New Orleans’ Top Female Achievers

Dr. Kathleen Sullivan Schiavi
Obstetrician/gynecologist practicing at East Jefferson General Hospital
When Dr. Kathleen Sullivan Schiavi performs a hysterectomy, she’s often accompanied in the operating room by a robot – a high-tech daVinci Surgical Robot that simulates human movements.

The doctor operates the robot from a console and the robot performs the actual surgery. All of the robot’s movements are guided by the doctor’s hands. “In some ways it’s better than human hands,” Sullivan Schiavi says. “There’s no tremor to it. It does everything I want it to do. It can’t think for itself; it can’t make any decisions.”

This kind of technology offers patients lots of benefits: smaller incisions and less recovery time, blood loss, complications and scarring. It may offer more ease of movement around a patient’s surgery site. It can be used for different types of surgeries, such as prostate surgeries, but Sullivan Schiavi was the first gynecologist to use one for a hysterectomy at East Jefferson General Hospital. She plans to use the robot for removing ovaries, ovarian cysts and uterine fibroids. “I think there’s unlimited potential to it,” she says.

Sullivan Schiavi, a New Orleans native, practices general obstetrics and gynecology (in an all-female office) but had extensive surgical training in her residency, so using the robot, she says, was actually easier than a regular hysterectomy. And she was up for the challenge. “Because my gynecology training largely focused in the surgery department, I was very comfortable moving ahead technologically,” she says. “I had already started thinking that way … I’m kind of a gadgety girl.”

But more important than gadgets, Sullivan Schiavi cares that her patients get the best treatments. “My love is the continuity of care, the relationship I have with my patients. That connection is so important,” she says. “Another love I have is the education of patients … there’s so much about the job that’s just amazing.”
Mentor: “My grandfather, Dr. F.R. Nicholson [a family practitioner] was my inspiration and mentor for entering the field of medicine.”
Turning point: “I was working as an executive assistant when my boss, Bruce Soltis, practically threw me out of my job so that I would go to medical school. I started medical school the day my son started kindergarten.”
Advice: “In order to be a great Ob/Gyn, women’s health care must be your passion. Be driven. Be flexible. Be enthusiastic. Be kind.”

 
Sheila Ealey
Founder, Creative Learning Center
Sheila Ealey isn’t a teacher or a psychologist; but that didn’t stop her from starting a program for autistic children in New Orleans. It’s a small program, with seven students (whose families pay $8,000 in tuition) last year, and it’s run out of her house.

Ealey’s program, which is called the Creative Learning Center, arose out of negative experiences getting help for her autistic son, Temple. Ealey was told Temple was disruptive. She was told he had no hope of learning, that she should expect nothing. But Ealey believed the “experts” were wrong. “There are bad choices everywhere for these children,” she says sadly. “That’s the motto of [our] school: ‘Never give up.’ All of these children have hope.” So she pulled together a small staff and curriculum based on her research. The school was set to open in 2005 – until Katrina temporarily derailed the plans.

Ealey offers encouragement for mothers of autistic children: “Do not accept the impossible, but rather set the bar high and constantly see possibilities. Do not allow anyone to determine what your child is or isn’t capable of.”

The proof  of her “never give up” attitude seems to lie in the classroom. “This classroom looks like any other typical classroom,” she says. “They have bonded as friends. They argue like brothers. They argue with the teacher.

“It’s been a good year,” she adds. “For the first time since I got my son diagnosed, I’m happy.”
Turning point: “The turning point for me was in Houston at a school for children with autism. Over the phone, the director of the program was very interested, but when we got there, she reneged. It was at this point that I realized if my son stood any chance of a quality education, it would have to come from me.”
Advice for any woman who wants to work with a special-needs child: “Understand going in that there will be many frustrating moments; however, the daily joy of knowing that you can make a difference in the quality of life for one of these children will outweigh the frustrations you may experience.”

