Top Female Achievers
Each year in this section we profile a selection of notable women in our community. What is most difficult about the selection process is not so much finding worthy contenders but narrowing the list. As always we feel enriched by those who have been selected and encouraged by knowing there are so many others to consider.
Author; President and Director, Southern Food and Beverage Museum
When Liz Williams first proposed moving SoFAB to an underused, too-long-neglected stretch of Oretha Castle Hailey Boulevard, many thought the idea was too much of a risk. Williams, a museum-building veteran, knew the move could be not only a boon for SoFAB, but also for a community ready to embrace it.
“We did take a bit of a leap when moving to this current location, but I had experience from working with both the D-Day Museum and the Ogden and so I knew it could be done,” Williams said. “The city was also ready to help make changes in this area, so I thought it would make a great fit.”
During construction, the museum started small with only the collection library located down the street, but it was the interaction with neighbors that sealed the deal, according to Williams. “What meant the most to us was that people from the neighborhood would stop by and thank us for being here," she said. "We really want to be a part of the community.”
Williams’ vast knowledge of food culture, both locally and globally, paired with her inability to stand still, has her constantly on the move, looking for new exhibits, new subjects to explore, and more museums to pioneer: “At our core, we want to never forget that we are a museum. Some people come for the nostalgia, some just want to look at interesting exhibits, but some people come and teach us new things.”
|Mentor: First, Julia Child. She was the same age when she started her television show as I was when I started SoFAB. When she started, she didn’t know immediately what she was doing, and that’s like what I did with the museum. We just go with it. Secondly, I would like to continue to grow and mature as Leah Chase has; she is truly a wonderful role model. Defining moment: When the idea for SoFAB came to me; the more I thought about it, the more I knew that if I didn’t follow through and make it happen, it would be something that I truly regretted. Advice for young women: Be persistent. Life is not linear. Obstacles will come in your way, but go around them, over them, under them. Goals: We are now a part of the National Food and Beverage Foundation. With that we would like to continue to grow our program in Louisiana, but also to expand our program in Los Angeles, with the Pacific Food and Beverage Museum. I am also currently working on a new book all about Creole Italian food. Favorite thing about what I do: I am excited to get up every day. This is not work. I get to explore new things all the time.|
Principal, Morris Jeff Community School
Patricia Perkins has been an educator for almost 40 years, and brings every inch of her experience to measure success at Morris Jeff Community School, the city’s only International Baccalaurate degree program for elementary, middle, and soon, high school.
When initially approached with the task to take the helm of a brand new school, Perkins was hesitant. “I went home and told my husband about that first meeting and my hesitancy, he replied, ‘yes, but you’re going to do it, right?” With the support of her family solidly behind her, Perkins set off into unchartered waters.
Those same qualities that appealed to her to take on the role are the also the qualities she used to recruit the first team of faculty and staff, and continues to look for today. “I told them, you have to be optimistic; you have to have a pioneer spirit,” she recalled.
Perkins’ hard work, and the hard work of the school’s faculty, staff and extensive parent-family community, is reflected in the school, from its charter to its student body. “When I was helping to write the charter, it had to include two words to describe the students that would attend MJCS: happy and smiling,” she said. “I know you can’t quantify happiness, but you can do everything else to make it the kind of experience where children will be happy and will smile. That was important to me. To have this be a positive place, right when you walk in.”
To date, MJCS comprises grades Pre-k through 8th grade, and rising, with a brand new IB high school program set to launch this fall. “It was a life goal, to work with a school from the very beginning, and I got the opportunity to make it happen.”
Mentor: A former Principal taught me persistence, patience, stepping back and thinking before making a decision. Defining Moment: When I was first teaching in an inner city Chicago school. It was hard work, but it showed me that I had a calling to work with those students. Advice to young women: Never give up your dreams. You have a voice. Goals: Seeing our first graduating high school class. It will be exciting to see where they will go. Favorite thing about what I do: Working with the staff, seeing new staff members blossom. I love watching our kids learn and grow. It’s not easy every day. Sometimes it’s hard, I love coming in to work every day.
Journalist, Host of WWNO’s Music Inside Out
Gwen Thompkins is a bona fide journalist. During her career, she has traveled the world, lived in many corners of it, and interviewed Presidents, musicians and every day folk. Her love of listening is what drives her work.
“What we’re doing on Music Inside Out is journalism, but I fall in love with all the guests on the show,” Thompkins said. “While I try never to meet them beforehand, I love them long before we sit down together and long after we’ve said goodbye.”
New Orleanians are lucky to have Thompkins reporting, learning and laughing every week on her more-than-just-about-music show, where she delves deep into the personalities that musically move this city, and beyond.
