The task of choosing our "top female achievers" gets tougher every year; to make the call we needed to establish some criteria. For our purposes, a top female achiever is defined as “a woman who during the last year did something new and made notable advances in her career.” The key phrases are “in the last year” and “career.” Volunteer activists and women who have had a life full of earlier career accomplishments are all special and deserve a list of their own. We’ll concede that there is no novelty to women having successful careers anymore. We consider the 10 we have selected to be representative of a much larger group of success stories. All that can be certain about our list is that some worthy people have been unintentionally left off. We have no question, however, about the worthiness of those who are on the list. They’re all worth getting to know better.
Pat Brady — Writer and Historian — Birthplace: Brownsville, Texas
At first even Pat Brady, who recently penned a biography of Martha Washington, was fixated on the image of America’s first first lady as a dowdy, gray-haired grandmother.
“This is going to sound nutty, but it just never occurred to me that she wasn’t born 60 years old,” Brady confesses.
It was at a White House bicentennial celebration five years ago that Brady began to think about writing a book that would paint a fuller, more accurate picture. Titled Martha Washington: An American Life and released this year, Brady’s book has already been selected as an alternate by the Book of the Month Club.
For the book’s cover, she took it upon herself to have Washington’s portrait redone in a literal sense. She asked forensic anthropologist Mary Manheim to make an age-regression image based on a painting of Washington in her 40s. Then a local artist was hired to paint a portrait from Manheim’s estimate of how she would have looked in her 20s.
As a student of history, Brady initially focused on Latin America before switching her concentration to the southern United States. After getting her doctorate from Tulane University, she taught for 11 years at Dillard University, where she developed another area of focus in African-American history.
In 1980, Brady took a position as editor at The Historic New Orleans Collection. Her first book project was called Nelly Custis Lewis’s Housekeeping Book.
“Nelly Custis was Martha Washington’s granddaughter,” says Brady. “That’s when I first met Martha Washington as a real character in life, as opposed to just a picture of a frumpy, dumpy old lady.”
The success of that book persuaded THNOC to let Brady set up and head its publications department, a job she held for the next 20 years, until she gave her notice to begin researching the Martha Washington biography.
The Martha Washington that Brady discovered was a petite, attractive woman who had suffered heartache – the deaths of her first husband and two of her children – and was determined to marry the future first U.S. president.
“She set eyes on George Washington and essentially saw what a hunk he was and just decided to have him,” says Brady. “People have seen her as timid and shy and meek – and she wasn’t any of those things. She was an actor in her own life.”
Brady has five more books outlined about the Washington children, the Marquis de Lafayette and the free people of color of New Orleans. –Sonya Stinson
Mentor: “Buddy Frazier, who was director of The Historic New Orleans Collection. He’s the one who hired me to come and work there, permitted me to set up a publications department, and really helped get me started as a publisher.”
Turning point in career: “I originally intended to major in English because I planned to be a writer. I found that I really liked my history classes better.”
Advice for young women entering the field: “Get your Ph.D. You so often see girls who decide to stop after the master’s, and then they don’t have the union card. Having that Ph.D. in history is the union card. You need to have it to get to the top positions.”
Mary Laurie — Principal, Carter G. Woodson Middle School — Birthplace: Isola, Miss.
The dismissal bell has long since rung at Carter G. Woodson Middle School, but a sizable cluster of students and staff are still hanging around, and principal Mary Laurie won’t be going home for hours.
“It’s very seldom that we leave prior to 7 o’clock on any given night,” says Laurie.
Many would say that Laurie herself is a big part of the reason why students, staff and volunteers alike love to be at Woodson. She arrived at the Central City school in 2000, in the wake of a shooting that left two students wounded. Her mission has been to help the school rise above what she describes as its rock-bottom moment and return to its “glory days” as a longtime educator of many of the city’s black leaders.