 
Ann R. Tuennerman
Founder, Tales of the Cocktail
As you read this article, a group of celebrants may be hitting the town for Tales of the Cocktail, the annual party devoted to local spirits. If you’re among the group that joins the Tales party every year, you have events promoter Ann R. Tuennerman to thank for it.

Tuennerman founded the yearly gathering of mixologists, authors and other cocktail and culinary professionals in 2003; it began as a walking tour of bars and restaurants the year before. In a mere six years, the tastings, seminars and dinners that make up Tales have attracted as many as 12,000 attendees (using up 2 tons of ice and more than 7,000 mint-leaf garnishes), all with spirits on the brain and in the hand.

Despite its rapid growth, Tales still “has the same spirit” as the original event, Tuennerman says with no irony. “It has the world’s most influential mixologists and the cocktail enthusiasts and then the nice woman from the Northshore who comes over with her friends to one of our ‘Spirited Lunches.’ It has the same sophisticated, relaxed New Orleans vibe as the beginning.”

And New Orleans is the perfect backdrop, she adds: “My goal was to really make New Orleans a destination for this event,” even down to keeping the full schedule of 2006 events after the hurricane – just because as a New Orleanian, she was tired of things that weren’t the same as they were before the storm. (As it turned out, 2006 drew larger crowds than 2005 anyway.)

Because she works the entire event, Tuennerman doesn’t get to enjoy the food and drinks like a guest would. But she has a favorite moment: when the attendees begin to pour in. “I really feel a friendship with everybody that comes to the event … it’s like I’m hosting a party in my home. It’s fun to see them and welcome them back.”
Even though it’s only one of her projects, Tales takes all year to plan, Tuennerman says, and when it’s over, it’s like crossing the finish line of a marathon.
And that’s worthy of a New Orleans toast.
Mentor: “[Former local TV executive] Madelyn Bonnot, one of the most passionate and positive people I have ever met.”
Turning point: “2006 Tales of the Cocktail. That year was very tough in terms of sponsors and other challenges.”
Advice: “One of my favorite quotes: ‘Feel the fear, do it anyway.’ If you are passionate about something, go for it.”

 
Valentine Bemiss-Williams
Director, Love Alive Fellowship Choir
Summer is a special time for Valentine Bemiss-Williams. That’s when the Jefferson Parish schools administrator kicks into high gear as the director of the Love Alive Fellowship Choir.

With as many as 150 children of varied ages (“I took them from 3 to almost college age, so you can imagine what that was like,” she says) convened at summertime rehearsals, the choir is a popular act at Jazz Fest, conventions and church events around New Orleans.

The choir started in 1987 as a summer music workshop and drew from the children Bemiss-Williams knew from school, church and her neighborhood.
“My vision was to gather youth in the city to empower them with gospel music,” she says. “I wanted to create a haven for them, create a network for them to use music as a discipline to create some order. And it paid off.”

That it did. Operating on a budget of almost $0 – Bemiss-Williams isn’t paid for her time, but she does accept donations to pay for concerts and sometimes extracurriculars such as picnics or gospel music conventions – the choir, now in its 21st year, is provided to children free of cost.

The kids don’t audition, there’s no criteria to belong, and they don’t need any prior singing experience. And rehearsals are often as packed as a concert would be.

Bemiss-Williams, a New Orleans native, grew up in a musically inclined household and first played violin at age 7. Before starting Love Alive, she taught music in schools, directed church choirs and occasionally performed classical and rock music.

The original group, including Bemiss-Williams’ daughter, who’s now 30, still meets for an annual reunion. “It almost created a network beyond music,” she says.

The choir celebrated its 21st anniversary with a concert in June.

Mentor: Her brother, Albert Bemiss, who leads New Orleans’ “Shades of Praise” choir
Turning point: Around 1990, when the choir officially became known by its current name.
Advice: “Sharpen your craft. Everybody is not geared to a path through the university, but I think that it’s important for you to sharpen your craft. Be open to ideas, but still embrace the genre that you really feel.”