“Only a handful of cities around the world are old enough and deep enough to feel like home to anyone who wanders in - Rome, Paris, London, Istanbul,” she said. “These are places in which people are steeped in an enduring culture and wake up to such a porous reality every day that the living and the dead seem to be in constant communication.”
|Mentor: First, Edna Mae Mock, who taught drama at Ursuline Academy. In journalism, Elizabeth Mullener, an extraordinary writer at The Times-Picayune. At NPR, Barbara Rehm. Brilliant woman with a helluva poker face. Defining Moment: When I was 10, my family took a Greyhound bus from New Orleans to Florida to see relatives and maybe go to Disney World. There were so many passengers aboard that we had to split up. I sat next to a fellow who turned out to be a Vietnam veteran. Somewhere between Biloxi and Mobile, he started talking and by the time we reached Tallahassee, he’d told me his life story. It was on that ride that I understood how powerful the need is in people to tell their stories. I also understood how important it was for someone to listen. There’s no way I would have known then that I had an interest in journalism. That’s when I stopped thinking of people as strangers. Advice to young women: Work hard. Favorite thing about what I do: I’d be derivative if I said, raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. But I do like it when the people I interview feel as if they’ve been heard. Listening is an act of love.|
Dr. Rabia Cattie
Oncologist, Hematologist, East Jefferson General Hospital
Dr. Rabia Cattie is a people-person. After sixteen years experience practicing medicine, both in her native Pakistan and in the U.S., she has learned first-hand that medicine goes way beyond the doctor’s office.
“Working with my patients has taught me so much about compassion and understanding,” she said. “It’s not just about chemotherapy, it’s about the whole patient, working with their family, working with their financial situation, their physical and mental needs. I have learned about strength and courage, and so much more about myself, from working with my patients.”
Dr. Cattie embraces that doctor-patient relationship, noting that it continues long after a diagnoses. "Once they are your patient, they are your patient for life. We develop long lasting relationships, and they become a part of my life and I cherish that."
In addition to her bedside experience, Dr. Cattie, who served as adjunct professor at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn, also embraces her relationships with interns and student doctors.
“Although I am not teaching now, I miss having students and residents,” she says. “You continue to learn as they are learning. It’s a very rewarding.”
|Mentor: My mom, first. We grew up with her working and taking care of us, she fed us, clothed us, made sure we had everything we needed. Defining Moment: A rotation at Sloan Kettering while studying Oncology. There I saw and learned first hand about bone marrow transplants. I saw how many patients are affected by cancer, of all age groups. Before I spent time there, I wasn’t sure what specialty I was interested in, but that rotation helped me to decide that my heart was in learning more and helping in Hematology and Oncology. Advice for young women: Speak up. Make your perspective known. You can do anything. You are brilliant. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise. Goals: My goal is to continue to not only provide the best in care, but also to work with the whole patient. I’d like to incorporate massage, acupuncture, more ways to care for the whole person. Favorite thing about what I do: The most important thing to me about my work is the relationships I develop with my patients.|
Internationally acclaimed violinist, Loyola School of Music, Artist in Residence
Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is an internationally renowned musician; she has performed at the White House; she has collaborated with contemporaries like Mandy Patinkin; she has a multitude of awards of achievement and excellence; her music has moved listeners to tears of joy around the world. Yet, with all of her accomplishments, Salerno-Sonnenberg sees the work she is doing here in New Orleans at Loyola University, as some of her most important work so far in her career.
“It takes three elements to be a great teacher,” she said. “One, you have to have a mastery of the information you are teaching, whatever it is.
Two, you must be committed; you must be ready to go the extra mile. And three, you must inspire. That is the hardest one, but somehow I am able to reach my students and inspire. It’s about teaching them not just how to play the notes, but how to play music. It’s so gratifying to watch their posture change, to get that standing ovation, when they realize they can do things that they had no idea they could do.”
While Salerno-Sonnenberg has travelled around the world, New Orleans holds a special place as the artist’s new home. “I love New Orleans music,” she said. “It doesn’t speak to my music, because I play classical, but it speaks to me as a person. There is such a variety of music here, and it's everywhere. Where else can you go listen to a Schubert mass and then step outside and watch Rockin’ Dopsie perform? Only in New Orleans.”
|Mentor: Right now, I am my own mentor. I talk to myself in the mirror, as I go to teach these kids. Defining Moment: When I first worked with the (student) orchestra here, they were so scared. I worked with them for an hour or so, until they became a little more comfortable. The next rehearsal, there was an immediate change, in their music and their posture. Advice for young women: Don’t label yourself as doing something “as a woman.” Whatever it is, just go out there and be the best whatever you are doing. Goals: My goal is to focus on my own happiness right now, and that is being here in this city. I want to teach; what I am doing feels so good. I want to enjoy being in New Orleans. This is a city like nowhere else. Favorite thing about what I do: The best part is getting my students to play in a way they didn’t know they could.|
Owner, Pearl Wine Company
When life gave Leora Madden, owner of Pearl Wine Company, lemons, the businesswoman channeled her love of wine, travel and community into a chic neighborhood marketplace for work, play, and spirits.