“We can debate from here to there who’s responsible, and in the meantime, our children are not receiving what they need,” says Laurie. “Or we can say, ‘We’re going to step up to the plate and do all that’s possible for the children.’ ”
It’s that attitude that’s helping push what seems to be the start of a significant turnaround. The school is still struggling to overcome its “academically unacceptable” label among Louisiana’s public schools, but last year its ranking score nearly tripled. This year Woodson became a signature school with a sex-segregated educational program focusing on leadership. It’s also been designated as the city’s first community school, offering services such as free eye and dental exams.
Before working for New Orleans Public Schools, Laurie spent 10 years as a pre-K teacher and program coordinator at Kingsley House while studying part-time at the University of New Orleans. Her first job after getting her education degree in 1986 was at Lusher Elementary School. More recently, she was principal of William J. Guste Elementary School and coordinator of the Home Instruction Program for Parents of Pre-school Youngsters in the central office of the school district.
Looking back over her career, Laurie says, “There is nothing that could have happened in my life professionally that would have been as meaningful as being an educator.” –S.S.
Mentors: “Ms. Barbara Lewis, the staff developer at Guste, was one of my many mentors. Others include Margaret LeBlanc, the director of the Kingsley House early-childhood program; Kathy Riedlinger, the principal at Lusher; Dr. Linda Stelly in the central office; Dr. Calvin Adams, my superviser when I first started at Woodson; and all of the teachers here.”
Turning point in career: “I was working at Kingsley House doing work study, and during the course of that summer I got a divorce. I was the mother of two, with one on the way, so I had to readjust. I took a job at Kingsley working with 4-year-olds, not at the time planning to make it my career, but circumstances were such that I needed full-time employment – and I did enjoy what I was doing.”
Advice for young women entering the field: “Know that the possibility exists for all children to be successful. They must truly believe that in their hearts and be willing to put in the time and effort necessary to make that possibility a reality.”
Carolyn W. McLellan — General Manager, FrenchQuarter.com — Birthplace: New Orleans
Carolyn W. “Missy” McLellan has never been afraid to try something new, but all her business ventures combine similar traits: a desire to communicate, an interest in history and culture, and a love of learning. The New Orleans native calls herself “a lifelong learner, a perpetual student,” and her current role – general manager of www.FrenchQuarter.com — has given her a chance to add Internet know-how to her repertoire of skills.
FrenchQuarter.com LLC is owned by the Valentino family, proprietors of several French Quarter hotels, including the Place D’Armes and the Prince Conti. McLellan became manager of the site two years ago and has built up visitorship to 60,000 a month. She also produces a monthly newsletter, which has about 11,000 subscribers.
The goal of FrenchQuarter.com is to inform the cultural and leisure tourist who wants to learn about the French Quarter. In addition to interactive maps and a music search function, the site contains historical vignettes, hotel and restaurant information, and witty articles on shopping, dining and sightseeing. Advertising was recently added to the site. McLellan and her staff keep the site fresh so that those who have already visited the city can still learn something new when they visit www.FrenchQuarter.com.
The Internet is “a new channel,” McLellan says, but communication has always been her forte. A graduate of Louise S. McGehee School and Smith College, she began her career as a radio producer and copywriter with a local advertising agency, added television production to her résumé and then joined New Orleans Publishing Group (former parent company of this magazine) in 1985.
At NOPG she wore a variety of hats, including editor of special projects and chief operating officer. Her jobs required knowledge of both the advertising and editing sides of the business. “To me, that’s the fun part of good publishing,” she says. It was at NOPG that McLellan first began learning about the use of the Internet as the company built Web sites for its publications.
To McLellan, the chance to communicate with people all over the world makes Internet publishing fun and fascinating. She has also learned about the technical side of the Internet as well. She uses a variety of local writers to contribute articles that are brief but packed with information. Her affection for the French Quarter shines through when she talks about the Web site. “I treat it as the center of the universe,” she says.