 
Mildred Fossier
Retired civil servant
If you find yourself in a room with Mildred Fossier, know that this nonagenarian has lived through a lot of New Orleans history, some of which she created herself.

Fossier served as the first female director for the city of New Orleans when she ran the Welfare Department. The job brought her unwanted attention from men who thought she didn’t belong in City Hall, but she ignored them.

“I just had a purpose and a goal, and I just kept going,” she says. “I felt that I was working for the best of the people of the city of New Orleans, and I was sort of their champion. I was going to lose some, there was no doubt about that, but I would win some, too.”

Fossier got her start in City Hall after she earned a degree in social work. While running the Welfare Department, Mayor Moon Landrieu reassigned her to the Parks and Parkways Department, even though she told the mayor she didn’t know anything about trees.

But she appreciated a challenge, too. “I love this city, and I wanted to work, and I loved the work,” she says.

Years before, Fossier had worked as a recruiter with the U.S. Civil Service Commission because she wanted to be part of the World War II effort. She said in a recent speech that she recruited stenographers and typists, for instance, not through the approved methods but by scouring dime stores for ambitious young women. She delivered results, even if it meant fearlessly bending the rules.

Fossier is a native New Orleanian; she’s lived in the same Uptown house since she was 7. Even though she has slowed her pace, she is still recognized around the community.

“I get around pretty well,” she says.

Mentor: “My female mentor was [NORD founder] Olive Stallings, my mother’s first cousin, with whom I was very close. She inspired me to ‘do public good.’”
Turning point: “To be employed, as a woman, during World War II was important. After the war, I went to work for the city – making almost half the salary of the male department heads. A turning point came when [former] Mayor Moon Landrieu asked me to head Parks and Parkways and agreed to pay me what the boys made.”
Advice: “I operated with complete honesty when dealing with public funds, always within the law, which the men realized and respected over time. You have to be above reproach.”

 
Cathy Harris
Founder and President, C. Harris Companies Inc.
Cathy Harris had to rebuild both her New Orleans home and her business after Katrina. What she discovered is that her business seemed to be in less demand – at a time when the city needs it more than ever.

Harris is founder and president of a management and staff development firm that coaches employees on diversity, conflict resolution and leadership issues.

“When you don’t have to deal with the ‘people’ issues,” she says – such as poor communication or prejudice – “people can be more productive in what they’re trying to accomplish. I help people to solve their ‘people’ issues and to work as a more cohesive team or organization. The workforce of  New Orleans is changing. In the redevelopment, we need to get along with one another. We don’t need to be worried about, ‘Do I really trust this person?’ ”

Officially in business since 1994, Harris had built an impressive roster of clients including federal agencies, universities and Fortune 500 companies, but after the hurricane, not only had people and businesses relocated, but training budgets had shrunk and companies seemed unwilling to spend money on employees who might not stick around.

“The good news is that there are a lot of people opening different types of businesses post-Katrina,” she says. “It looks like it’s on the rise, it looks like business is picking up,” she says.

Harris says she wanted to bring her skills to the city that needed them. Community service is important to her: she has founded youth-oriented programs, including a mentoring organization called Each One Save One, which she developed with WWL-TV’s Sally-Ann Roberts.

Mentor: “I had several mentors throughout my work life … [among] my most recent was Ted Quant of Loyola University’s Twomey Center for Peace through Justice, who took incredible amounts of time over the last 13 years to teach and coach me in multiple skill sets.”
Turning point: “I was chosen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deliver 20 communication workshops.  This led to … a multi-year contract for 1,700 employees.”
Advice: “Learn as much as you can about yourself and how you operate … understand your own behavior style. Work on your issues first – particularly your biases, stereotypes and assumptions. Get in touch with your affinity for people – look for the magnificence in others.”

