Top Female Achievers
“I always believed that one woman’s success can only help another woman’s success.”
– Gloria Vanderbilt
Each year New Orleans Magazine profiles a selection of extraordinary women from across our community continuing to make a difference. We present here seven women whose stories are worth knowing, and honor them not so much for breaking new ground, but for expanding the territory. Their talents and hard work have been felt in education, hospitality, the environment and business fields, and beyond.
The easy part is finding worthy candidates, for the list is long. The complex part is 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.
CEO/Owner, QED Hospitality
A native New Orleanian, Emery Whalen began her work in the culinary world as a hostess at Restaurant August in 2010 and worked her way up in the Besh Restaurant Group. Three years ago, Whalen teamed with chef Brian Landry to form QED Hospitality, a restaurant operations management group that runs all the food and beverage for the Pontchartrain Hotel — which includes Jack Rose restaurant, the Bayou Bar, Hot Tin rooftop bar and the Silver Whistle Café — as well as three Nashville properties: Marsh House restaurant, L.A. Jackson rooftop bar and restaurant and coffee shop Killebrew at the luxury boutique hotel Thompson Nashville.
Once named to Forbes Magazine’s “30 Under 30,” Whalen is a strong advocate for women in the hospitality industry. Whalen is an active member of Facebook’s #SheMeansBusiness, representing female-owned culinary businesses at industry meetings nationwide; and serves on the board of Women in Hospitality United, a movement born under #MeToo whose mission is to foster leadership through mentorship.
Working within an industry hit especially hard by COVID-19, Whalen worked quickly to save as many jobs as she could by partnering with a telehealth company.
“Our staff is now working from home,” she said. “We’ve got servers and bartenders that are now using their strong people skills to make sure people are comfortable with telehealth, they have the apps they need downloaded, their passwords reset, things like that.
“I’m so proud of all of them,” she said. “And I’m happy to say that out of our 220 employees, we’ve been able to keep more than half this way. Everyone who wanted to stay on was able to.”
Co-founder and Executive Director, Youth Empowerment Project
A native of Canada, Melissa Sawyer first came to New Orleans as a teacher with Teach for America. After leaving for a few years to earn a master’s degree in education at Harvard University with a focus on urban education, she returned to the city where she spent three years working with Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), helping to reform the state’s juvenile justice system.
In 2004, Sawyer and two colleagues from JJPL broke off and started their own organization, Youth Empowerment Project (YEP), in order to meet the specific needs of young people involved in the juvenile justice system. Over the past 13 years, YEP’s mission has expanded greatly.
“Now less than one-third of the 1,200 young people we serve each year have a juvenile justice connection,” said Sawyer. YEP is currently the largest and most comprehensive organization in the New Orleans region that addresses the needs of underserved, court-involved and out-of-school youth.
Individualized mentoring and support services, a growing high school equivalency program, summer camps, a digital media training program and full-service bicycle repair shop and thrift store are just a few of the ways Youth Empowerment Project works to provide area young people with the skills and support they need.
After leading a young organization as it survived and thrived following Hurricane Katrina, Sawyer said she’s turned her focus again to remaining nimble and adaptive and getting back to basics.
“Right now, we’re really focusing in on our core values,” she said. “It’s going to be especially important in the months and years to come.”
Malana Joseph Mitchell
VP of Public Relations, Spears Group
A public relations and brand strategist, Malana Joseph Mitchell is the vice president of public relations for Spears Group, a strategic communications, creative and PR firm. Mitchell develops high-level PR strategies and manages media relations for clients such as the NBA, Verizon, the National Fried Chicken Festival and NOLA Public Schools.
Mitchell said she got her feet “soaked or drowned” in PR while working in crisis communications as a mayoral fellow in New Orleans in 2005. She spent several months in the city’s Emergency Operations Center coordinating national and international press following Hurricane Katrina.
For the past 10 years, Mitchell has led communications for Lemonade Day Louisiana, an entrepreneurship program that has attracted more than 200,000 Louisiana youth since 2011.
In addition to her work, Mitchell is a past president of the local chapter of the Public Relations Society of America and is on the faculty at Dillard University, where she teaches junior and senior-level coursework. She said she’s driven by a desire to give back to an industry traditionally lacking in diversity.
“I was fortunate to have an incredible mentor during my time at Dillard named Monica Pierre,” said Mitchell, who has since served as advisor to the university’s Public Relations Student Society of America chapter.
“I give out my cell phone number freely,” she said. “I always tell the students, ‘You could be my boss someday,’ and I mean it. I didn’t have a lot of people who looked like me in the field when I was coming up and I’d love to be that for someone else.”
President and Co-founder, Youth Force NOLA
In 2015, 10 years into its recovery from Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was facing a different kind of problem — far too many of the city’s youth (ages 16 to 24) were neither working nor in school.