“I want each person who comes to Pearl Wine Company to learn something new,” she said. “I want to share information and the experience of wine. I want them to be able to enjoy a glass of wine here, maybe relax on one of our sofas, share conversation or get work done on a laptop. Then I want them to maybe take home a bottle of wine and continue the experience at home. This should be more than just shopping.”
While some outside New Orleans have an idea of locals imbibing strictly sloshy go-cups of beer or daiquiris, Madden discovered the truth. “One thing I have learned is that there are so many more adventurous wine drinkers that I ever thought,” she said, praising the attitude that pairs well with her own love for wine. “For me, enjoying and drinking wine is not just a practice, it’s a philosophy and so many people here have been open to that.”
|Mentor: Pearl Wine Company is named after my grandmother, Leora Pearl. She was a businesswoman, she traveled, and was forward thinking. She was a woman ahead of her time. Defining Moment: It was when I was suddenly laid off from my big corporate career. It seemed devastating at the time. Looking back now, it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. It was the thing that started me on this path. It was exactly what I needed. Advice for young women: Be tenacious. Don’t give up and don’t let anybody tell you that you cannot do something. Goals: I definitely want to expand. Several members of our staff are trained sommeliers. Our bartender comes from a family of wine makers. Maybe we might make some wine. Favorite thing about what I do: The people I get to meet. We always wanted to be a part of and make an impact on our community. We are so lucky to be able to invite people in.|
Amanda Dailey and Julie Araujo
Co-owners of Queork
Partners Amanda Dailey and Julie Araujo, co-owners of Queork, see their business as providing unique, high quality, locally designed accessories for style collectors of all kinds, but also as educators on the flexible, eco-friendly uses for cork fabric.
“I love to see people come in and ask about the material. They are amazed at all the applications,” Araujo said. Cork is a wonder fabric: it is naturally harvested, renewable, water resistant, mildew and odor resistant, and repels mosquitoes. “It’s incredible to see their faces. It’s been great to be able to teach people.”
Dailey, who coordinates most of the day-to-day business activities, agrees; enthusiasm for Queork products is contagious. “For us, this is a labor of love,” she said.
The company origin story is as unique as the product: the two turned a summer vacation in Portugal into a light-bulb business moment when they found an interesting cork dog collar in a little shop. Five years and four stores later, the pair recently paid a return visit to where inspiration first struck, and where serendipity gave a nod to their success.
“We were walking to revisit the little store where we first saw these cork products that gave us the idea to start our own business,” Dailey recalled. “We had to wait for the streetcar to pass, and just as it passed, we saw a woman carrying a cork bag, one of OUR Queork bags. At first we thought she was copying us. We ran up to her and asked where she has gotten it, and she said, ‘at a little shop in New Orleans.’ We knew we must be on the right path.”
|Mentor: Amanda: Our moms. They are both entrepeneurs. Julie’s mom is from Portugal. She started her own business. She taught us how to get started with our own business. Defining Moment: Julie: That first trip to Portugal…THE trip. Advice for young women: Julie: Sometimes you have to chase those crazy ideas. Don’t be afraid of working hard. Goals: Amanda: Continue to grow the amount of manufacturing of our product that is done here in New Orleans. Favorite thing about what I do: Amanda: Being a teacher is perhaps one of the most gratifying experiences. Sometimes our customers become obsessed, kind of like we did.|
Shon Cowan Baker, PhD.
Fundraiser and philanthropist
Shon Cowan Baker is an ambassador of New Orleans generosity as a multi-talented volunteer, fundraiser and philanthropist for organizations across the city. She has spent countless hours lending her leadership skills to Dress for Success, the Junior League, Edible Schoolyard, City Park, as well as membership in Krewe of Muses.
As a Board member and Lieutenant for the Krewe of Muses, Baker views her role in the all-female super-krewe, and its historic place in New Orleans Carnival, with awe. “The Krewe of Muses is so much more than a parade; it is a celebration of the very fabric of New Orleans—family, fun, and community,” Baker said. “I am honored to be a member of the Krewe of Muses, the first female night krewe, which has garnered the respect and admiration of the city in such a short amount of time. It is a testament to the Krewe and the awesome leadership of women that we have become one of the most highly regarded parades of the Carnival season.”
