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Top Female Achievers

10 of the Best. Our annual look at women making a difference. To be honored at a luncheon on July 22nd at the W Hotel as a fund raiser for Grace House.

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Echo Olander
Executive Director, KID smART

Echo Olander and KID smART are helping turn the classroom into a circus. Or a pirate ship. Or any number of creative outlets through the integration of arts into education. “We are working on changing teacher pedagogy to include the arts so that instruction is exciting and vibrant and teaches to the whole child,” says Olander. “It works on teaching creativity and imagination, which are rising up to be the 21st century skills that people are really looking for in students.”

Local artists team up with KID smART to serve year-long residencies in public schools, co-teaching with teachers by incorporating theatre, dance, music, graphic design and even circus arts into the classroom. One artist used circus arts to help students understand geometry by having them physically form obtuse angles with their bodies.

Another transformed the classroom into a pirate ship, utilizing role-playing and a treasure hunt to teach mapping skills. “They’ve done studies on memory and if you do something physically with your body you remember it exponentially longer,” Olander says.

Olander joined KID smART 11 years ago at its inception after working with different local arts programs, including the Community Arts Council, the New Orleans Museum of Art, WWOZ, the Louisiana Folklife Program and a variety of other nonprofits.

“The highlight of what we do is seeing the work in action,” Olander says. “[It’s] going into the classroom and seeing kids really excited about learning and get really involved in what they’re doing.”

KID smART has received several accolades for its work in the classroom: the Arts Council of New Orleans Community Arts Award in 2008, the state’s Art Education Award in 2009 and the Americans for the Arts’ Arts Education award this year. KID smART reached 75 classrooms in 10 public elementary schools in 2009, providing nearly 3,000 hours of supplementary arts education.

“We’re bringing arts into children’s lives and schools,” Olander says. “It’s a really important part of who we are as people and how we imagine our worlds and how we live.”

– J.D.

Mentor: I’ve had several in my life that have really meant a lot to me. They’ve been bosses of mine – they’ve really demonstrated how to work with integrity and grace.

Defining moment: I don’t think I’ve had my defining moment in my career yet. I feel like we’re taking off in a lot of ways and we’ve expanded a lot since the storm. It’s clear skies ahead of us right now and I can see that we’re going to do more and better.

Advice: Stay true to who you are. Follow your passion. That’s the only way that you can be happy.

Favorite things: Curiosity and excitement – I know that those aren’t really things, they’re really feelings, but anything that involves those two things is pretty great.

Goals: Following the concept of lifelong learning, I hope to keep expanding my knowledge base and my ability to be impactful with the public school system – staying engaged and staying creative about the work that I’m doing.

Soheila Nazarian Holley
Army Corps of Engineers Senior Project Manager

Born in Iran and having attended a Catholic boarding high school in Kansas, Soheila Nazarian Holley says she fell in love and followed a “bayou boy” to New Orleans.

Coming from a family of engineers on her father’s side, Holley received a bachelor’s degree and a Master of Science degree in civil engineering from the University of New Orleans. Since then, she has become a licensed engineer and has worked for the Corps for 22 years.

“Engineering is problem solving, not exactly math and science like everyone thinks, and I enjoy that,” she says.

“The corps was one of the biggest engineering firms here and I wanted to contribute to this community.”

Since Hurricane Katrina, Holley’s two biggest projects included drainage in Jefferson Parish and levee and floodwall protection in New Orleans. One of her busiest tasks had been to provide clay materials to over five parishes for levee construction. Now, she says, the Corps has been awarded contracts and has twice as many clay materials than they need thanks to landowners in the area.

“It was a cooperative effort and the community made it successful; and that’s a success we’re proud of,” she says.

Holley  thinks drainage in the city is an important issue, along with continuing to minimize flooding and building stronger levees and floodwalls.

“You can’t do away with all the risks,” she says. “So, we’re trying to find ways to make it better.”

She calls the Corps a “family-friendly, fair place for me to work.” Married for 28 years to Fred Holley, she has two sons; Sebastian, a junior at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and Fred IV, who has been accepted to the University of Louisiana Monroe for pharmacy. Considering her sons as her “greatest achievement,” she has high hopes that they will contribute to the city the same way she sought out to; and she isn’t quite finished.