McLellan’s community activities include serving on the boards of Louisiana ArtWorks, the Bureau of Governmental Research and Hermann-Grima House/Gallier House, as well as the Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church Board of Trustees. She also enjoys playing golf, sailing and grabbing an occasional weekend at her Northshore home, Haphazard, a McLellan family compound on Bayou Paquet west of Slidell. She describes it as “where the fifth generation is enjoying the place that Charles and Ernestine McLellan bought in 1934.” She has two daughters, Lauren Buckley, youth choral conductor for Jefferson Performing Arts Society, and Carolyn Buckley, an editorial assistant with Congressional Quarterly in Washington, D.C.
And she’s recently been learning another skill: how to tool around the French Quarter on a Vespa. –Judi Russell
Mentor: “In publishing and business [Ed. note: New Orleans Magazine publisher] Bill Metcalf.
Turning point in career: “When I began to understand just how powerful, compelling and fun the World Wide Web would be.”
Advice for young women entering the field: “You must be excited about communicating ideas and stories and making connections with and for people.”
Leah Milana Bauer — Fashion Designer — Birthpalce: New Orleans
It’s like you’re a voice, and you know someone listened.” That’s how Leah Milana Bauer of Pooch Clothing explains the thrill and validation she feels upon seeing someone wearing one of her designs, which she describes as “urban contemporary.”
The New Orleans native paid her dues in New York at Parsons School of Design and Fashion Institute of Technology and then worked for Fila in Hong Kong,
Bauer founded Pooch Clothing while living in Los Angeles. But it was her decision to move back to New Orleans in 2000 to open a home-based store that resulted in some of Pooch’s most notable wearables.
They’re fitted ringer T-shirts in contrasting colors, bearing the names of New Orleans streets: Tchoupitoulas, Desire, Calliope, Lee Circle.
A bit more subtle and quirky than the ubiquitous “I Love New York” T-shirts, Bauer’s T-shirts were created as a special ode to New Orleans, a city with a colorful culture and a considerable collection of quirks. The shirts have become very popular with locals, tourists (and even a few celebrities who are in the know), but they are just one part of the Pooch line.
Bauer says she finds inspiration for her varied designs almost everywhere. “Travel is No. 1,” explains Bauer. “I find different cultures and subcultures extremely interesting. But I’ll find something inspirational in anything – basketball games, music videos, nightclubs, architecture, interiors and festivals.”
And Bauer began expressing a keen interest in design at an early age. “My old school friends still tease me about all the sketches I had in my notebooks and the models on my walls,” recalls Bauer, who had decided by age 10 that she wanted to work in the fashion industry.
“I love how clothes can make you feel, give you an instant identity or express some sense of individuality,” she explains. “And I’m able to translate my business into any situation. You can always wear something interesting or talk to someone about what they’re wearing.”
Now making plans to expand Pooch with “outlets for franchising and continuing Web sales at poochclothing.com,” Bauer says that a critical turning point in her career was having her daughter Grace Rose, who was born in 2003 with cystic fibrosis, a serious life-shortening disease.
“It gave me a real sense of urgency. I had to evaluate how serious I was about making this a career,” says Bauer. “When you have a child, you have to be more responsible. You have to focus more, and you can’t take as many uncalculated risks. Ultimately, it really motivated me for success.” –Kara Nelson
Best career advice I’ve ever been given: “My father’s mantra: ‘Learn, work, save, commit.’ And my mother’s: ‘Follow your bliss.’ I’m trying to do both.”
Advice for young women entering the field: “It should be the thing you are most passionate about because it’s tough and not as glam as one would think.”
Leilani Heno – Owner, X-Trainers — Birthplace: New Orleans
At 7 years old, she started her first business selling crochet chickens. She made them herself and sold them to friends and neighbors. At 15, she discovered that people would pay good money to voice their opinions, so she produced a commercial on late-night television and asked viewers to call her 900 number to vote on an issue that she flashed across the screen. She made $3.99 per minute. Now in her early 30s, she is the owner of X-Trainers, a personal-training company designed to bring the mind/body/spirit connection to weight loss. Even though you can work out there, X-Trainers is not a gym. Think of it as more of a consulting company where clients pay for personal guidance and advice about losing weight and staying fit. The workout is one part of a holistic approach.