Yvonne LaFleur
Owner, Yvonne LaFleur New Orleans
It’s been a long time – almost 40 years, in fact – since Yvonne LaFleur opened the doors of her Hampson Street shop, then called You Boutique. Back then, in 1969, jeans cost $8 (alterations free) and T-shirts cost $5.

Fast forward to 2008: Dresses and hats of her own design, fragrances and miscellaneous froufrou for brides, debutantes and, most importantly, for any woman who considers herself a Southern lady.

“I always wanted to have a dress shop since I was 4 years old,” says the California native, who first visited her mother’s family in New Orleans on a train trip. “The first day I was in New Orleans I fell in love with retail in the most incredible way. It was all I ever wanted to do.”

LaFleur has carved out for herself and for New Orleans a tiny Riverbend escape from flip-flop casual.

“Even though it’s off the beaten path, and [with] the type of merchandise I carry, it’s a destination-type store … once people shop with me from out of state, they come back or they call for things,” she says, adding that she’s recently served brides from Hong Kong and Egypt. Her single point of view, one of “Southern femininity,” guides the store.

For a while LaFleur, who doesn’t drive, juggled multiple locations, starting with the Gulf Coast, and later at the Riverwalk and the Esplanade. But it was too much work without business partners, so she focused on her original Riverbend location, which today she describes as “nicely stocked” with “nice clientele.”

Still, “I always feel like I’m climbing up a brick wall,” she says. “People ask, ‘How does it feel to be successful?’ I feel like I’m scaling that wall with my fingernails every day. That’s what drives me.”

Now both her daughters work with her. “I truly love going to work every day. I worked in retail all through high school and college, so after 40 years if you love something this much, it’s just really a blessing.”

Mentor: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. “She started with nothing … look at her lasting contribution to fashion.”
Turning point: “When I changed the name from You Boutique to my name” in 1984. “It was the starting point for a whole new concept.”
Advice: “Know everything about [fashion]. Read, sew, do everything fashion-wise. It’s not just reading the magazines. That’s what the customers read.”

Dr. Melinda Sothern
Professor of Research, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center
Eighteen years ago, long before obesity in children made headlines like it does today, exercise physiologist Melinda Sothern joined a Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center clinic that wanted to develop an exercise program for overweight children.

“I didn’t even know what to do with these overweight kids because some of them were significantly overweight,” she says of the 20 to 30 children in the pilot phase. “Through trial and error, we tried different kinds of exercises, different kinds of diets, different kinds of behavioral counseling” that led them to lose weight and keep it off.

That exercise program evolved into Trim Kids, a 12-week weight-management program for children that has been recognized by the U.S. Surgeon General, endorsed by the National Cancer Institute and adopted by New Orleans YMCA locations. (The book is available from Amazon.com.)

Oh, yeah, and she’s Oprah-approved. Sothern has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss overweight kids and how to help them.

The message: Overweight kids are at risk of turning into overweight adults and developing diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, so parents need to get them moving.
“Whenever somebody gives me a microphone, I scream very loudly: Children are children and they need, and must have, opportunities in physically active play,” Sothern says. “Adults impose this sedentary environment on them.’”

Sothern, who leads or has led numerous studies on weight, says she works with a great team of people, and 100 people probably contributed to Trim Kids.

“I don’t think it’s me,” she says modestly. “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Mentor: Among others, “Mark Loftin Ph.D., [formerly] a professor of exercise physiology at the University of New Orleans. He is one of the finest scientists in his field.”
Turning point: “When I decided to take a one-year sabbatical from my teaching/coaching job in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, to work on my master’s degree in exercise physiology. After returning to the States, I realized how much I wanted to work in the pediatric scientific research field. While in my last semester of my master’s, I was offered the opportunity to work for the Department of Pediatrics at LSUHSC on a study in overweight children.”
Advice: “The academic medical and research field has many opportunities for women and if you are positive, well-intentioned, creative and passionate about your goals, others will see this and open up one door after the other.”

