In a city full of gifted, hard-working, smart women, it says a lot that these women stand out from the crowd. Although they have very different missions, the common thread shared by these top achievers is doing the work, building consensus and believing in themselves along the way. Overnight success? That’s not a thing. It’s getting up every day and making it happen. Whether they are a force for environmental change, passionate about social justice or an entrepreneur with plenty of pluck, each of these women inspire.
New Orleans Women & Children Shelter
When you think about the homeless population in New Orleans, you may picture mostly men, and maybe some women, living in tents under overpasses and holding signs at intersections. What you don’t see is all the families — all the children.
Over the past 16 years, the New Orleans Women & Children’s Shelter (NOWCS) has served more than 4,000 people — two-thirds of which were children.
From its beginnings as a makeshift shelter run by volunteers, to its current 16-bedroom facility than can serve up to 60 people at a time through a full range of programs thanks to a staff of 22, Dawn Bradley-Fletcher has led the organization, which continues to serve as the only shelter for families and the largest for women and children in the metro area.
The Seventh Ward native said she had more of a business career in mind when she graduated with a degree in business development, but she found her first job running the drop-in center for the pediatric AIDS program at Children’s Hospital New Orleans. After 10 years, she took a job with the Travelers Aid Society helping homeless people find jobs. After Hurricane Katrina hit, she connected with Jackie and Dan Silverman, who had founded a shelter and were looking for help.
“After literally seven interviews with various people, I knew I wanted in,” she said.
Bradley is proud of the work NOWCS has done, and continues to do, to break the cycle of homelessness.
“Ninety-eight percent of our clients stay housed,” she said, “because we are there to assist them with whatever it was that caused them to become homeless, and we make sure that if they fall, we’re there to pick them back up.”
She said the organization’s goals for the future are simple.
“As the needs of our community change, we just want to make sure we are proactive in making sure we meet them.”
The Helis Foundation John Scott Center
When a colleague told Asante Salaam that The Helis Foundation John Scott Center was looking for a director, she was inspired. And she wanted the position.
“First, I am a visual artist since childhood, raised by cultural arts activist parents.” Her father Kalamu ya Salaam, a writer and cultural events organizer, was close with Scott who was a frequent visitor at her home in the Lower 9th Ward. “He was also my teacher at Xavier, a mentor and role model,” said Salaam.
She got the job. The center opened to the public September 10. Salaam, a former interim director for the City of New Orleans’ Office of Cultural Economy has deep experience as a strategic arts leader in the city and beyond, she’s worked with in the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Foundation, the Louisiana State Museum, Ashé Cultural Arts Center, KIDsmART, and the National Endowment for the Arts. In her new role, she sees striking opportunity.
“It’s not a museum and it’s not an art gallery,” she said. “This is a space for the next generation of New Orleans artists, particularly BIPOC artists and native New Orleanian artists and culture makers, a place where they can experience, co-create and witness reflections of themselves.”
Scott’s work is displayed throughout the stunning 6,000 square foot space, which is filled with interactive exhibits, programs, and experiences inspired by Scott’s work and life. There are 51 works on display and a mural on the side of the building by Scott’s son, Ayo Scott.
Salaam sees the space as a conduit for conversation, workshops about art, culture, social change and human potential, all themes Scott addressed through his art and teaching. “Understanding the scope and expansiveness of his relevance, not just through art, but in how he lived his life, is central to who we are.” She feels honored to help shed light on the experience of John Scott as a human being, his strong spirit that still lives in so many people who knew him.
Scott was brilliantly prolific, drawing inspiration from New Orleans music and culture to create kinetic sculptures that explore themes from West African mythology to rhythms inspired by the dances of enslaved people in Congo Square. Scott passed away in Houston in 2007 at age 67.
Salaam wants to pass along to young artists some of the life lessons that reflect Scott’s legacy.
“First follow your heart. Second, grow and develop actively. And third move forward, take action,” said the artist. “One of my favorite quotes is Tony Robbins saying, ‘When would now be a good time to do that?’ Now is always the best time.”
Loyola University New Orleans Women’s Leadership Academy
On March 30, 55 women came together for the first meeting of the fifth annual class of Loyola University’s Women’s Leadership Academy. They join more than 165 other women that have participated in the program, the first, and still only, of its kind in Louisiana hosted at a university.