Asked why she chose to put her entrepreneurial spirit, along with her MBA from the University of New Orleans, into personal training, Heno replies, “I was so fat.” By age 18, she weighed 240 pounds and was having trouble keeping up with her friends. But she soon grew tired of sitting on the sidelines. “My personality just didn’t fit that person’s body,” and so she set out to lose weight. She tried every diet on the market. They all worked, but only short term, so the weight didn’t stay off for long. She attributes her fleeting success to a lack of proper thinking. “I didn’t believe that I was a skinny person; it’s a mind, body and spirit process,” she says. For a diet to work, it has to address more than just the physical. A person has to visualize themselves as a thinner person. Once she made this connection, she lost 85 pounds and kept it off.
Heno’s clients are people much like herself. They are successful entrepreneurs who are used to running things. However, she says, “They make money and they’re great at that, but they never connect that drive to themselves. We need to get them out of that and find something that’s going to make them work on them.” Heno calls those issues in our lives that make us eat “triggers.” A trigger can be anything from a visit from the in-laws to stress at work. By getting to know the individual, her eating habits, motivation, triggers, and beliefs about herself and weight loss, Heno and her staff train the entire person. Heno says that X-Trainers has a 91 percent success rate.
Heno started with a location at the American Can Co. on Bayou St. John in May 2003, then followed up with the Saulet in the Warehouse District in 2004 and a Northshore location to open this year. In addition, she is selling franchises to other entrepreneurs who have the right mind, body and spirit approach to health and weight loss.
Anyone who has an opportunity to be in the same room with Heno for five minutes will notice two things right away: She’s charming, and she means business. She has an interesting mix of spiritual wisdom and business acumen, which she has been able to balance. In her book (yes, she has written a book, too) called Smothering the Soul, Heno lays out the spiritual principles that underpin her weight-loss plan. If you are familiar with the theory that your thoughts create your reality, Heno’s book will be a wonderful reminder that you are what you think: Think happy, be happy. Think rich, be rich. Think thin, be thin. But you’ve got to put your thoughts into action, too, which means putting down that cupcake and using your exercise bike as more than just a coat rack. A holistic approach requires participation from all the parts but starts from the head down. As John Milton says, “the mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of hell.” If you want living proof, pay Heno a visit. It may not be mere coincidence that her first name means “heavenly flower” in Polynesian. –Kim Belchere
Mentors: “My mother’s spirit and my father’s drive.”
Turning point in career: “When I finally lost 85 pounds and realized that the only thing stopping me was myself.”
Advice for young women entering the field: “If someone tells you that you can’t do something, that is a definite sign that you can!”
Jo Huey — Director, Alzheiner's Residential Care Homes — Birthplace: Sterling, Colo.
When a local businessman needed someone to run his Alzheimer’s care franchise, he went right to the source: Jo Huey, the nationally renowned gerontologist who had developed the original model for a Denver-based company.
D.K. Groome had been inspired to open the franchise by his search for adequate care for his father-in-law, who had vascular dementia.
“He starting calling me to see if I wanted to come to New Orleans, and he talked me into coming eight years ago,” says Huey, who was running an Alzheimer’s nursing home in Denver at the time. “I came down for a weekend – a very balmy, beautiful weekend. The weather was perfect, everything was in bloom. We worked out an arrangement for me to come July 1, 1997, [with my] having no idea what July was like in Louisiana.”
Huey’s brainchild, Alzheimer’s Residential Care Homes, provides help with bathing, taking medication and organized activities, along with 24-hour supervision. There are six ARCH locations in the New Orleans metro area: three Uptown, one in Lakeview and two in Metairie.
“The philosophy is that it’s a real home,” says Huey. “What we do is provide specialized, individualized care for persons with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia in a setting that is like their own home when – primarily for reasons of safety – they can’t reside in their own home.”