“We had the third highest rate of what they call ‘opportunity youth’ in the country,” said Cate Swinburn, president and co-founder of Youth Force NOLA. “The thing was, 60 percent of those students had high school diplomas, they were just running into other problems like with financial aid, or they were struggling with a lack of direction.”
Former president and executive director of the Washington D.C. Public Education Fund and a longtime educational consultant, Swinburn created Youth Force NOLA in 2015 with the ambitious goal of making sure all high school students graduate with the skills and support they need to go on to college or secure a good job.
“We work with an incredibly strong network that includes the City of New Orleans, the Urban League, Greater New Orleans, Inc., Junior Achievement of Greater New Orleans and NOLA Public Schools, on behalf of 25 open enrollment high schools,” said Swinburn. “Together we provide youth with internships, soft-skills training and access to industry-recognized certification programs in high-wage, high-demand fields.”
In only five years, the number of high school students earning industry-recognized credentials in New Orleans has increased 875 percent, nearly 800 have received work experience, more than 10,000 attended soft-skills programs and more than 5,000 have engaged with employers during YouthForce’s annual career expos.
Swinburn said the key to success lies in collaboration.
“This is too big of a job for one organization to do,” she said. “Together we can make sure these kids succeed in work and in life.”
Founding Director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade
Anne Rolfes’ mission, as she sees it, is to provide a complete picture of Louisiana’s petrochemical industry.
“I was born and raised in Lafayette, so I grew up surrounded by the jobs, the economic benefits the industry brings,” she said, “but I also know what science tells us, and that is the rates of cancer, of respiratory illness, that we see. The facts are the facts. These chemicals being created are carcinogens.”
For the past 20 years, Rolfes has run the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an organization dedicated to ending pollution in the state. Though small — her staff ranges from three to five people — the Bucket Brigade is empowered by hundreds of volunteers and partnerships with groups such as Rise St. James, 350 New Orleans and Tulane Environmental Law Clinic.
The organization is currently focusing on challenging the permit for the Formosa plastics plant planned for St. James Parish.
“This would be one of the largest plastics plants in the world,” she said. “Our state is allowing it even though the company’s own country, Taiwan, is not allowing the plant to be built there because it’s too dirty. We are allowing other countries to use our state as their dumping ground.”
Rolfes said she believes there’s another way.
“This industry could be a win/win for everyone,” she said. “We could be employing people to repair pipelines, fix equipment. I’d like to see us pivot to something more positive for everyone, including the petrochemical industry.”
Allison Hoffman & Julie Hoffman
Founders of Native Nail Polish
If New Orleans was a nail polish color, what color would it be?
There’s obviously no way you could pick just one, which is why Native Nail Polish has been putting out about a dozen shades a year since its founding by sisters-in-law Allison and Julie Hoffman in 2015.
Inspired by their young daughters, Native polishes are vegan, cruelty free and “10 free,” which means they don’t contain 10 harmful chemicals typically found in polish like formaldehyde, xylenes and parabens.
Since launching with its first retailer, Two Sprouts, Native is now offered at 37 locations locally, including The Spa at Windsor Court, The Woodhouse Day Spa and Ritz Carlton Spa. The company has also started to pair with other organizations and businesses such as Mignon Faget, Buff Beauty Bar, Bliss Bridal, the Merry Antoinettes and the Krewe of Iris to craft custom colors.
“This has been one of the most exciting evolutions of our business,” said Allison Hoffman. “It’s a totally different creative outlet for us that can involve months of back and forth to create the perfect shade. It’s been so rewarding to support local female-run businesses and organizations.”
Native’s spring line, launched March 23, gives back to COVID-19 coping efforts.
“One dollar from each bottle sold will go to the Krewe of Red Beans, which is making meals for healthcare workers,” said Julie Hoffman. “They’re also employing local musicians to deliver the meals, so that’s an extra component we really wanted to support.”
Executive VP and COO, New Orleans Chamber of Commerce
In the nine years Sandra Lindquist has been at the New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, she has developed multiple community-wide events and organizations that benefit the region and seen the chamber’s membership grow from 500 members in 2011 to more than 1,300 today.
It is Lindquist’s work specifically with women, however, that she has found her calling.
In addition to creating the chamber’s Women’s Business Alliance, which meets monthly, Lindquist co-founded the business and social networking event Women & Wine on Wednesday. Her latest accomplishment was last year’s inaugural Power Up: Women’s Leadership Conference, a day-long professional development event designed specifically for women.
“We were hoping to draw 200 to 300 people,” said Lindquist, “but we ended up selling out one month before the event with 550 ladies.”
This year’s event, scheduled for March, had a capacity for 800 women. Before it was postponed to August 7, 700 tickets had already been sold.
Lindquist said she sees the popularity of the event, and other female meetup opportunities and leadership programs as the dawning of a new era.
“Early in my career, women I worked with would try and keep other women down,” she said. “But that is no longer the case. Women are really coming together now. They’re realizing there’s strength in numbers and that women with a strong peer group are achieving greater success.”