Top Female Achievers
Each year, New Orleans Magazine features women who are making a difference across the community. The past year has provided many challenges , but each of the 11 Female Achievers we spotlight here have handled the challenges. They’ve put their time and talents into field as diverse as hospitality, design, non-profit work, business and beyond.
New Orleans is blessed with many worthy candidates. Finding them is the easy part. What’s hard is narrowing the list each year. Still, we are thrilled to honor 11 wonderful women in 2021 and we look forward to spotlighting others in the years to come.
Crescent City Meal Assistance Program
At any given time, you can find Sarah Manowitz serving the New Orleans community. That service has taken many forms over the years—public policy advocacy, civil law notarizing, community organizing and managing Oz New Orleans, the Gulf South’s largest LGBTQ+ dance and show club.
However, Manowitz’s recent endeavors have taken her service to new heights. In 2020, Manowitz helped to establish the Crescent City Meal Assistance Program to assist those suffering from food insecurity as a result of the pandemic. The program quickly saw its efforts and resources magnified through strategic partnerships with the Neighborhood Engagement Office, New Orleans City Council, World Central Kitchen, Crescent Care and several others, ultimately distributing more than 500,000 meals throughout the region.
“We started with no budget and an aggressive mission,” Manowitz said, “but through the passion and commitment of our volunteers and the mutual aid provided to us by the community, we were able to provide a safety net for thousands of New Orleanians.”
Next on Manowitz’s to-do list is to graduate from Tulane University’s School of Professional Advancement and complete the additional education necessary to launch her law career. Manowitz says she feels called to advance civil rights protections and to fight for social and economic justice, particularly for the hospitality, entertainment and small-business communities and workers of all identities and backgrounds.
“Seeing the combined efforts of so many inspires me to continue being a part of community organizing efforts, not only around food security issues, but all issues which affect people at their most basic level,” Manowitz said. “The weight cannot fall on the shoulders of the few, but on the many. Together, we can create the support structures and changes that we seek.”
AVP, Fidelity Bank
Director of P.O.W.E.R.
Since it was launched in October of 2017, Fidelity Bank’s P.O.W.E.R. program (Potential of Women Entrepreneurs Realized) has been a resource for more than 1,200 female business owners in the region.
“Women face the same challenges as male business owners, we just go about them differently,” said Liz Broekman, director of P.O.W.E.R.
As the creation of a bank, it’s not surprising that the program includes a variety of financial products, but Broekman says the main focus of the program lies in three areas: networking, education and marketing.
“Our networking component has been so important, so it’s been hard losing that over the past year,” she said. “We tried Zoom, but it’s just not the same.”
On the flip side, Broekman said the program was able to help many members secure PPP loans and P.O.W.E.R.’s education programs have been able to reach a wider audience due to their new virtual format.
“We’ve partnered with the New Orleans Black Chamber of Commerce to create educational webinars every other week,” said Broekman. “Each session looks at a different business topic, like branding, reading financials, working with QuickBooks. We’ve been excited to collaborate with other organizations.”
One collaboration Broekman said she’s particularly excited about will happen throughout July. In partnership with the Louisiana Hospitality Foundation, P.O.W.E.R. Plates will celebrate powerful women in hospitality by encourage restaurants for the third year to feature a powerful woman on their staff as well as a featured dish or drink. One dollar from every featured item sold will go to the foundation, with P.O.W.E.R. matching up to $2,500.
CEO, Volunteers of America Southeast Louisiana
On Jan. 1, 2021, Voris Vigee became the first woman and first Black president and CEO of Volunteers of America Southeast Louisiana (VOASELA), one of the largest human services providers in the region.
Celebrating its 125th year of service this year, VOASELA operates more than 20 programs across a 16-parish area through a staff of more than 500 and a legion of active volunteers that numbered over 26,000 prior to COVID-19.
In addition to tackling issues like affordable housing, at-risk youth and homelessness, and assisting veterans and those with physical and intellectual disabilities, during the pandemic the organization added “COVID-19 resource facilitator” to its list of services. Since last May, VOASELA has assisting more than 28,000 struggling Louisianans in finding food, lodging, medical care, or whatever else they needed.
“I’m extremely proud of our frontline workers,” said Vigee. “They were out there every day doing whatever was necessary to help.”
A native of Chicago who came to Xavier University with dreams of becoming a pediatrician, Vigee said that after 27 years with VOASELA she is excited to be leading the creation of a new strategic plan that will be implemented by July 1.
“Increasing our technology is a high priority and I’m thrilled that we’re launching a culture, diversity, equity and inclusion initiative that will be weaved into the fabric of the organization and how we deliver our services. It will involve input from all levels of staffing to look at how can we serve our marginalized communities better.”
Compére Lapin, Bywater American Bistro
Food is everything to Nina Compton, in every sense of the word. It’s the foundation of her James Beard award-winning career, it’s an outlet for her creativity, and most importantly, it’s a transportative form of magic.
“Food is nostalgic,” Compton said. “One bite of a dish your mom made for you once brings back all those happy memories. Especially right now, people are seeking comfort and trying to remember the good times, and that’s what food brings. Giving people that enjoyment has been a driving force for me.”
