Each year, New Orleans Magazine features women who are making a difference across the community. The past two years have provided many challenges, but each of the 11 Top Female Achievers we spotlight here have not only overcome those challenges, but have been examples of inspiration, innovation and leadership for the entire city.
New Orleans is blessed with many worthy candidates. Finding them is the easy part. What’s hard is narrowing the list each year. We are thrilled to honor our class of 2022, and we look forward to spotlighting many more in the years to come.
New Orleans Pelicans
Vice President of Basketball Operations and Team Development
Swin Cash is a champion, pure and simple. A lifelong basketball player herself, she’s won championships at every level: collegiate, professional, and even Olympic gold medals. After a 15-year career as a forward in the WNBA, Cash retired from the New York Liberty and moved into the team’s front office as the director of franchise development—a first for a former player in the league.
As if that wasn’t enough, Cash also spent 15 years covering the game as a sports analyst for multiple outlets, and was involved with the WNBA Players Union, where she advocated for better pay and working conditions on behalf of her fellow players.
When asked about her motivation, Cash gives all the credit to her mother. “I watched how hard she worked to create opportunities for me to thrive,” she said. “So, seeing somebody every day in the trenches with you, doing whatever it takes to show you love and to inspire other people was where I got my work ethic from.”
In her current role at the Pelicans, Cash oversees the team development department, running the player development engagement strategies off the court, while also acting as a sort of conduit between the business and the basketball side of team operations.
“I work on everything from our marketing department, to our ticket sales, and the social responsibility group. Anything that involves our players,” Cash said.
Drawing on her expertise and experience, Cash is also involved in the pro-scouting department and contributes to the team’s roster development, making her one of the Pelicans’ most valuable assets, and one we’re lucky to have.
Wine and Beverage Director
For restaurants that pride themselves on their wine program the ultimate accolade is Wine Spectator magazine’s Grand Award. Brennan’s Restaurant proudly received one every year for 24 years — that is until heat damage from Hurricane Katrina destroyed the cellar.
“When Ralph Brennan and Terry White took over the restaurant in 2013, and rebuilt it, it was a real goal of Ralph’s to get the Grand Award back,” explained Braithe Tidwell, who has served as wine and beverage director at Brennan’s since 2015, 10 months after the restaurant’s reopening. “We have been getting awards of excellence, which is right below the Grand Award, for the past six years, but this year we finally did it!”
Tidwell said growing up she had dreams of the theater, not the cellar, but quickly discovered her hatred for auditioning shortly after graduating from New York University. She then found herself working in restaurants, including seven years at Union Square Café, where she ultimately became wine director. It was then she knew she had found her true calling.
“I love getting to talk to people every night,” she said. “And then there’s also a performative aspect to presenting wine, which I love.”
Tidwell is charged with the care of Brennan’s 13,000-bottle collection which is represented on a wine list spanning approximately 3,000 selections from around the world, but with a specific focus on French wines, primarily Burgundy.
She said that while one catastrophic event caused the restaurant to lose its prized standing, she thinks another may have helped get it back.
“Sometimes I think maybe that extra time that I spent organizing and cleaning up the list that I had because of the COVID shutdown, maybe that was the extra boost we needed to finally get the Grand Award back,” she said, adding. “You know, I try and see the positive from the negative.”
Anneliese Singh, Ph.D., L.P.C.
Tulane University’s Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion
That her work is done at the intersection of racial justice and queer liberation is no coincidence. Both causes are central to Dr. Anneliese Singh’s identity, and for more than a decade, they have mutually propelled her as a leader, scholar, educator and psychologist.
“I was born and raised in New Orleans to a Sikh Indian father and a white mom from Monroe, Louisiana,” Singh said. “Because I grew up seeing the challenges around racism, as well as cluing into my own sexuality in my teens, I feel like New Orleans taught me and raised me to be a community organizer. It taught me both the brutality of what oppression can look like, as well as the liberation that can be born out of it.”
