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Gambit's 40 Under 40 (2012)

Saluting this year's crop of New Orleans achievers

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Erin Reho Pelias, 32

Owner, ZukaBaby

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

When Erin Reho Pelias couldn't find cloth diapers or other natural products she wanted locally, she opened a store so other parents in New Orleans wouldn't face the same issue.

"These are products that are hard to buy online if you've never seen them and you don't know what size you need," Pelias says.

She opened ZukaBaby, a natural parenting boutique, on Magazine Street three years ago. It offers cloth diapers, baby clothes, breastfeeding supplies, eco-friendly feeding items and more. The store also hosts natural parenting classes.

Pelias is a founding member of the Green Light District, a group of eco-conscious businesses in the Lower Garden District.

She became interested in a holistic view of the body when a chiropractor told her that diet was an important part of recovering from a back injury. She received training in nutrition and holistic diets, which influenced her parenting style.

"Having a baby swayed me over to natural parenting," Pelias says. "I wanted to be able to bring my daughter to work." She recently completed the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program. "It has really helped me grow my business," she says.

Pelias helps coordinate a community garden near her home as well as organizing ecology awareness events through the Green Light District. — Marta Jewson



Josh Perry, 35

Executive director, Juvenile Regional Services

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

"Our clients have been denied so much, and need so much," Josh Perry says. "Our clients have not been educated well; they have been denied the mental health care they need; they don't have the physical health care they need. They do not have family support."

Perry is a juvenile public defender and his clients are the at-risk, impoverished youth of the New Orleans area and, to an extent, all of Louisiana. Not only has Perry steered the independent nonprofit into a holistic model — connecting clients with social, educational and health services they lack — but he travels around Louisiana teaching public defenders how to effectively represent juveniles.

"We fight for the dignity and rights of our clients," he says, "and not just strong case outcomes, but strong life outcomes." That involves providing clients with a rehabilitative "holistic model of defense" plus "zealous advocates and strong, passionate defenders," Perry says.

"People presume I work for guilty kids trying to get them off, and they don't know how many of our clients are factually innocent of what they're accused of ... but they also don't realize that doesn't matter," he says.

"Our clients, when they come into the justice system, learn how people in power are prepared to treat them. If we show them they can't trust us, we show them they can't trust their government. If we show them their rights won't be respected, we show them that nobody's rights should be respected," Perry says. "We're part of the solution. We're part of fixing this." — Eileen Loh



Jolene Pinder, 34

Executive director, New Orleans Film Society

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

"Tired? Yeah, I guess I'm a little tired," Jolene Pinder says with a laugh a few days after the close of the successful New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF). She is a huge part of why the local festival has grown so tremendously, with Pinder working hard to obtain sponsorships, expand the breadth of programming and increase the number and quality of submissions.

The Tallahassee, Fla., native landed her position as executive director of the New Orleans Film Society, the organization which has presented NOFF for the past 23 years, during the 2010 festival, which Pinder had been invited to participate in as a juror in the documentary division. At the time, she was living in New York City, where she produced documentaries and orchestrated the city's Media that Matters film festival.

Pinder, whose University of Florida Documentary Institute thesis evolved into the Emmy-winning Bismillah, a profile of a Muslim woman in Minneapolis leading a Girl Scout troop and running for mayor, wanted to return to the South, "but it had to be at the right time and the right job," she says. Clearly, she found both.

"The film industry here wanted to be engaged in [NOFF]," she says. "They just needed someone to make the connection. It just makes sense to have a major film festival and also promote the work of local, independent filmmakers. We're very pleased with this year's results, but also really working to expand." — Frank Etheridge



Nik Richard, 26

Author; Transportation Planner, Regional Planning Commission

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Whether writing poetry or screenplays, painting from imagination or memory, planning transportation or communities, Nik Richard keeps one motivation in mind: his hometown, New Orleans. In 2008, Richard won an NAACP Award, AFI Silverdocs Award and a PBS P.O.V. Award for the short film about disaster tourism, New Orleans For Sale. Also in 2008, he wrote, illustrated and published Love and Water, a book of poetry about his feelings for and frustration with New Orleans.

"Man, that's so old!" Richard says. "I'm writing another book, A Dream for Sale, which should be out soon, but separate from that and my work for the Regional Planning Commission, I've been working on urban planning." Richard's latest project is a study on the land use of the Milne Boys Home, including an architect's blueprint of what the land could look like with recreational space, taking into consideration historical use.

Richard, appointed to the Alcohol Beverage Control Board by former City Council President Arnie Fielkow, will upload his study onto www.shopgentilly.com/reports-studies so citizens can learn about development realities. "I've been trying to educate people on the history of [Milne Boys Home] because there are so many restrictions with what you can do with the property," Richard says. "My plan focuses on bringing all those documents [to] one place, educating people on who's in charge of it, what the purpose of it was and then doing land use studies.

