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New Orleans Top Female Achievers

New Orleans Magazine Top Female Achievers Luncheon July 13, 2011


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 If you would like to attend our annual Top Female Achievers Luncheon on July 13, 2011 at the W. Hotel Please call Kristi Ferrante at (504) 830-7264.






There was a time when any woman who filled what was perceived as being an unconventional female role was considered newsworthy. That has long since stopped being the case. Other than playing in the NFL, just about any occupational role is normal and in some, such as journalism, the female presence has grown large. What remains newsworthy, however, is the story behind the women – what they think and what got them to where they are. We present here 10 among thousands of local women with stories to tell. All are accomplished in their own way and, we suspect, there are many more achievements ahead.

Mamie Sterkx Gasperecz
Executive Director, Hermann-Grima/Gallier Historic Houses

After leaving Alexandria, La., to attend college in New Orleans, Mamie Sterkx Gasperecz never went back. “My parents and grandparents got the Sunday Times-Picayune and I would look forward to reading it each weekend and couldn’t wait to live here!” she says. Now she serves as Executive Director of the Hermann-Grima/Gallier Historic Houses, private homes (built in 1831 and 1857 respectively) that have been meticulously restored and are now museums that promote historic preservation and education. The houses are owned and operated by The Woman’s Exchange, which was founded in 1881. On top of the responsibilities that come from directing a museum in the French Quarter, Hermann-Grima’s “new” museum shop recently opened, Gasperecz says, and it’s a, “new take on our ‘old’ consignment shop, offering the work of Louisiana women artists in a gallery-like setting.” “The Exchange Shop connects us with our mission in a modern way and allows us to tell our own story,” she says.

Working in the French Quarter in a historic home-cum-museum presents its own set of challenges. A typical day for her includes staff meetings, administrative tasks, checking in with volunteers and interns and the like. But it also includes “cleaning up the property for our tour guests, churning butter or making home remedies with school children, soliciting money from donors, reassuring an anxious bride that her reception will be perfect in spite of our museum rules, climbing a scaffold to check brick re-pointing work and then on to pick up my son and tackle sixth grade homework while cooking dinner,” she says. Gasperecz also serves as an accreditation peer reviewer for the American Association of Museums.

“My wonderful husband, Kirk, always finds time to help me when my work life is crazy,” Gasperecz says when asked how she balances all of her responsibilities, “Which is amazing because his work (he’s a partner at Adams & Reese LLP) is incredibly demanding. And our 12-year-old son, Jackson, is incredibly mellow and a good sport.”

One story that Gasperecz relates illustrates her dedication to her work, her family and the exuberance for life that seems to bubble from her and spread to everyone around her. Late one afternoon a few years ago, she was hosting a reception at the Hermann-Grima House and had her son with her. “During the middle of the festivities,” she laughs, “I looked over to find that Jackson was in the second-line with the Storyville Stompers, wearing one of the hats and playing his own clarinet! He pointed out that band practice was his homework.”

– Morgan Packard

Mentor: My parents are ardent preservationists; their hard work and perseverance have created a sense of history, a National Historic District and countless architectural restorations in our hometown.

Defining Moment: I have been fortunate to have three careers. I left the first two not by my own choice, but because I was laid off. While quite distressing at the time, I decided that these changes represented opportunity.

Advice to Young Women: As Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, “There’s no crying in baseball!” Don’t cry at work.

Favorite things
: I love catching up with my family and reconnecting with my roots. I’m also extremely fortunate to balance my work and personal life with my interest in art; Carol Peebles founded our Blue Easel Club a few years ago and is a wonderful instructor.

Goals: The museum’s strategic plan is: preservation, education and interpretation. In my endeavors to accomplish these goals, I’ve learned to ask for help! We have a terrific partnership with the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group for event marketing and catering; I’m thankful for John Deveney’s help in spreading the word about our activities; Robby Cangelosi is patient and helpful with all of my architectural questions; Elizabeth Pearce has developed cooking classes in our hearth kitchen; and my team is amazing.