The St. Lucian chef strives to create “soul-satisfying” dishes that showcase colors, flavors and cultures from around the world in inventive and craveable ways, as she does at her New Orleans restaurants, Compère Lapin and Bywater American Bistro. Compton says she became captivated with the city’s “sense of pride in food” while filming Season 11 of “Top Chef” and knew it was the right place to spread roots.
“You’ve never heard someone say, ‘I flew here to eat out,’ about anywhere else,” Compton said. “For me, it’s a chef’s dream, not only having access to beautiful ingredients, but being surrounded by so many talented people from all backgrounds who love food and love to cook.”
If there’s one lesson Compton hopes to pass on to her employees – and to the contestants of “Top Chef” when she returns as an all-star judge for Season 18 – it’s to have a plan and pursue it fearlessly.
“I feel like I have achieved a lot, so the biggest thing for me right now is helping other people in the community find their voice,” she said. “When I had questions, I surrounded myself with people who were more experienced. I want to do the same thing for young chefs coming up.”
Margie Tillman Ayres
Artist and Designer
Although much has happened since Margie Tillman Ayres’s childhood – years of study, working in such varied industries as education and film, and becoming a mother, to name a few – she is in many ways the same person who once delighted in hand-crafting cards for friends and family.
“I am somewhat of a quiet person and always struggled to be heard in a boisterous family of six kids,” Ayres said. “Art became my way of connecting with the people in my world without having to open my mouth and speak.”
One look at the portfolio of her art and design studio, Margie and the Moon, proves that Ayres’s work speaks volumes. She says she has always been inspired by children’s book illustrators “because of their ability to express visually some of life’s greatest truths in the simplest of forms.” That influence manifests in the vibrant colors, patterns and textures Ayres employs to craft dreamscapes that recall a childlike sense of freedom and wonder.
So far, Ayres’s artistry and style have landed her contracts with major clients including Trader Joe’s, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Pyrex. It’s not all whimsy and magic, however: Ayres is equally passionate about using her talent and platform to draw attention to issues like gender discrimination.
“My driving force is to empower young women to make sure they know what they are capable of and to let them know they are not alone in the struggles they face,” she says.
Ayres certainly sets a strong example, demonstrating that the power of perseverance, finding and using your voice, and moving through the world with an open mind can take you to the moon and back.
Chimene Grant Saloy
VP, Community Affairs Audubon Nature Institute
From the women who raised her, Chimene Grant Saloy collected three things: from her mother, a single parent and two-time cancer survivor, Chimene learned strength; from her maternal grandmother, a philanthropist who never turned away a soul in need despite raising eight children of her own, Chimene learned service; from her paternal grandmother, who was widowed at a young age and rose before the sun to provide for her family, Chimene learned determination.
Those three gifts have permeated every aspect of Chimene Grant Saloy’s life, and she considers no day complete until she’s shared at least one of them with someone else.
“My passion comes from my family’s legacy of community service and living up to that commitment to serve others who are less fortunate,” she said.
Chimene’s avenues for honoring that commitment are many and varied: she serves on the board for Girl Scouts Southeast Louisiana as Second Vice Chairman, as President-Elect of Kingsley House and Vice Chairman of French Quarter Festivals, Inc. All this, in addition to her professional role as Vice President of Community Affairs at Audubon Nature Institute, which allows her to further serve her industry as an advisor of the Diversity Committee of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
“I would like to see a world where diversity, equity, access and inclusion are the norm, so I’ll do my best to work with organizations that work in that space,” Chimene said. “I would be thrilled to be considered a great wife, daughter, sister, aunt, cousin, friend and contributing member of society who strives to make a difference and impact.”
Director, Market Umbrella-operator of Crescent City Farmers Markets
Economic justice and gender equity — that was the focus of Cordelia Heaney’s career until February 1, when she became the director of Market Umbrella, the nonprofit entity that operates three weekly Crescent City Farmers Markets across New Orleans. Heaney previously served as director of the Office on Women’s Policy for Louisiana and as director of North Carolina’s Compass Center for Women and Families for five years before homesickness brought her back to New Orleans at the beginning of this year.
While her new job may seem like a drastic career change, Heaney said she quickly realized how interconnected issues of equity and stability are with food.
“Food insecurity is a huge problem in New Orleans, and we are all about ensuring everyone has access to healthy, local food. SNAP users can get a dollar-for-dollar match on fruits and vegetables. Last year we gave out about $75,000 worth of produce.”
Within five days of shutting down the markets due to COVID-19, a home delivery program was launched, along with curbside pickup, and the Sunday market at Ted Gormley stadium is still operating as drive-thru only.
“People have adapted now to having their groceries delivered,” she said. “So, we’re working on an a la carte option that we’re hoping to roll out this year. We continue to focus on expanding food access and education, while keeping dollars here in New Orleans and supporting the food culture we all love so much.”
Executive Director, Committee for a Better New Orleans
If you asked Nellie Catzen the difference between the needs of an individual and the needs of the community, she would tell you there is none.
