress as a whole and as an individual." — Pais

 

 

 

 

 

Gary Solomon Jr., 22
Cofounder, After the Storm Foundation
Board member, Le Petit Théatre du Vieux Carré

Gary Solomon Jr. has show business in his blood — literally. His grandfather, T.G. Solomon, built the multiplex chain Gulf States Theatres, now known as the AMC Palaces. Gary fondly recalls his first time working a box office at age 12.

"All told, our family owned 270 screens across the Gulf South," he says, adding the Solomons' philosophy: "When you have the financial ability to do what you want for yourself, you have to do it for other people."

This karmic credo extends to Gary's current endeavors. While studying stage production at New York University's Tisch School for the Arts, Solomon and a team of professionals returned to New Orleans to found the After the Storm Foundation (www.afterthestormfoundation.org), a three-part, post-Katrina art and service project.

"We launched the foundation, we started production of [a documentary] film, and we created a musical," he explains. "What we saw at St. Mark's (Community Center) was really amazing. We sold out four performances of (Once on This Island). This was a place that didn't have doors open six weeks before. We had hundreds of people there every night."

With the film finished and St. Mark's thriving, Solomon, now a project developer with Event Producers, is using the documentary to raise funds for the nonprofit. He also serves on the board at Le Petit Théatre — the youngest person ever to do so.

Solomon has fun with that fact: "Every time I meet someone, they say, "You're on the board? I thought your dad was on the board.' Like, the real Gary Solomon." — Pais

 

 

 

 

 

Anais St. John, 35
Musician and educator

2008 was a big year for Anais St. John: It began with her making her New York cabaret debut for a crowd that included Tony Bennett; continued with the birth of her first child, Elle; and is concluding with the release of her debut CD, a project that melds her chosen fields of cabaret and blues into one sensuous package.

It's an ambitious schedule for the New Orleans native, who teaches music at Trinity Episcopal School by day (Elle goes with her) and performs her stylish blend of jazz and blues at the Windsor Court Hotel on Saturday nights. "And I'm still doing occasional guest stints as a dancer with the Bust-Out Burlesque troupe," she says. St. John's busy schedule includes time for volunteering with the Louisiana chapter of the March of Dimes — a charity particularly close to her heart since giving birth to Elle.

But her next baby is her long-awaited, still-untitled CD, which will be released next month and features some familiar cover tunes, including Eartha Kitt's playful "I Want to Be Evil" and the torch song from Chicago, "Good to Mama." That promises to start filling her calendar for 2009, and she's already making plans: "I want to go back to New York next year," she says, cradling Elle in her lap, "and I want to see about getting on a European tour. They love this music over there." — Allman

 

 

 

 

 

Tiffany Fennell Starnes, 30
Brand strategist, Trumpet
Creator, www.24nola.com

When Tiffany Fennell Starnes graduated high school, she left New Orleans, thinking her hometown had few opportunities for young people. Nine years later and after living in numerous cities including New York, Prague and Seattle, she still wasn't thrilled about returning.

"I came back home kicking and screaming about six months before the storm," Starnes says. So how is it that Starnes became the brains behind a social media campaign to draw tourists back to a city that had suffered the worst manmade disaster in the history of the United States?

Easy. She found her opportunity.

She went to work for Trumpet, a local company that considers itself, as Starnes puts it, "a recovering advertising agency." The company employs newer Internet-based forms of media such as Web sites, blogs, cell-phone communications and other social media tools to reach consumers in the numerous places that make up the online world.

Following the storm, Starnes created www.24nola.com, an interactive Web site that enables visitors to plan their own itineraries for vacations to New Orleans. In order to get more online traffic to the site, she formed partnerships with other travel Web sites such as Lonely Planet, the travel book company, and did a mobile phone campaign with The New York Times. These new techniques helped attract thousands of visitors to the site and the city. In January, Hospitality Sales & Marketing Association International awarded Trumpet and the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau, which sponsored the Web marketing campaign, "Best of Show" at its annual awards dinner.

Nowadays, Starnes, a proud mother of a 1-year-old daughter, sees only a bright future in New Orleans.