Jan Daniel Lancaster
Superintendent of Catholic Schools, Archdiocese of New Orleans

Jan Lancaster has always wanted a career in education. Her passion for the profession stems from the memories she has of struggling in grade school. She appreciated the help she received from her teachers, especially the Ursuline nuns who taught her at St. Angela Merici and Ursuline High School.

As the latest superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Lancaster will oversee 85 schools. She is excited by the challenge.

“It is the only school system (in New Orleans) offering the values taught in our Catholic faith,” she says. “It’s been part of New Orleans for centuries.”

Lancaster, who earned an Ed.D. in educational leadership at the University of Memphis, began her career as a classroom teacher. She became a principal and then taught future teachers at Our Lady of Holy Cross College in Algiers.

Throughout her career she has encouraged young people – both men and women – to consider a career in education. “You have the opportunity to develop a love of learning in every student in your school,” she says.

To help chart a course for the Archdiocese’s schools, experts from Catholic University in Washington, D.C. will be coming to town to gather data from all the Catholic schools in the New Orleans area.

“We’ll use that data to formulate our blueprint for the future,” Lancaster says. Having current, accurate data will help the Archdiocese plan for the schools’ future, both academically and financially.

Another of Lancaster’s priorities is to make sure the schools continue to teach the values and tradition of the Catholic Church. To do that, she will collaborate with the talent available all over the archdiocese, including parents, teachers and religious educators.

And when she wants to catch her breath, she’ll head to the beach. Even if she doesn’t go in the water, just watching the sun set and listening to the waves will provide a little respite from what promises to be a busy school year.

 – Judi Russell

Mentor: I was inspired by all the members of religious orders who taught me, and especially by my aunt, Sr. Mary Daniel O.P., who was an associate superintendent with the Office of Catholic Schools when I was growing up. My parents and my husband have also been big supporters of the decisions I’ve made.

Defining Moment
: I moved from making a difference in a classroom to making a difference in a school, then teaching future teachers and now, working at the archdiocesan level.

Advice to Young Women
: Follow your passion and you will make a difference.

Favorite Things
: My favorite thing to do is go to the beach. To me it is so refreshing and rejuvenating. Every day, I try to exercise. It’s very important to have that time for yourself to stay in shape.

Goals: I want the Catholic schools in New Orleans to have strong academic programs plus be authentically Catholic. It’s also important to keep Catholic education affordable to all.

Charmaine Neville
Musician and Activist

Neville started singing at the age of 2. “Living in a city like New Orleans, where everybody is a musician, you hear it 24 hours a day. Neighbors, cab drivers – everybody played music,” she recalls of her melodic childhood. The daughter of Charles Neville of the prolific Neville Brothers, she says her father was one of her biggest supporters, gave her advice and taught her the nature of the business.

“He told me, ‘if you’re not going to be serious about music, then don’t get into it, because it’s a hard, hard life. It’s not a game that you’re playing. It’s your life.’ I’ve always remembered that, and I’ve always tried to live my life according to that,” says Neville. She is humble and modest, attributing her success to the musicians and mentors with whom she performs. But her illustrious career has taken her around the globe. “I started writing songs when I was very young,” she says. “Words come to me. I get a rhythm in my head and then – Pow! – the lyrics are born. I play music pretty much every day.”

A sense of generosity is evident in everything she does. She paints, draws, teaches and performs constantly, and says, “I love to bake and I love to feed people. I host fish fries in my backyard to raise money for people [displaced by Hurricane Katrina] to come home,” she says. She also regularly volunteers with a variety of organizations. She is active with Grace House and NO/AIDS Task Force as well as Children’s Hospital, among numerous others.
Last month, Neville worked on an album with one of her sons. “It was a little bit of everything,” she says of the genre. “I never put myself in a box. I love all kinds of music: gospel, funk, country, rock and roll. I was never comfortable when record labels came to me – they wanted me to fit in a certain category.” Additionally, Neville released an album recently with her band, the Charmaine Neville Band: Before the Storm is a collection of songs that they’d been working on during the hurricane. “We were just now able to gather it all back in our heads and get it together,” she says. In between recording, Neville also performs every Monday night at Frenchmen Street’s Snug Harbor club.