For Baker, her career and volunteer time is not just all work, but a way to spread her good fortune and her love for New Orleans throughout the community. “We are so fortunate to live in such a welcoming, lively and joyful city,” she said. “However, so often, many of our neighbors need our help. I volunteer to make a difference in the lives of those in need– to hopefully make someone’s life better, happier and maybe even easier.“
|Mentor: I have been fortunate to have many mentors, known and unknown; to name one I would need to name them all. My hope is that I can repay their commitment to me by paying it forward. Defining Moment: Hurricane Katrina lingers forever in my memory and consciousness. My work is spurred by the desire to never see our city suffer so drastically again. My work as a fundraiser and philanthropist began with this disaster, and it was in those moments after the storm that produced my purpose. I knew that I had to do something to help rebuild New Orleans and the lives of so many affected. Advice for young women: Nevertheless, persist.Goals: I have so many! My primary goal is to inspire young girls and other women to lead. My hope for others is that they learn to harness their power into purpose; therein lies the ability to lead in ways big and small. Favorite thing about what I do: I love what I do and the life that I lead. My favorite thing about what I do is that I am able to live a life full of compassion, honor, usefulness, and one that makes a difference.|
Lisa D’Amour has been acting and writing plays since her days at Dominican High School and performing at De La Salle. Inspired by New Orleans, her plays expose the delicate balance of life, a mix of Carnival, community and chaos.
Her plays are dramatic, award-winning marquee events: Detroit was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and Airline Highway marked her Broadway debut.
“I’m inspired by the dance between the civilized and the wild — both in people, and in the land we live on, in and with,” she said. “I have several plays that end in downright Bacchanals — characters dancing out their flaws, their secrets, their truth. I love writing people who have buttoned themselves into one way of living that gets upended by new ideas, or a new voice that emerges from within themselves.”
For D’Amour seeing her plays come to life is also a precarious balance of emotion. “Opening night I’m like one big raw nerve. You’re both thrilled and exhausted after giving everything you have to the rehearsal process. However there is always a sense of relief about 3/4 of the way through the play when you realize — well, that’s it! It’s always wild to see the writing come to life, because it always becomes something you couldn’t predict.”
|Mentor: There are so many. Today I will choose Erik Ehn, a playwright, activist and teacher. Defining Moment: I was incredibly proud of the article about my work in The New York Times in 2015 — it captured what I love about both my playwriting and my experimental theater work. It featured many of my collaborators, who are my life line, as well as a picture of me and my talented brother Todd — who was in my Airline Highway on Broadway and in New Orleans. And I was wearing a Dirty Coast T-Shirt! On the cover of The New York Times Arts section! Advice for young women: Don’t strive for perfection. It makes you too careful, and there’s often beauty and something to be learned from the rough edges. Watch out for phrases like “I could be wrong” or “It’s just a thought." We’ve been trained to apologize and position ourselves as uncertain. Fight dat! Goals: Finish two new plays by the end of the year. To learn Spanish. To develop an original TV series. Favorite thing about what I do: I love being in the rehearsal room, working out scenes with actors, rewriting, discovering things new things about the play. I love traveling to other cities to work, and then bragging about the great theater work being done in New Orleans.|
Anais St. John
Vocalist and Music Educator
Anais St. John is a teacher in the purest form of the word, through her work as an educator, but also through her work as a local and international performer.
For St. John, teaching music for the past 17 years at Trinity School has been one of the most rewarding, and farthest reaching, aspects of her musical career. “I feel that I am an ambassador in many ways. I can speak to people through performing, but some of the most valuable ways I can be an ambassador is by reaching children through music. If I can help provide my students with a love of music and the arts, then they can go on to be even better citizens.
St. John was recently invited to perform with a choral group in Mexico City, a role that moved her work as a teacher well beyond the city of New Orleans.
“With the current state of politics, it was important for me to participate in this collaboration, with no borders, to show people that collaboration is good and we need to include all people from all cultures,” she said. “The best way to reach across those borders is through music. It was a powerful, emotional and eye-opening experience.”
|Mentor: My husband, Marco St. John. He inspired me and pushes me to go beyond my expectations of myself. He challenges me to be the best version of myself. Defining Moment: Performing at my first international festival at the Jazz Estonia Festival in Switzerland put me on a new level. I was able to see how people outside of New Orleans and outside the United States see and appreciate jazz. We are so lucky here in New Orleans, we forget how much it is loved around the world. Advice for young women: Work hard and get out there and do it. Goals: One, I’d really love the opportunity to play with the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. I’d also love to take [the show] Let’s Dance on the road internationally. Donna Summer was very popular and lived for a time in Germany. Maybe that would be a good start, Germany. Favorite thing about what I do: I am able to live my life doing exactly what I always wanted to do. This is not work; this is pure joy. I am living my dream.|