Huey is an expert in the training of caregivers and author of the book Alzheimer’s Disease: Help and Hope. The key to caring for an Alzheimer’s patient effectively, Huey says, is “accepting the illness and finding ways to adapt the environment to create a situation where they’re happy and comfortable – giving them a way to have meaning and purpose in their life, so that they’re not just sitting around waiting for the end.”
A native of a small farming community in eastern Colorado “where there are no mountains and people don’t ski,” Huey grew up surrounded by her grandparents, three of whom lived to age 95. That experience, along with her relationship as a teen with an elderly neighbor who suffered from dementia, sparked an early interest in gerontology.
“Working with people with dementia and being able to give their families part of their life back is incredibly rewarding,” Huey says. –S.S.
Mentors: “I felt like I was a real pioneer in this. When I got actively involved in 1985 and ’86, I worked for the Alzheimer’s Association part-time, in addition to my full-time job as a respite-care provider. The Alzheimer’s Association has always been a very valuable resource for me.”
Turning point in career: “I made a vow on the deathbed of a loved one that I would figure out what was wrong with him and do something about it. An opportunity came 13 years later, when there was an advertisement to become a respite-care provider posted on a bulletin board where I worked.”
Advice for young women entering the field: “It’s a great field. You need to follow your heart, do what’s right and keep moving forward. You’ll find your niche.”
Julie Noto — General Manager, Omni Royal Orleans — Birthplace: New Orleans
As a kid, Julie Noto was a big fan of the TV show “Hotel,” and she fantasized about becoming the character played by Connie Selleca, opposite James Brolin, as a manager of a swanky San Francisco property.
“I wanted to be Christine, Peter McDermott’s assistant manager, growing up,” says Noto. “It’s the truth, as corny as it is.”
In real life, Noto’s career would actually surpass that youthful dream. In October 2004, she was named general manager of the Omni Royal Orleans, a position she says she rose to “truly from the ground up.”
Noto graduated from Nicholls State University in 1984 – the year of the World’s Fair in New Orleans. The event had spurred a lot of new hotel construction in the city, and Noto set out to find a job in this suddenly booming industry. She found herself particularly drawn to the Omni Royal Orleans, which opened at its current site in 1960.
“Like many people, I came to this hotel as a child for special events and always thought it was larger than life – and I loved the Old World charm of it,” Noto says.
She took a job as a front desk clerk, making $5 an hour, and she’s been at the Omni Royal ever since.
“I worked at the front desk for just under two years, then I was promoted to assistant manager on duty – or ‘Christine’ – and I did that for four years,” Noto says.
Next came stints as reservations manager, sales manager and director of rooms before she finally earned the role of “Christine’s boss,” so to speak.
As general manager, Noto is in charge of 325 employees, including several who have been with the hotel since its opening 45 years ago as the Royal Orleans. –S.S.
Mentors: “I started off working for Ron Pincus, who’s now the managing director of the [Hotel] Monteleone. His eye for detail was just impeccable. And then I worked for Gary Froeba … who is now the area director with the Wyndham [Hotel] at Canal Place. He taught me more about revenue management and the financial piece – I was in sales under his tenure – and how it affects the entire operation. Then in ’98 I worked for Steve Ferran (now general manager of the Loew’s New Orleans Hotel), who was effervescent. The associates just loved him.”
Turning point in career: “When I was the senior person in sales and my move to director of rooms were probably the turning points.”
Advice for young women entering the field: “I give the same advice to everyone, and that is: If you want to make a career and stay in the city of New Orleans, the hotel business is, hands down, the best industry, because there is so much out there … I [would] also tell them: You’re going to have to do jobs along the way that you don’t necessarily love to do, but it is certainly not an excuse to do a poor job. And if you do your very best and show up every day with a positive, can-do attitude and try your best, the sky is the limit.”