Focused on increasing women’s leadership roles in the workplace by educating, elevating and empowering women, the academy is largely the result of the work of one woman: Amy Landry. The Houston native worked in human resources for Hilton Hotels and The Monteleone for more than a decade before starting her own consulting firm, assisting companies like LCMC Health, Shell, Children’s Hospital and the Sazerac House.
Her passion for helping individuals succeed, however, first melded with her passion for women’s equity after joining the New Orleans chapter of the American Business Women’s Association, where she was responsible for creating both the chapter’s first Equal Pay Day event and first women’s conference.
Both experiences would serve her well when another opportunity presented itself.
“Five years ago, Tania Tetlow had just become Loyola’s new president — its first woman — and there was so much new energy,” said Landry. “I connected with them and suggested a women’s leadership academy. They did a survey to gauge interest and the response was surprisingly swift and very positive.”
After serving on the advisory board for the academy, Landry was brought in as its facilitator.
Among the things women learn throughout 11 sessions of the Women’s Leadership Academy are how to identify and hone their strengths, create a greater work-life balance, and build strategic networks.
“It has been so incredible to see so many people get promotions and find more fulfillment in their careers as a result of this group,” said Landry. “And it’s always such a diverse room. Our last group ranged in age from 25 to 62 and represented a wide array of ethnicities and industries.”
The success of the academy has fueled Landry and Loyola to add more programs and events, including the recent launch of the university’s first Collegiate Women’s Leadership Academy and its first International Women’s Day event, which was held March 8.
VAYLA New Orleans (Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association)
“Most of my life has been about healing people.”
Jacqueline Thanh grew up in a family intimate with suffering. The oldest child of refugees, her parents are Chinese, but grew up in Vietnam after their families left due to communism. Years later, her mother and father fled Vietnam for the United States in fishing boats, where they met in San Francisco.
“My parents had a lot of war trauma,” Thanh said. “My dad was orphaned. Actually, every generation of my family has been through some war.”
Growing up around such a strong desire to move through adversity toward a better life, she said helped lead her toward a career in social work and human rights.
When she followed her now-husband to New Orleans in 2015, her first job was as a victim advocate for the district attorney’s office.
“I had 900 violent felony cases on my desk,” she said. I know the ugly side of this city, but you have to understand darkness to be about any sort of liberation in social justice work.”
Four years ago, Thanh became the executive director of VAYLA, a move that pairs her work in healing and resilience with a deep love of her culture. VAYLA was formed following Hurricane Katrina by a group of young people in New Orleans East who spoke up when they were told a landfill was going to be put in their community.
“They fought back,” said Thanh, “and they won.”
The organization has since grown to include work in voter engagement, environmental justice, reproductive justice and cultural advocacy.
“Asian Americans are growing up in Louisiana not knowing their history,” said Thanh. “We want to change that, with the ultimate mission being to incubate them to take on leadership roles.”
Thanh said she’s feels profoundly at home in a city that celebrates resiliency.
“New Orleans reminds me of San Francisco when I was a kid, before tech hit, in that even when the shit hits the fan, you know love still lives here.”
New Orleans Hispanic Heritage Foundation
All her life, Belinda Flores-Shinshillas knew one thing: she was going to be an artist. Little did she know that life would take her far from her home in Mexico City to New Orleans where, for the past 19 years, she has thrived not only as a renowned artist, but as an influential supporter and promoter of Hispanic people and culture in her adopted home.
Flores-Shinshillas’ work has included eight years with the Consulate of Mexico in New Orleans, first in protecting the rights of Mexican citizens, and then helping to connect Mexican artists with the consulate’s art gallery. She was also instrumental in the creation of the Mexican Cultural Institute in Downtown New Orleans, which opened in 2018. In 2019, after serving as a board member for the New Orleans Hispanic Heritage Foundation (NOHHF) for three years, she became the executive director.
Since its founding 33 years ago, the NOHHF has given out 1,151 scholarships to local high school and university students totaling $106,250.
“We help through education, and I love that because I believe in education,” she said. “A majority of our scholars are the first in their families to go to college, and they need support. Helping them succeed is essential to creating a thriving community.”
Last year, NOHHF launched a mentorship program with the goal of connecting high school students with area professionals to help them discover possible career paths.
The organization depends greatly on one annual fundraiser — the Azúcar Ball, an event St. Charles Avenue magazine called “the best dancing party in the city.” This year’s ball will be held Oct. 28 and the theme is “Dia de los Muertos.” The colorful evening will showcase Hispanic culture through live music, food and dance.