“New Orleans is home,” she says simply. “I’m a New Orleanian; that’s how I feel.”

– B.P.

Mentor: My father; he emphasized, “your health and your education; can’t put a price on either one.”

Defining moment: When I applied to take a test to be a licensed engineer, for sure. Many people don’t pass on the first time, and I was working at the Corps, I had a toddler, I was finishing my master’s at UNO, yet I passed on the first time. You’ll be surprised what the human person can do when you feel like you have to. You would be surprised what kind of strength you have.

Advice: The advice my father gave me, “to concentrate on your health and education.” I took my father’s advice to heart.

Favorite things: I’m a proud New Orleanian, so I love the cuisine, the events, and the New Orleans Athletic Club. I love to exercise. I was even the first female member of the club.

Goals: There were educators on my mom’s side; engineers on Dad’s. I want to get in the academia world. I would love to teach after I retire from the Corps.

Banu Gibson

Banu Gibson is a Renaissance woman in the entertainment industry. She danced, sung and choreographed her way through life, and she’s also talented at the banjo and the guitar. This is in addition to owning a record label called Swing Out Records and a music publishing company called Buck & Wing.

Though she’s exceptionally fond of the 1930s era entertainment, she performs a wide range of music and has recorded several albums. “What I cover is music from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, along with jazz classics and stuff from the ‘Great American Songbook,’” she says. She can be spotted at locations around town – and around the world – with her band, the New Orleans Hot Jazz.

Determined and spirited, Gibson’s first jobs were working in nightclubs in South Florida; her career eventually led her to a touring group that was based in New York, and from there she was recruited to perform a 1920s-style show in Disneyland, where she choreographed and helped create a show called “The Class of ’27.” She has also been featured on Prairie Home Companion and can count Woody Allen and Cary Grant as audience members in her shows.

She says her career has been successful because she “grabbed the bull by its horns and did things my own way.”

She arrived in New Orleans in 1973, and these days, Gibson resides Uptown with her husband, Tulane theater professor Buzzy Podewell. The couple has two grown children who are also interested in the entertainment business.

Next month Gibson, who is co-creator of the first New Orleans Traditional Jazz Camp for adults, will teach vocalists. “I’m so fortunate to earn a living doing what I love to do,” she says.

– Sarah Ravits

Mentor: All the films from the 1930s and Fred Astaire. I had a lot of teachers in my life, but my mentors are people I’ve never met.

Defining moment: I’ve had so many! One of them was working with the Boston Pops ringing in the new millennium as their only guest artist.

Advice: Have a great sense of self worth that you can accomplish what you want to. 1930s women in movies were great role models: They were fun, spunky, had a good head on their shoulders and were working women … I don’t like what’s happening to younger women now, being objectified and victimizing their sexuality … You can’t be victimized if you refuse to be a victim!

Favorite Things: I love Le Chat Noir theater – it’s one of my favorite spaces and I think it’s very unique. I love really good restaurants and being by the ocean. I like being able to listen to music – my whole life is making music, so it’s nice when I have a chance to just listen. And I enjoy being with my family. I am also a big fan of the 1930s fashion, music and Art Deco…

Goals: Jazz Camp: Aug. 1-6, giving back to the city and the music I love, and to promote and preserve New Orleans traditional jazz and help local musicians.

Vera Warren-Williams
Entrepreneur/Community Activist

Vera Warren-Williams grew up in New Orleans, fascinated by history and “preserving culture and heritage. I’m the unofficial archivist of my family,” she says. Family to Warren-Williams, however, may extend beyond the traditional boundaries, thanks to her store, Community Book Center, which she started 27 years ago. She has sold books to generations, helping children grow up and become educated about their surroundings and the world.

Many of these children now have children of their own.

A former social worker, Warren-Williams spent time as a “long-term substitute teacher” in the New Orleans public school system, where she noticed an appalling scarcity of proper teaching devices for the children.“I didn’t find relevant material for the population, which was African-American children,” she says.