"I couldn't imagine living anywhere else," Starnes says. — Winkler-Schmit

 

 

 

 

 

Emery Van Hook, 32
Director of markets, www.marketumbrella.org

The guiding principle of marketumbrella.org is "public markets for public good." For Director of Markets Emery Van Hook, that duality means overseeing not just the operation of twice-weekly, open-air farmers markets in Uptown (Tuesday) and the CBD (Saturday), but their connection to the community as well.

Van Hook, a native New Orleanian who holds a master's degree in food studies from New York University, has established two programs for the good of the markets and the public: Meet Me at the Market, an outreach to senior centers and school groups, and the Marketeers Club, a kids' group with perks such as birthday mailings.

"It's introducing people to the market that maybe haven't been before," she says. "Having children know where their food comes from and who produces their food, that education can take place anywhere from school age to grown adults. It's connecting those farmers also to chefs and the restaurant community."

That's an area of particular expertise for Van Hook. Before attending NYU, she was co-director of marketing for Dickie Brennan. Her last day at that job, she says, was the Friday before Hurricane Katrina.

"Before I left for the storm, I sat on a board for the Crescent City Farmers Market, so I'd gotten to know a lot of the producers before," she explains. "One thing is that they are extraordinarily resilient, just amazing stewards of the land. [They're] doing some really innovative things, whether it's more sustainable techniques for shrimping, or experimenting with new crops, seeing what will grow in our climate and (sell) in our local buyer region." — Pais

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTO BY THERESA CASSAGNE PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Photo by Theresa Cassagne Photography

Elizabeth Van Sant, 39
Owner, Campbell's Coffee & Tea

Great coffee and green, sustainable business practices: It's a formula more associated with the Northwest than the Northshore. Elizabeth Van Sant wants to change that. The owner of Campbell's Coffee & Tea (with partner Campbell Morrison) in Covington has set up a shop that incorporates community responsibility as a cornerstone of her business model.

Originally from upstate New York, Van Sant came to Tulane University for graduate work in Latin American studies, and she says, "I've been immersed in the coffee and economic history of New Orleans ever since."

Campbell's recycles plastics, cardboard and glass, and even makes sure its coffee grounds are composted. The store donates to community efforts and gives its employees paid time off to pursue local volunteer projects of their choice (Van Sant herself is a poll worker). While she wouldn't mind seeing more Campbell's stores around town, Van Sant says a good cup of joe is just part of the shop's mission: "Our business model is sound, and I would love for it to take off — but taking our complete community-responsibility stance, not just the coffee."

And about the coffee? As far from corporate as you can get. Van Sant and partner Campbell Morrison roast their own small batches of java every day except Sunday, when the coffeehouse is closed. "Our customers go elsewhere on Sunday," she says, "and then they're glad to see us again on Monday." — Allman

 

 

 

 

 

Jennifer Weishaupt, 34
Industrial safety manager, Shell; co-owner, Ruby Slipper Cafe

Erich Weishaupt, 34
Real estate investor; co-owner, Ruby Slipper Cafe

With tenacity and optimism, Erich and Jennifer Weishaupt have made an impact on their Mid-City neighborhood that can be seen, heard and even tasted.

Jennifer hails from New York and first moved to New Orleans in the mid-1990s to attend Tulane University. She is now an industrial safety manager for Shell. Erich, a native of Montgomery, Ala., moved to the area about the same time to work on offshore rigs. They married and soon embarked on real estate investments together, selecting neglected properties to restore near their Mid-City home.

"When we chose to come back to Mid-City and invest here for the future, we knew there was no turning back," Jennifer says. "We knew we had to be all in to make this neighborhood as good as we know it can be.

"I was raised in a household where we never had money to give, so we volunteered a lot. If I've been blessed with some leadership ability, I want to share that with my neighborhood."

The Weishaupts became heavily involved in the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization, of which Jennifer is now president, and they became charter organizers of the Mid-City Bayou Boogaloo, a free festival that draws thousands of people to the area each Memorial Day.

They continue to turn blighted properties into inviting homes, but their most recent project has been the biggest transformation of all. Last spring they opened the Ruby Slipper Café, their first foray into the restaurant business. In the process, they transformed a corner store that had been a magnet for crime into a bright destination for breakfast and lunch.

'When we see an opportunity, we try to gain the skills we need to make it happen," Erich says. "It takes a while for the business returns to come back to you, but right away you can see these things helping the neighborhood." — McNulty

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