Singh, a counseling psychologist whose research centers gender-affirming care for trans and non-binary people, is the author of several publications including “The Racial Healing Handbook” and “The Queer and Trans Resilience Workbook”. She is also the founder of Tulane University’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, where she serves as its first Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Provost of Diversity and Faculty Development.
“This year, we’re launching ‘A Strategy for Tomorrow,’ a strategic plan for diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism,” Singh said. “We’re engaging our entire university in changing who we are by 2027. To have measurable change outcomes is really powerful.”
Singh says that bringing her work home to New Orleans after several years in Georgia has only reaffirmed her belief that thought leaders in the South “are some of our most powerful and effective change agents.”
“Just to see people talking about racism and pushing each other to grow has been hugely inspiring,” Singh says. “Relationships are at the core of freedom and justice work, and having a big heart for accountability and feedback is just as important as celebrating our successes.”
CEO NOLAvate Black
After years of knocking on doors that did not open, Sabrina Short decided to build her own door–one she now holds open to Black professionals who are seeking equitable pathways into New Orleans’ thriving tech ecosystem.
“I saw New Orleans emerging as a national technology hub,” Short said, “and I asked myself, ‘How do I lift up the voices of the disenfranchised? How do we promote accessibility and equity when it comes to jobs, investment and resources? How do we push innovation forward in our city without leaving our own people behind?’”
These questions inspired Short to form NOLAVate Black, an organization that harnesses the power of collective capacity to address systemic injustices keeping people of color from high-paying jobs in fast-growing sectors. Each of NOLAVate Black’s central tenets–advocacy, engagement and empowerment–are manifest in the annual event, Black Tech NOLA, a convening of Black professionals and creatives from around the globe for a weekend of networking and education.
“NOLAVate Black is about more than just attracting jobs and founders,” Short said. “It’s about building a community where Black and Brown people can be their authentic selves, feel seen, feel supported and feel like there are people out there rooting for them. It’s about making sure everyone has the opportunity to build generational wealth.”
Short is also careful to emphasize that she could not achieve her goals or realize her potential without the support of colleagues, friends and family. In that same way, she says diversifying the economic landscape cannot be accomplished by minorities or one industry alone.
“This mission requires all of us working together to go forward,” she said. “It takes each and every one of us contributing in our own way to make the long-term, sustainable impact we want to make.”
When she sits down to write, Jami Attenberg’s pen is rarely just a pen. It is sometimes a trowel, and at other times a spade. It is whichever tool she needs to excavate her heart and mind for truth and understanding.
“I’m always processing a problem or my ideas about the world through my writing,” Attenberg said. “Things don’t often feel real or complete to me unless I’ve written through them in some way.”
To date, Attenberg is the author of seven works of fiction, including the critically acclaimed “The Middlesteins” and, most recently, a memoir titled “All This Way to Meet You: Writing Myself Home.” Each work stands on its own, but Attenberg says a closer look will reveal common threads that, in reality, are her attempts at tackling a question from different perspectives.
“I give myself permission to chew on a problem for a while, as long as I’m making it interesting for the reader. I write a lot about dysfunctional families and trying to solve the problem of being a woman. I can’t tell you what it means, but I’m interested in that.”
Her impressive catalog aside, what Attenberg considers her crowning achievement is #1000wordsofsummer, an annual cyber event that challenges participants to produce 1,000 words of new writing every day for 14 days. The concept emerged organically between Attenberg and a friend, who were both looking for ways to motivate their own progress. However, an outpouring of public interest inspired Attenberg to formally organize the challenge, which now boasts more than 15,000 participants worldwide.
“It’s my favorite part of the year,” she said. “It’s so much work, but it’s the greatest thing ever. People want to support other people and be supported. Community is so important to me, and I love being part of something bigger than myself.”
Lisa Sullivan, Ph.D.
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, professor and Chair of Education
University of Holy Cross
Dr. Lisa Sullivan might just be your favorite teacher’s favorite teacher. As the head of the Office of Academic Affairs at the University of Holy Cross, her mission is to promote teaching and learning by providing access to a host of services like the Center for Teaching and Learning, the Blaine S. Kern Library, Student Health and Wellness, Campus Ministry, and the Thomas E. Chambers Counseling and Training Center.