 – Sarah Ravits

Mentor: King Pleasure, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simon, Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino. My father, Charles; he was my number one mentor. Kitty Wells, Charlie Daniels, Michael Jackson, Prince, George Clinton – and these are all people that I’ve worked with. And Bill Clinton and his brother. Amasa Miller, my piano player; I’ve been with him forever.

Defining Moment
: I’ve always been doing music. But when I got to do a gig with Don Cherry, Dizzy Gillespie, my father, Baby George and Honey Boy – that was a fabulous gig.

Advice to Young Women: If you can hold your own, you can gain respect. Be the leader, and don’t be the one standing in the background. Step up to the front. Most of my years have been male-dominated. Don’t let them push you down. They’ll make you feel bad; they’ll make you say, “Why am I doing this?” But if you know what you want, no one can stop you.

Favorite Things
: Teaching the young people to bring the music. Tutoring kids, tutoring the elders. And I’m a classic movie buff. If you look at the way they used to make movies, they were fabulous. My biggest love is my dogs, and saving dogs and cats.

Goals: To put out more CDs so when I’m not here anymore, at least something will be on record. I think my main goal is to just continue making people feel what I feel – to feel happy. And to just keep doing it until I’m on a walker on stage.

Astrid LaVenia
Co-owner and creator, Mesón 923

Passion and perseverance define Astrid LaVenia, co-owner and creator of restaurant Mesón 923, a chic but casual Warehouse District eatery that serves cuisine with international influences.

 “I don’t take ‘No’ for an answer,” she says. Petite, toned and impeccably dressed, she’s the brains, beauty and heart of Mesón 923. Since she was a child she wanted to own a restaurant, and she stopped at nothing to achieve it. She worked – and succeeded at great lengths – in male-dominated food distributing industries. “You have to have thick skin,” she says of her career. “And I am very hands-on with everything I do.”

A New Orleans native, LaVenia has always been an explorer when it came to food. Her parents, from agricultural families in Guatemala, frequently took her to South America to explore her roots and spend time with relatives who owned farms. Young LaVenia became familiar with processing sugar cane, coffee, poultry and dairy. “I milked cows,” she says. “And I saw chickens being slaughtered from start to finish.” While some 7-year-old girls might balk at that particular experience, LaVenia cherished it, and that sense of curiosity, combined with her desire to be involved in every aspect of what goes onto the plate, remains with her to this day.

She works diligently at every task – whether it’s dishwashing, managing finances, pairing wines, waiting tables or playing hostess.

Even back when she purchased the building on South Peters Street, which was built in the 1800s, she oversaw the renovation and consulted with the contractor and architect. “I wore the hard hat and the boots,” she says.

Everything in the restaurant stems from her vision, from the dark wood chairs to the plumbing fixtures to the ambient lighting. And then there’s the Moroccan red wall color: “I want females to look like a million bucks,” she smiles. “Everyone looks good in this lighting.”

Despite working 90-plus-hour weeks, LaVenia still finds plenty of time to spend with her three children. Her days off are devoted entirely to them, and she hopes to instill the same work ethic in them. “I am very close to my children,” she says. “And I wouldn’t be here without the help of my husband, Scott.” Then there’s her other family – the staff of Mesón 923. “I’m nothing without them! We are very loyal to each other. I’d take a bullet for them.” 

– S.R.

Mentor: It’s a collective influence – my mother, godmother, Ruth Fertel (founder of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse), Donna Patrick. Anyone who has taught me about honesty, integrity and loyalty.

Defining moment: I’ve always had a vision, always wanted to own a restaurant.