Capt. April Overman
Commander, Reserve Division, New Orleans Police Department
New Orleanians may hate the city’s diversity of crime but it provides excellent training for police officers like Capt. April Overman, who joined New Orleans Police Department in 1985.

Just what is diversity of crime? “Going from a relatively safe area to an area that has higher crime; dealing with tourists one minute, going six blocks away [and] dealing with drug dealers,” she says. “If you spend all of your time in a high-crime neighborhood, you get very cynical. Being able to go from one area to another gives you the full perspective, and it helps you understand why you’re doing this job.”

Seeing the big picture ignited her 22-plus-year police career, which included stints in narcotics, traffic and crime analysis. Today Overman heads the Reserve Division, a recent post in which she oversees about 100 volunteer, part-time officers and in which still draws on her legal background.

“[Law school] was one of the most valuable parts of my education with respect to this job,” Overman says. “That, and I studied public administration. Having the legal background — not only did it help me shape my cases when I was young but it helped me train officers on how to shape their cases and how to conduct themselves in the field.”

Overman, who also serves as lead faculty for the criminal justice administration program at the University of Phoenix’s three Louisiana campuses, has been part of the Reserve Division since February. “We have about 100 officers; that’s a pretty fair number, it’s definitely a large enough group to make a difference,” she says.

The New Orleans native also has a master’s degree in sociology and is pursuing a Ph.D. in urban studies from University of New Orleans.

Mentor: Retired officer Carol Hewlett. “She was an incredible role model for me coming in as a female in a male-dominated profession … she was a woman of unquestionable integrity, she was a true employee advocate.”
Turning point: “I was in law school and decided I wanted to do something about the crime problem eating away at the city. Originally, my plan was to work in the D.A.’s office after graduation. But I realized that even the best D.A. can’t win a poorly investigated case. So I decided to go into the field, where I could craft solid cases.”
Advice: Consider working for “a large metropolitan police department, where you’re going to learn a lot.”

Barbara Motley
Proprietor, Le Chat Noir
Barbara Motley is such as staple of the local arts community that you might expect her to have significant stage experience. Not so, she says. Outside of a few school plays, Motley favored business, instead of acting or singing, as a career.

It’s all the more impressive then, that Motley runs a nationally recognized cabaret theater, Le Chat Noir.

Cabaret theaters, much less successful ones, are a rarity. But Motley, who was searching out a second vocation after she ended her corporate career, had enjoyed cabaret on trips to New York City and thought the art form would sell in New Orleans.

“It was the perfect paradigm for New Orleans. New Orleans has a very vibrant musical theater scene,” she says. Besides, “New Orleans loves to dress up, it loves glamour it loves a good cocktail.” Le Chat Noir opened in 1999, offering what she calls “high entertainment” with quality performers. Motley says cabaret isn’t more prevalent because the small size of the theaters (Le Chat Noir seats 125 people) makes it hard to earn money.

Motley says she would like to see more collaboration between theater groups in New Orleans, especially newer ones. “Those of us who have a little more years on us, what I’d like to do is help these young [theater] companies stay put, so the city can grow into our art,” she says. As for Le Chat Noir’s future, Motley is considering using the third floor as a black-box theater.

And is she ever tempted to take the stage? She quips, “It would be great, but I don’t meet my own standards.”

Mentor: “My husband taught me the ‘art of business.’ Then, when I got to New Orleans, I got involved with two guys – [director] Carl Walker and [former Contemporary Arts Center music director] Jay Weigel. Those friendships  … taught me a lot about the business of art.”
Turning point: “We started to earn our stripes as a cabaret in the eyes of the rest of the country when Karen Akers agreed to perform here. Some people consider her the best in the business. She was generous enough to go back and tell her friends that this was a great space to perform in and the phone started ringing.”
Advice: “Study theater; know the product that you’re selling. You don’t necessarily have to be a performer, although there are cabarets where the owner is a performer. You definitely need to go and get a business education.”

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