“We are devoted to helping students succeed, earn their degrees, and advance in their careers,” Sullivan said.
When asked about her proudest accomplishments, Sullivan brushed aside the numerous awards and honors she’s garnered over the years, and instead focused on the accomplishments of other people she’s impacted. “I am very proud when I learn about my former students having scored well on their teacher evaluations, earned ‘Teacher of the Year’ and other accolades, or having advanced to new positions in their careers.”
Sullivan is actually a graduate of Holy Cross herself (though it was called Our Lady of Holy Cross College back then) and spent a number of years teaching math to middle schoolers in Jefferson Parish while pursuing her master’s degree at Loyola. No big deal, right?
But her alma mater called her home, and after working as an adjunct for a couple of years, she took a full-time faculty position, then advanced to the position of Chair of Education, and in July 2021, she moved into her current role. She said the secret to her success is simple: know what you want and do the work.
“Positivity motivates me,” Sullivan said. “Hard work is palatable when done in collaboration with others who are committed to success, and I am truly motivated by positive attitudes and helping others.”
Executive Director of Pontchartrain Conservancy
As a child growing up along the lakefront, Kristi Trail remembers a time when it wasn’t safe to swim in the water. Today she runs an organization that helped change that. Formerly known as the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, Pontchartrain Conservancy is a non-profit dedicated to creating an environmentally sustainable, prosperous and resilient region through scientific research, education and advocacy. The group’s tagline is “Science for Our Coast.”
Trail said she’s always been an environmentalist at heart, and each day, she leads a team of more than 30 people across several departments working to transform the confusion, apathy and fear surrounding Louisiana’s coastal crisis, and encourage people in the community to not only get involved, but also to understand the issues.
If home is where the heart is, Trail puts her heart and soul into her work. “Growing up in an area as beautiful as southeast Louisiana, my main motivator has been protecting Louisiana’s unique resources and landscape.”
A passionate love for community service also runs in the family. Trail said her greatest inspiration is her late father, who served as Chancellor of LSU Health and Sciences Center, as well as on many boards that helped foster and promote the New Orleans business community. He was even named “New Orleanian of the Year” by Gambit in 1988 for his contributions.
And Trail isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. She said there’s just too much work to be done. “New Orleans has been here for 300 years so we’re planning for the next 300 years,” she said, “to see how we can continue to do our essential work to make sure we have the resources for this.”
Kristin Swanson Scott
Swanson Insurance Agency
Kristin Swanson Scott is an anomaly in her industry. Still in her 20s, Scott manages one of the only Black-owned insurance agencies in the city, and one of relatively few in the country. According to the Insurance Information Institute, in 2021 only 12.3% of all people employed in any capacity in the insurance industry were Black.
When her grandparents founded Swanson Insurance Agency in 1985, the goal, Scott said, was to fill a very specific need — to provide a place where Black New Orleanians could come and feel comfortable talking to professionals who cared about them and understood their needs.
Now, representing the third generation in her family business, Scott is determined to continue her family’s legacy while creating her own, and she is doing so at a time when insurance needs and questions seem to be never ending.
“In addition to the pandemic, we’ve had three major storms in two years, and with all the claims we’ve had we’ve seen five insurance companies go out of business,” she said. “After Ida so many insurers left. The struggle now is just to try and maintain some sort of sanity.”
Even in such trying times, Scott is continuing her vision for the company, which involves, among other things, using technology whenever possible to aid in communicating with clients.
“Taking this company into the future means becoming more technologically advanced,” she said. “That can mean keeping in contact with our clients through text messaging, if that’s easiest for them, and making sure they can use the web to access a claim form. But, of course, we need to have that face-to-face contact as well. People want the comfort of knowing someone is there for them. They want to come into the office, so it’s about finding that middle ground to make sure we can help people protect their assets and their future.”