Alberta Pate — Director, Division of Housing and Neighborhood Development, City Of New Orleans — Birthplace: Amarillo, Texas
The city of New Orleans faces particular challenges when it comes to housing. So much of the city’s distinctive architecture has fallen into neglect and disrepair over the years with help from the elements. Added to this, New Orleans residents, many of whom exist at the poverty level, cannot find the resources for improvements. Tackling this problem is Alberta Pate, director of the Division of Housing and Neighborhood Development. Pate’s job is to focus on the city’s gentrification, but also to provide neighborhood services for residents.
“I’m a high-challenge kind of person; nothing keeps my interest very long if it’s not challenging,” says Pate. “And this is certainly the most challenging job I’ve ever had.”
Appointed by Mayor C. Ray Nagin, Pate took a career’s worth of experience with Fannie Mae (Federal National Mortgage Association) into the position. A resident of New Orleans since 1995, Pate spent her years with Fannie Mae working with Louisiana as part of her territory. She also championed and coordinated initiatives to improve affordable housing.
Having taken early retirement from Fannie Mae, Pate returned to the work force to take over as director of the city’s Housing and Neighborhood Development. Responsibilities of the job include directing budgeting toward a variety of different housing programs, including grants for homebuyers, owner-occupied rehabilitation and even earmarking dollars for renters. Part of the homebuyer program helps in downpayment and closing-cost assistance for city employees, 30 of whom have been able to buy homes, including 14 police officers.
Neighborhood services are also funded, including child care, employment training, literacy education, senior services and housing opportunities for people with HIV/AIDS. Within the past year, the office has exceeded target numbers while also doing it under budget.
Pate has recently taken new steps toward fixing blighted housing around the city. This past January, Mayor Nagin announced that the office would be changing its name to Neighborhood 1. Part of the new direction is to start with seven strategic zones around the city. The areas of focus are A.P. Tureaud/7th Ward, Lower 9th Ward, Central City, Gert Town, Treme, Mid-City and an area in Algiers.
Not just a semantic gesture, the new name reflects the more holistic and expansive goals of the office. Pate says that people often see such programs aimed at blight as entailing demolition, but that’s not her strategy. “New Orleans architecture is what makes New Orleans unique,” Pate says. –Pat McDermott
Mentors: Suzanne Parker, director of affordable housing in the Dallas region for Fannie Mae, and Mary Lou Christie, vice-president of marketing for the division at Fannie Mae. “Both of them were terrific managers and mentors. Suzanne has probably forgotten more about affordable housing than I’ll ever know. The people that have inspired me the most have all been very demanding.”
Turning point in career: “I don’t even know what point it was, but it was when I realized that I needed a career and not just a job because I was always going to work. I thought, ‘I’m never quitting.’ ”
Advice for young women entering the field: “Don’t give up. There are opportunities out there every day, and you just have to take advantage of them.”
Carol Winn Crawford — Pastor, Rayne Memorial Methodist Church — Birthplace: Dallas
The meaning of life. Not an issue most of us address in our jobs, day to day. But for Carol Winn Crawford, senior pastor of Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church, the opportunity to deal with matters of faith, to be invited into the most sacred times of people’s lives – births, baptisms, weddings, funerals, crises and celebrations – is exactly what appealed to her about a career in the ministry.
“To be able to help sort out the meaning of each experience, to hallow it, bless it, share it – I am both humbled by this high privilege and given great joy,” Crawford says.
Today, with more than 8,500 United Methodist clergywomen active in the United States, Crawford’s gender has become somewhat of a non-issue – quite a change from when she entered the seminary in 1974 and there were only two ordained United Methodist clergywomen in Louisiana. She admits that it has been a challenge to help some people – specifically those who favor a more legalistic interpretation of the scripture – understand a few New Testament verses that historically have been used to exclude women from the ministry. Still, Crawford says, the journey has been rewarding.
“I have served for 27 years exclusively in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas,” Crawford says. “Everywhere I have served, people have been very open to me, even if initially they were skeptical.”
And, she says, in many ways, being a woman has actually enhanced her ministry.
“Because in our culture, the qualities of sensitivity, tenderness and compassion tend to be nurtured more in women; I believe persons seeking understanding and empathy sometimes feel ‘safer’ with women,” she explains.