Flores-Shinshillas is driven by her view that art is a vital agent for change.
“Promoting culture and art is the best way to change perspectives about a culture,” she said. “It is the best way to bring us all together.”
When Rashain Carriere-Williams was promoted to the role of executive director of Boys Town in August of 2019, her primary goal was to strengthen connections with the young people who aged out of the program at 18. “There wasn’t the kind of programming or funding in place to help them or their families. There are so many barriers to success, things like the cost of housing and transportation. It’s difficult for our kids to afford to live here.”
Here strategy was to work on lining up donors and volunteers and develop an aftercare program. Then March 2020 happened. “We just had to put on the brakes and work to keep our staff and kids safe.”
Carriere-Williams was raised in New Orleans East and lives with her husband and 12-year-old twins in Gretna. She has spent almost 17 years of her career with Boys Town, a nonprofit founded in Nebraska in 1917 as an orphanage for boys. The organization has grown into a network of protective homes for young children in nine U.S. locations, including three in New Orleans and one on the West Bank. Her commitment to giving young at risk boys and girls a chance is consuming. “I’ve always wanted to be some kind of helping professional, since I was a young child.”
A graduate of Louisiana Tech University with two master’s degrees from Tulane, in public health and social work, Carriere-Williams leads a team that serves about 600 families. The pandemic revealed an even more flawed system than she’d imagined. Kids lost ground. Virtual education didn’t provide the safety net, the hands-on attention, that so many children needed. Families struggled in isolation.
Although known for its residential program, a safe haven for troubled kids ages 10-18, Boys Town is also deeply involved in trying to prevent that child from getting into the carceral system.
“We can see the red flags,” she said. Offering one on one coaching on parenting and child development, the need for communication, routines and structure. “Families have to want us there. We have to build trust for this to work. The idea is to come up with a plan together before law enforcement and the courts are involved.”
The goal is to provide care for abused, neglected, runaway and delinquent youth of all ages by removing them from dangerous situations, assessing their needs and beginning to work toward family reunification or other permanent care. Carriere-Williams is once again focusing on her goal to expand into the community and create programming that offers families long-term support. Although there are many success stories, the work is intense. “This is hard. There’s only 24 hours in a day. I try to find small moments, sit outside, read a book, disconnect so I can recharge.”
As a leader, Carriere-Williams tries to set her colleagues up for success. “I don’t micromanage.” Although she can’t identify one primary mentor that has raised her up along the way, her take on mentoring is expansive. “My mentors were everywhere along the way. From professors to colleagues to the many aunties in my family of strong women, so many women have helped me along the way.”
Katy Simpson Smith
Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi and an enthusiastic resident of New Orleans since 2011, author Katy Simpson Smith is just fine with being called a Southern writer, something she is on a DNA level. “I’m in good company. Some of the greatest writers are from the South. Eudora Welty is one of my heroes.
“I’d say the only problematic part of being described that way is when the national publishing scene tries to regionalize us. To assume that we only write about the concerns of Southern readers. Which of course is not true.” Her new novel “The Weeds,” is her second set in Rome, where she’d spent a pre-pandemic month trying to banish a case of writer’s block.
A spinner of yarns since she was five years old, Simpson Smith is a big deal writer at the tender age of 37. She earned her PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and hails from a family of academics. Simpson Smith sees untold stories everywhere. Yet writing had never felt like a serious career option to her. “We’re trained as a society to not take the artistic part of ourselves as seriously as we get older,” she said. “But I knew I was passionate about writing, so I wanted to at least try and make a life for myself before the door started closing.”
She published her first book in 2013, “We Have Raised All of You, Motherhood in the South 1750-1835,” an outgrowth of her dissertation. Since then, she’s focused on evocative historic fiction, including the novels “The Story of Land and Sea, Free Men,” and” The Everlasting,” a New York Times Best Historical Fiction Book of 2020.
Her latest book considers two women, alive a century apart, both botanists collecting data about plants growing in the Coliseum. It’s a lyrical dive into her characters’ loss, defiance and need, told through the stamens, leaves and petals of flowers and weeds.
“History gives us a small window into the lives of people who didn’t leave behind records. Women, people of color, indigenous people, marginalized people. The only way to imagine what might have gone through their hearts and minds is by taking a deep dive into the historic record. I work hard to get the details correct and let my heart’s empathy do the rest. “
Her advice to other young women interested in writing is to take themselves seriously. “It’s so easy not to, to feel unimportant. But recognize your worth as an artist. That is important.”