So she took action, founding a home-based service and sharing her personal reading collection with children in need. “It was a center, not a store,” she notes.

Eventually, she was able to open a retail outlet, though it moved around four times before settling on Bayou Road in Gentilly.

Most of the books within Community Book Center are written by people of African descent, she says, though there are other types of literature available as well. Community Book Center offers textbooks as well as books on politics, classics and business, and it offers custom orders that are generally available within a week of the order.

“We have a lot of children’s books,” she says, adding that she and the only other full-time employee, “Mama” Jennifer Turner, are in the process of making a children’s recreational center in the store.

 A well-read world traveler, Warren-Williams hopes to open the eyes of others through the various works within the store. Her store, too, is more than just a retail outlet; it’s a community institution. It’s a meeting for political, social and cultural exchange.

“The more we know about our own culture, and other cultures, the less ignorance we’ll see,” she says.

 When she is not busy working, Warren-Williams spends time with her son Ali, who turns 8 this month; and her husband, Dr. Garry Williams, a department director of security for the Recovery School District and an adjunct professor.

– S.R.

Mentor: My mother, the late George Ethel Warren; and my godmother, Mildred Reese.

Defining moment: I worked at Milne Boys home. It was a maximum security/juvenile detention center, and I didn’t see the treatment programs being effective. I quit and started teaching and the center is a result of that.

Advice: You have to have self-respect in order for anyone else to respect you. Don’t settle, and that goes for anything – relationships, employment, goals, whatever. Set high standards.

Favorite things: International travel. I’ve been to Egypt, Cuba, Jamaica, Mexico, England, West Africa – but now I’m happy if I can get to Baton Rouge! Seeing and experiencing the world broadens the horizons. And I love animals.

Goals: To have my store be self-sufficient!

Katy Casbarian
Co-Proprietor, Arnaud’s and Remoulade restaurants

“I can’t remember a day in my life that I haven’t felt passionate about the hospitality industry,” states Katy Casbarian, co-proprietor of the famed Arnaud’s and Remoulade restaurants. And though Casbarian is continuing the legacy of her family, she says that being born into the industry was “in no way a green light into management.”

“Growing up, my parents stressed the importance of education and work ethic. They were always telling me and my brother how important it was to work very hard so that we had the foundation to do anything we could possibly want to.”

Casbarian, a graduate of Isidore Newman School and Cornell University, says she feels that part of the restaurant’s success has been achieved with a fine balance of preserving traditions and moving forward. “We’ve had some subtle changes in service and menu selection, have changed the bar around a bit and changed our marketing and advertising philosophy,” she says. “There’s a fine line to staying who we are and staying relevant.”

The hospitality industry, it seems, is in every aspect of her life. Her favorite hobbies are “eating and drinking,” and she serves on the board of directors of the Louisiana Restaurant Association. The thing she’s most proud of is undoubtedly carrying on her late father, Archie’s, tradition. “Without a shadow of a doubt, my life’s proudest achievement is that I worked alongside my father,” she says.

“I fit with Arnaud’s because it’s my home,” she continues. “I am passionate to a fault. Arnaud’s is the legacy of my father. Arnaud’s embodies the blood, sweat and tears of my parents. Every family celebration has been here. My best friends’ weddings have been here. Arnaud’s is a great love of mine.”

– S.R.

Mentor: My father, Archie Casbarian.

Defining moment: I’m not sure that I have had the defining moment in my career as I have a long way to go and so much that I want to do. There was a moment for me though, that kept me on the right path. [While working in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City], I made a misstep. The ire of management came down upon me. A number of things became quite clear: Things don’t always go as planned and you must always take responsibility. Success isn’t just about individual effort. You learn something new each day. There is never a day when I don’t try and be better than the day before.

Advice: Have goals. Work hard. Have fun. Take advantage of every opportunity. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t have it all.

Favorite things: Café au laits in the morning, guests celebrating occasions at the restaurant, squeezey hugs from my nephew, cocktails with my friends, Sunday dinners with my family, our restaurant/hospitality community, traditions, resolve of Louisiana residents and Louisiana seafood.

Goals: To continue to be a part of the community and contribute the best way that I can.”


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