"They're printing stories in the paper, which get people excited but really aren't about anything because all they're saying is that they're cutting the grass and fixing the windows." — Megan Braden-Perry



Tommy Santora, 33

Communications specialist, Adams and Reese LLP

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Tommy Santora likes to stay busy. Head of communications at Adams and Reese LLP, he also works as a freelance journalist, plays sports or exercises most nights and volunteers. That's a full plate by most standards, but Santora faces an extra challenge: He has myasthenia gravis (MG), a rare muscular dystrophy disease that causes chronic fatigue, muscle weakness and a host of other intermittent symptoms.

Diagnosed at age 12, Santora underwent thymus removal surgery and manages the disease with medication, diet and exercise. When he began experiencing double vision in 2011, he looked for a support group but found there wasn't one in New Orleans.

"I called the national foundation in New York and they said 'If you want to start one, we're more than willing to have you go ahead,'" Santora says. He used his marketing background to publicize the new group. "Thirty people showed up at the first meeting," he says. "The Muscular Dystrophy Association says there are about 60 people diagnosed in New Orleans."

Encouraged by the feedback, Santora organized a fundraiser MG walk with a $25,000 goal. New Orleans was the first and only city to achieve its fundraising goal.

"I used every trick from my marketing and journalism background, and it all came together," Santora says. "I've got to use my talents in the professional field to create interest for the support group and raise funds to research this disease, because there's a long way to go." — Missy Wilkinson



Shaun Walker, 28

Reid Stone, 29

Co-owners, HERO|farm

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Reid Stone and Shaun Walker owe the success of their marketing strategy and design company, in part, to two disasters: Hurricane Katrina and the economic collapse of 2008. Katrina gave them the impetus to return to New Orleans: "I wanted to be part of a defining generation that didn't give up on a city and was here in its darkest hours," Walker says. A series of layoffs at the large advertising agency where Stone and Walker met led them to strike out on their own. "After the first round of layoffs, we were thinking, 'What would happen if we did our own thing?'" Stone says. "The axe fell, and we hit the ground running. Four years later, we're still here."

The business they created, HERO|farm, has doubled its revenue every year while racking up a series of accolades, including being named Business of the Year by the International Association of Business Communicators. Stone and Walker are members of Tulane University's Public Board of Advisors, and they were among YFS Magazine's Top 20 Young Entrepreneurs of 2011.

Their mission is a humble one: "With everything we do, we want to give back in some way or do something that benefits someone," says Walker, a New Orleans native.

"Do great work for good people is our motto," Stone says. "If we're going to interrupt someone's day with a message, we want it to benefit them somehow. That's the filter we put on all our marketing."

HERO|farm does at least one pro bono campaign per year for a nonprofit. Past pro bono clients include New Orleans Mission, March of Dimes, Green Light New Orleans and Boy Scouts of America. Stone says that's one way he and Walker create opportunities to do meaningful work.

"When we started this company, we wanted it to be more than just advertising," Stone says. "Having made ads for people who were a flash in the pan — that's not a legacy. But leaving messages that make somebody smile or fixing things in our community, that's the guts of what we try to do." — Missy Wilkinson



Andre Lewis, 26

Drilling Engineer, Chevron North American Exploration and Production Company

Co-Founder, Verius Property Group

Michael Merideth, 26

Co-Founder/Vice President of Commercial Development,

Verius Property Group

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Montgomery, Ala., native Andre Lewis moved to New Orleans to accept a lucrative position with Chevron after graduating from Tuskegee University with a degree in mechanical engineering. He settled in Kenner and while traveling around the metro area, he noticed a troubling amount of blighted property and sub-standard housing.

Lewis partnered with his longtime friend, Tuskegee Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brother Michael Merideth and founded Verius Property Group to provide housing solutions for low-income families. The company already has established 20 units and amassed $1 million in assets. It partners with the City of New Orleans' affordable housing initiative and is active in the Jefferson and St. Bernard Parish markets.

"Seeing these units before and after, it's amazing," Lewis says.

Merideth also came to New Orleans to work for Chevron on offshore rigs. While at Tuskegee, he played short-stop and second-base before playing in the minor leagues, first for the Milwaukee Brewers, then in Arizona and New Jersey.

"Work brought me to New Orleans," Merideth says. "From there, I transitioned in my entrepreneurial endeavor. I always wanted to be a business owner, and ... I took a leap of faith and it has taken off from there.

"Our mission (at Verius) from the very beginning is to provide high-quality, financially affordable housing for people regardless of their physical condition or economic situation." The two friends now are working to expand the Verius model to Alabama and New York.

"What I've learned," Merideth says, "is that you can be successful at anything that you have passion for." — FRANK ETHERIDGE


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