Louisiana Public Health Institute
Ever since she was a little girl, Shelina Davis knew she wanted to work in healthcare. But she had a problem – she wanted to do it all. Davis could see herself as a sports medicine doctor or a psychologist, but she was also passionate about helping to shape better and more equitable health policies and public health programming.
Fortunately, a mentor at Xavier University told her she could get the best of both worlds by pursuing the Master of Social Work and Master of Public Health dual-degree program at Tulane University.
So that’s exactly what she did, and today, Davis leads a team of more than 100 staff members and manages partnerships with over 500 organizations from across all sectors on more than 70 projects annually.
Davis isn’t looking to maintain the status quo. She dreams big. “Ultimately, the work I do at LPHI is guided by my audacious goal of helping to make Louisiana the healthiest state in the country,” she said.
Davis knows it’s not something that will happen overnight, but she said she’s committed to doing the work and engaging vulnerable communities in the state.
That sense of community is deeply important to Davis, and she said she’s motivated to build a better future because of her ancestors and her family. “My ancestors paid the ultimate price for me to have the life I have today,” Davis said. “The stories about that sacrifice have been passed down from my grandparents and parents and live on with me and motivate me and remind me of why I do the work I do each and every day.”
Director of the Women’s Business Resource Center for the Urban League of Louisiana
Lori Jackson is in the business of helping entrepreneurs make sense of their cents.
The way she sees it, becoming Director of the Women’s Business Resource Center for the Urban League of Louisiana was the linear progression of a career that has included roles in academic financial aid, logistics and supply chains, and financial consulting. It’s a path Jackson says she always knew she would take.
“From an early age, I saw people struggling with financial issues, and I immediately took the stance that I didn’t want that to be me,” Jackson said. “That led me to where I am now, and my primary focus is helping entrepreneurs grow every aspect of their business. There’s a huge difference between starting a business and succeeding in business.”
Of course, there is more to empowering entrepreneurs–especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds–than financial literacy. Jackson says it is equally important to fine-tune skills like envisioning a long-term growth plan and identifying common procedural and legal pitfalls that could cut short a business’ lifespan.
“Equity isn’t always about money,” Jackson said. “You can have all the money in the world and not have the knowledge to make good decisions with it. In New Orleans, we have a lot of homegrown businesses that don’t get the same growth opportunities as franchises or corporate industries, but people come here for things they can’t find anywhere else. Urban League is making sure the ingredients in our gumbo pot still include local businesses.”
Jackson hopes her own journey will inspire other women to “find their why,” a mission or goal to serve as a guiding light through the ups and downs of professional advancement.
“Never diminish yourself, and don’t rule out an idea or a pathway just because someone said it’s impossible,” Jackson said. “It’s only impossible when you stop trying.”
As the Jefferson Chamber marks its 25th anniversary this year, it does so under new leadership. On December 14, 2021, Ruth Lawson became the Chamber’s fourth president.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised in Baton Rouge, Lawson is not a native of the parish, nor has she spent much time working with the chamber — her first notable experience was in 2021, when she graduated from the organization’s Leadership Jefferson program. However, she has spent years serving Jefferson Parish, both as senior parish attorney and as a chief administrative officer. Most recently, she served as executive director of the Jefferson Parish Finance Authority, which provides homeownership opportunities to low- to moderate-income borrowers through down payment assistance.
Lawson said when she heard about the nationwide search for a new Jefferson Chamber president, she saw it as an opportunity to again “serve with passion.”
Lawson is quick to praise the work the Chamber has done to be ranked by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce among the top 2% of chambers in the nation. “What sets us apart is really our advocacy,” she said. To that end, she said a big focus remains early childhood care and development, where she added, “We are finally seeing some movement by the state legislature.”
Lawson also noted her pride that the Chamber was “very involved with the income tax reform last year,” adding, “It didn’t pass completely in the way that we wished, but we made big strides in that area.”
As she begins her new role, Lawson said she is dedicated to being a tireless fighter for the interests of Jefferson Parish’s business community, vowing to “continue the organization’s tradition of boldly advocating for a more business-friendly environment in our state and holding leaders accountable for their actions.”