Advice to young women: Never let anyone do something for you that you can do yourself. Learning from experiences makes us who we are. I always tell my daughters, “Be happy. Be proud, and be the best that you can. Ask yourself if this is the best you can do. Success can be measured in so many ways. Be happy and have integrity.
At the end of the day all you have is your word.”

Favorite things: I love to read, especially cookbooks. I love to travel, though I can’t do a lot of it right now. I love the city of Santa Fe, N.M., and I love the ramblas (markets) in Barcelona. I like to get a baguette and buy fresh seafood and sit there and eat for four hours! And drink wine.

Goals: There have been trials and tribulations. It’s a constant continuance of education. I’ve opened my restaurant, but I will continue to learn and remember that at the end of the day it goes back to hospitality – the customer is always first. It’s not just service; it’s about being gracious.

Julia Reed
Journalist; author; and chair, board of trustees, Ogden Museum of Southern Art

What does a woman whose day includes rolling out of bed, going down the hall to her office to tackle an overflowing e-mail inbox and spending her time talking to people usually referred to as “characters” do for a living? “I’m a journalist,” says Julia Reed, the contributing editor at Garden & Gun magazine and Elle Decor.  “I write occasionally for the New York Times Book Review, I’m about to start a new column at Southern Living and I contribute to Condé Nast Traveler.” She is also one of the founding contributors at wowOwow.com and creative director at a retail website called Taigan.com, where she also edits the “magazine” attached to the site called Fetch. “And, of course, I wrote for Vogue for 20 years.” The author of three books [Queen of the Turtle Derby; The House on First Street, My New Orleans Story; and Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns and Other Southern Specialties, An Entertaining Life (with Recipes)] says the title that means the most to her is board chair of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art.

“These days,” Reed says, referring to the state of the publishing industry, “the trick is to roll with the punches and keep your oars dipped in as many different waters as you can.” It was an assignment that ultimately landed Reed in New Orleans; “I had more fun than I’ve ever had in my life traveling with Edwin Edwards to every corner of this state,” she says. “You wanna know where to buy live bait in Simmesport? I can tell you.” Another aspect of her career that she loves is learning something new from almost every assignment. “I get paid to learn stuff,” she says, “to discover new things or places or people.”

In a large way, Reed’s career is her personal life. “My very closest friends fall into two categories,” she says, “people I grew up with and people whom I met on a story or are colleagues.” Two gentlemen she met during those days in New York City’s publishing world are John Alexander and Bill Dunlap, artists now intimately involved at the Ogden. “John has a stunning show up now called “One World, Two Artists” and Bill has pieces in the museum and is also on the board,” she says. “He is the real reason I got so involved in the first place, but then the institution itself worked its magic. I see John and Bill all the time, and my life is far better for it.”

When she’s working on long-term projects or during the rare times she simply takes off, Reed likes to visit her mother’s house in Seaside. “That is heaven,” she says, “but my ordinary days require lots of juggling.” She also likes to spend time at the Ogden. “The staff there is amazing,” she says, “and I try never to miss a Thursday night After Hours.” 

– M.P.

Mentor: My father was heavily involved in politics when I was younger and is one of the funniest and most charming men I know. My mother is an incredible hostess, a good writer and the most tireless civic leader on the planet.

Defining moment
: I once worked as an intern in Newsweek’s Washington Bureau. The librarian was a female reporter from Texas who’d been assigned to the White House then banished to the library. She loved me because I was the first person who had listened to her in 15 years, so when I was about to graduate she convinced the bureau chief to offer me a job. I ended up working in the Newsweek bureau for six years.

Advice for young women
: When I told a friend of my father’s, John Alsop, that I wanted to be a writer, he responded with one word: Read.

Favorite things
: Reading, of course, cooking, entertaining and heading to the beach, to do all three. I’m a TV junkie and looking forward to my friend Bobby Harling’s (author of Steel Magnolias) new show “Good Christian Belles,” premiering this fall.

Goals: I guess everyone who ever put pen to paper wants to write a novel, but right now I’m enjoying my many other duties. I’d also love to raise money to finish the Taylor Library at the Ogden.

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