In terms of nurturing growth in her church, Crawford says the most exciting times in her ministry have involved watching members of her congregation discover their own gifts and strengths for ministry and helping them make a critical difference in their spheres of influence.
“Not a day of ministry passes that I am not, at some point, confronted with the truth that life is a precious gift to be cherished and shared, and that what matters most has nothing to do with status, salary, possessions or power,” Crawford says. “I believe ministry has made it possible for me to live with this heightened awareness.” –K.N.
Mentors: “John Winn, my father, and his wife, Carole Cotton-Winn, both United Methodist ministers in Louisiana, both of whom worship and teach at Rayne and are very involved in its congregational life. I am so grateful for this time worshiping and working together with them.”
Turning point in career: “When it became very clear to me that I did not want to be a youth director, nor an associate minister, nor a co-pastor, nor a campus minister, nor any other variety of minister, but that I wanted to be the pastor of a church, even if it meant that I would serve only very small churches in rural parishes. My first two churches were, indeed, very small – one with about 40 members, the other with about 75.”
Advice for young women entering the field: “Don’t do it unless anything else would be ‘second best.’ ”
Anila Keswani — Restaurateur, Wedding Planner — Birthplace: India
In 1982, when Anila Keswani and her husband, Har G. Keswani, opened their first Indian restaurant, he liked to tell people that he “had to open a restaurant because Anila doesn’t cook.” In fact, neither of them had any cooking or restaurant experience. Perhaps that’s why their friends at first found it curious that he, a naval architect, and she, a CPA, decided to go into the restaurant business.
The impetus for their venture into the culinary world, Keswani says, was a 1982 trip to Europe where the Keswani family was pleasantly surprised at the number of Indian restaurants in the cities they visited.
“Even tiny little Venice had two [Indian restaurants],” Keswani recalls, “and that was 23 years ago! And in Vienna, there was a wonderful restaurant called Taj Mahal – we were inspired.”
Upon their return to New Orleans – a city they had come to love since moving here in 1969 – they decided they wanted to share a taste of their cultural heritage with a community clearly lacking in restaurants serving the food of their homeland.
Without quitting their day jobs, the Keswanis opened Taj Mahal Indian Cuisine in Metairie with chefs recruited from India.
“Not that either of us knew what we were doing,” Keswani says. “But food had become our passion, so we worked very hard to make it a success.”
They also opened Keswani’s Indian Cuisine (1985-1989) in Uptown Square and Shalimar Indian Cuisine (1994-2000) in the French Quarter. When her husband died in 1997, Anila and her son Anjay took the reins at Taj Mahal and in 1999 opened Nirvana Indian Cuisine on Magazine Street, which also has a second-floor banquet room available for private parties. Planning those events and doing off-site catering eventually led Anila to her new passion – planning weddings.
“Most Indian weddings are week-long events,” says Keswani, who is involved in every aspect from food to flowers and music to wedding party attire.
“I feel like I’ve really found my niche,” she says. “I enjoy getting to know the families and doing everything I can to make every wedding special for the bride and groom. I put a lot of pressure on myself to make everything perfect.”
But she admits that, at this stage in her life, she has the luxury of picking and choosing her jobs.
“If one day I want to stay home and be with my granddaughter, that’s what I do,” adding that it’s the social aspect of the business that keeps her at the restaurant most nights.
“Taj Mahal is like my private dining room. People come to see me, and they pay me when they go,” she says with a laugh. “I almost feel bad charging them because of the pleasure I get from having them here. I’ve always said that if I win the lottery, all of my customers will eat for free.”
Well, Anila, now it’s in writing. Go out and buy a Powerball ticket; we’re all rooting for you. –K.N.
Best career advice: “Focus on being of service to others, and you and your business will thrive.”
Advice for young women entering the field: “If it’s your passion, go for it. But think twice. The hours we keep in the restaurant business can be really tough, especially when you are raising children.” •