“I believe that relationships drive everything,” Catzen said. “The personal and the community are inextricable. By living in close touch with my community, the issue of my neighbor is no less of an issue for me.”
For five years, Catzen brought that mindset to her role as Program Director for Friends of Lafitte Greenway, a non-profit organization developing and transforming the former rail corridor into a place where people can connect to nature and each other. Now, as Executive Director at the Committee for a Better New Orleans, Catzen hopes to foster that same sense of unity and civic engagement on a grander scale.
“I want to build relationships and foster trust and to create better conversation between people and the local government,” Catzen said. “I’m excited about helping people come to the same table and having a meaningful conversation there.”
This is in no small part Catzen’s way of giving back to a community she says has consistently shown up for her. In 2019, Catzen was struck by a drunk driver at an Endymion parade crash that claimed the lives of two people, including one of her close friends, and critically injured several others. Three weeks later, Catzen was responsible for overseeing a major event at the Greenway and says she was “not let down by a single person that day.”
“To see this community in which I’ve invested so much, personally and professionally, come together to support me and my team was just so powerful,” she said. “I think about it every day, all the time. That’s something that continues to propel me.”
Owner, Badass Balloon Co.
2021 Congressional Candidate
When Desiree Ontiveros moved to New Orleans in 2015 and had trouble finding a job, she decided to take action and create her own company.
“I was in charge of merch for a friend’s bachelorette party, and I realized that you can’t get customized balloons like you can shirts or hats,” said Ontiveros. “And even though everybody’s faces light up when they see balloons, regardless of age, all the balloons out there were childish. So, I decided to invest $1,000 and get my own balloons made.”
Fast forward a few years and Badass Balloon Company’s saucy offerings — with balloons for all occasions printed with messages like “Drinks Well With Others” and “Hit Me Up When You’re Not Contagious” — have gained a global clientele.
“We have a staff of five now, it was seven before the pandemic, but I’m proud to be a profitable, self-sustaining business that has never used outside capitol and is debt-free.”
Badass Balloons, however, like many small businesses, suffered during the pandemic and Ontiveros said she became fed up with a government she felt was out of touch.
“I was calling my reps, and nobody was returning my phone calls,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m a small business owner, don’t you care?’ But they didn’t.”
Again, carving her own path, Ontiveros decided to run in Louisiana’s second congressional district special election with a campaign focused on small business support and equitable economic recovery.
Although she didn’t win, she said she did what she set out to do.
“I changed the conversation. By the end, my ideas had been folded into everyone’s stump speech. The voices I wanted to be amplified were.”
From an early age, Syrita Steib knew she was going to fight for change, even if she didn’t know what kind of change that would be. She certainly never expected a mistake made at age 19 – the details of which have been widely reported – and a subsequent 10-year prison sentence to serve as the impetus for her life’s work.
But Steib is determined to use her experiences within and after prison to change the harsh reality awaiting incarcerated women upon release. She says despite the fact that women are the fastest-growing carceral population, there’s a startling lack of programs or resources to help women restart and rebuild their lives.
“When I was released, I had to be vulnerable everywhere I went,” Steib said. “No one ever told me I would be discriminated against for schools, houses or jobs. I thought I had paid my restitution. So, I’ve learned to fight productively in a way that is beneficial for others. Women are raised to take care of families, kids and husbands, but not to fight for themselves.”
Steib’s non-profit, Operation Restoration, supports women affected by incarceration with advocacy, housing programs, education and other direct services designed to establish an equitable path for reentering society. Steib says one of the organization’s crowning achievements so far was drafting and advocating for “Ban the Box” LA Act 276, which was signed into state law in 2017 and prohibits public postsecondary education institutions from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history.
“Louisiana being the first state to pass a law like that is big for me,” Steib said. “This is a way to show that we’re showing up to change racial inequalities. Now that legislation can be replicated by other states, and that makes me happy.”
Creative Partner, Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra
Growing up in New Orleans East, Courtney Bryan wanted to do everything her older sisters were doing, which included learning piano. But now she is doing something nobody has done before: This past January, Bryan became the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra’s first creative partner.
“It’s like being a composer in residence but with more involvement in the institution and community,” said Bryan of the new position. “The orchestra will perform my music and at the end of the term, I’m going to write a piece specifically inspired by my three-year appointment as creative partner.”
Bryan said her work is influenced by jazz, gospel and experimental music styles and that a lot of her pieces, including a violin concerto called “Syzygy” — which premiered on March 12 as part of an LPO digital concert series — are inspired by women.
Bryan said she’s equally excited about the educational component of her new role.
“I’m excited to be involved in LPO’s Music for Life Program,” she said. “Last fall, we started a workshop called “Sounds of Your Home,” where students figure out ways to recreate sounds they hear at home with their instruments and compose music.”
Bryan said she’s happy with the LPO’s commitment to diversity. It is currently the only major American orchestra whose artistic leadership positions are held exclusively by Black and Latinx artists.
“This is a coming full circle moment for me in my career,” said Bryan. “I’m so thrilled to be rooted in an organization I grew up listening to and to be able to go beyond being in concert, to being involved in the community.”