New Orleans Beverage Group, El Guapo Bitters & Syrups
As far as Christa Cotton is concerned, the concept of work/life balance is a myth. “I don’t think it exists,” said the founder and CEO of the New Orleans Beverage Group, best known for its popular El Guapo Bitters & Syrups product line.
Like the recent five-week, six-state, four-country whirlwind sales tour she took, one of the reasons her product line is sold in 50 states and four countries. It took her a minute to understand that she needed to make the big deals, to interact with big clients. “I thought I wasn’t good at sales,” she said. “I was wrong. I just wasn’t believing in myself enough.”
The Leesburg, Georgia native comes from a family of entrepreneurs. Her parents started Victory Real Estate Investments when she was five, growing it into one of the largest privately held commercial real estate companies in the Southeast. Her dad Alton Darby decided to try something different in 2009 and opened Thirteenth Colony, the first and still only legal distillery in Georgia. Cotton helped launch the business while still in college at Auburn. “I learned a ton, it was a dream job for a 21-year-old,” she recalled.
After moving to New Orleans in 2011 to work in advertising and branding, Cotton took a leap of faith and purchased the El Guapo trademark, launching her company in 2017. For two years, she worked on recipes and refining the brewing process. She decided her bitters would be alcohol-free using natural ingredients sourced from local farms and businesses.
Her business exploded during the pandemic, tripling revenue in 2020. Along the way, she was accepted into The Idea Village’s entrepreneur accelerator program. Last year she purchased a 35,000 suare foot. facility in Mid-City to keep up with demand, carving out 16,000 sq. ft. of space to start, with plenty of room for growth.
Her advice to other women entrepreneurs is to mindfully build a support peer network. “To be able to ask a question in a safe space is invaluable,” she said. “But also, be careful who you listen to. Make sure the advice you are getting is coming from the right place.”
Above all, believe in yourself, said Cotton. “Don’t sell yourself short. It’s easy to think you’re not good at something. But you will surprise yourself. That’s what happened to me.”
Looking ahead, Cotton is committed to providing quality jobs in Orleans parish. “Building here is a labor of love.” With her company’s sixth anniversary coming in July, she’s incredibly proud of the six years of hard work it took to get to this point. “You don’t have to be the smartest woman in the room to succeed. What it takes is caring deeply and sticking. Staying power is what it takes.”
Restore the Mississippi River Delta
Despite the dire environmental crisis that has eroded some 1,900 square miles of land along Louisiana’s coast since the 1930s, Simone Maloz chooses to be a “Gulf is half-full” kind of leader.
“We know we are having more extreme weather. That water is rising, and the Delta is sinking,” she said. “For a long while the trajectory was anything but positive. Yes, the coast will continue to change. Yes, we are facing a difficult future. But we have a plan. We are really building momentum and I’m hopeful for the future. Our coast will never look like it used to, but we are making decisions that will protect our beautiful delta. And we have the money we need to do it.”
As campaign director for Restore the Mississippi River Delta, the Houma native coordinates a five-group coalition that strive daily to do everything from crafting public policy to connecting with civic leaders and community members to researching and implementing science-based solutions to affect conservation and protect coastal Louisiana, its communities and its wildlife.
“I’m like the leader of the band,” she said. “I’m not a micromanager. I connect the dots when I can help, but it’s an incredibly smart team. I work with a lot of strong women scientists. We are all passionate about our mission.”
Maloz wasn’t a science girl growing up. “As a kid, we’d go to friends’ camps down the bayou, but coastal really wasn’t part of my world.” After working for several nonprofits, she took a job with Restore or Retreat in June 2005. When Katrina hit, everything changed. “I was in a position where all the rules changed drastically when I was just starting out.”
Maloz says her science communication skills have evolved over time. “I need to be able to explain what’s happening to the vulnerable communities down the bayou, all the way to Washington D.C.” As a member of the state’s Coastal Advisory Team working on the 2023 Coastal Master Plan, Maloz is heartened that billions of dollars are at work for habitat restoration, supporting resilient coastal communities and sustainable fisheries and rebuilding the Louisiana coastline.
“Two million people in Louisiana live close to the water. It’s part of our culture. They don’t want to live anywhere else. Our job is to keep moving forward with science-based plans. Now is not the time to take our foot off the gas. I’m proud to be working on something this important.”