Women of Influence

by Amanda Bedgood

For everything a season may not be applicable to the women who fill the pages of this 2014 Women Who Mean Business issue. Eleven women, 11 lives, 11 stories that point toward women in our community going full throttle. Honorees who are mothers, sisters, daughters, wives.

Meet the WWMB Class of 2014, extraordinary women guiding our exceptional community

Photos by Robin May

For everything a season may not be applicable to the women who fill the pages of this 2014 Women Who Mean Business issue. Eleven women, 11 lives, 11 stories that point toward women in our community going full throttle. Honorees who are mothers, sisters, daughters, wives. They are rule breakers and game changers. They are revolutionaries who influence this world without ever firing a shot. They are pen wielding warriors, visionaries with a heart for a better community and successful each in their own way that may or may not be by the measure the world uses.

The question we have again and again for this type of woman: How does she do it all? It‘s a balance of motivation, thoughtfulness and the ability to roll with the punches.

It‘s a quiet spirit and a mind that never stops like Sarah Berthelot. It‘s a passion to find and execute the joy in life like Melissa Bonin. It‘s the drive to see everything to completion like Buffy Domingue. It‘s the ability to balance real life and deliver a message like Marie Centanni. It‘s using the hard stuff of the past as an endless source of fuel for the future like Patsy Randall.

It‘s the fearless task of always going beyond your limit like Maren Rosen. It‘s the ability to wear a million hats and stay true to yourself like Marcelle Fontenot. It‘s a vision for how to set goals and then achieve them like Stephanie Bennett. It‘s a brain so innovative you need Cliff‘sNotes and a heart for real change like Lorna Bourg. It‘s a spirit of trailblazing by simply being yourself like Ann Dobie.

It‘s telling stories that change lives like Sherry Broussard.

In short, it‘s women just being bigger than the mold. It‘s women who mean a brighter future for this community. It‘s women who mean there are no excuses for doing anything less than moving the mountains. It‘s women, quite simply, who mean business.

ann Dobie wasn‘t trying to be a trailblazer. She wasn‘t trying to make a statement. She was just being herself. The longtime UL professor of English and writer would teach thousands in literature and writing over the years and serve (often as the first or only woman) on boards throughout her career.

Perhaps one of her greatest legacies she could leave would be her purposeful focus on more than the grammar, more than the nuts and bolts of writing.

"When you‘re using words you have to be thoughtful about it. I wanted them to be critical thinkers," she says. "To not write by formula but find their form and the words that reflected their thinking and use of the imagination."

Dobie herself has an imagination and drive that‘s taken her around the world. Retired for 11 years, she hasn‘t slowed by any measure.

"I was reluctant to retire and afraid I would be bored. A whole new world kind of opened up to me," she says.

She became a consultant for the National Writing Project and traveled the country and beyond - Holland, Germany, England, Malta. She chases music in her down time with her husband of 58 years. And she blends her love of music (she has a degree in the organ) and writing with work in the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra‘s publication Overture magazine.

When Dobie isn‘t writing or listening to music she is, of course, reading. And it‘s reading that is her big word of advice to all who yearn to better their writing.

"Read. Read a lot. And write every day. It‘s just like playing an instrument. You have to practice every day. A lot of people are intimidated by [writing]. It looks like such a huge job and they don‘t feel in control of it. It‘s something you have to let go and not be in control to say something it‘s a powerful tool."

It‘s a tool that she‘s wielded well and that has landed her as a trailblazer whether she intended to or not.

"I was just doing what I wanted to and wasn‘t consciously trying to break any mold. I became aware that I was. I didn‘t think of it as being a trailblazer," she says. "I see looking back I operated outside of normal patterns."

Sherry Broussard is a storyteller. She is a life changer. She is a retired woman with more on her plate than most in the workforce. She is a woman who has done more than garner education; she is a giver who has learned only so that others may learn from her.

The once-UL professor and second-ever African American librarian at the school‘s Dupre Library says education is only effective if you use it. She‘s spent a lifetime doing just that with no plans to quit. Ever.

"It‘s of no use to hang on my wall," she says of her degrees. "If I can use it to better someone‘s life it has a purpose and I enjoy that."

Her passion is African-American history because "it is still so unknown and still so unsung." She wrote the book Images of America: African Americans in Lafayette and Southwest Louisiana to sing the song of those who founded the community. She is the woman behind the city‘s annual Black History Program at the Clifton Chenier Center where they work to highlight people in the community who will inspire others. It‘s an outlook on life she says came from her parents - the drive to look for the best.

"I come from a mother and a father who whenever they had a challenge they found a way to meet it," she says.

Broussard says her father was a self-made man who could build anything with his hands, and she recalls as early as 5 years old his motivation in teaching her to write her name on the little black board he bought her.

"My mother would say you are valuable. I always knew I was African American. A black child from a black family. And I could reach for the stars. I was never made to feel inferior. People told me I was smart, and I started believing it," she says.

She hopes her efforts in programs she founded in the 33 years in education will teach students what she always knew - anything is possible.

"I never had any dreams of being anyone other than who I am," she says. "But, that doesn‘t mean you don‘t reach for the stars."

buffy Domingue knows what it means to follow through. The 42-year-old CEO of Lafayette Surgical Specialty Hospital began her career in medical records and transcription and today is the woman at the helm of a 20-bed physician-owned hospital with eight operating rooms and two procedure rooms that see 8,000 cases each year.

Employed by an orthopedic clinic in Lafayette whose physicians would later become the catalyst for LSSH, Domingue was on board with LSSH before there was a hospital, doing data entry and research and handling everything from the property to recruiting physicians.

"It was a gamut of so many things coming together to create this hospital and it was so much fun," she says.

The hospital opened and Domingue took the role of human resources and medical staff director. By 2010, she would be the third CEO of the hospital and the first woman in the role following the foot steps of men she says were great mentors to her.

Today, she‘s balancing motherhood and career in a way that‘s hard to define, but seems to come naturally to the ever-positive Domingue who is working now on her master‘s degree - MBA.

"The glass is always half full," she says when asked if there are any regrets on this journey. "That‘s what keeps me focused and in the right direction."

What lessons do you hope to impart on your daughters?
It sounds cliché, but if you really do set your mind at doing something and achieving something it can be done. If you work hard and stay focused you can do whatever you want to do. You really can. I dreamed of this job and hope to stay in it. I never thought I‘d be sitting here at 42 years old. I tell them all the time if you want to do this you can. You just have to decide and work hard.

Stephanie Bennett‘s life has really added up. She‘s a teacher with a passion for money (finance that is) and a message that can truly change lives. The woman with a business degree who became a certified teacher is now running the parish‘s Academy of Business and Finance at Acadiana High School, where she‘s teaching students the power of financial wisdom.

"I hope that one day people recognize that financial wellness is as important as physical and mental wellness," she says. "It has such a significant impact on our family unit and community as a whole. Let‘s make that impact a positive one."

She teaches students that no matter our circumstance we all start with no credit score and the chance to be where we want financially.

"You should never depend on someone else to feel successful or safe or stable. I hope that is portrayed to the students," she says.

While finances may sound like something that impacts only the checkbook, Bennett is determined to bring awareness to how far reaching the consequences of finances can be in the real world.

"No matter where you come from you start a clean slate with credit. It can be a good thing or it can ruin your life. I tell students I‘m going to be a millionaire, and they look at me like I‘m crazy. That gets their attention there is a quote on my wall that it‘s 80 percent behavior and 20 percent head knowledge. You don‘t have to be a rocket scientist to handle money," she says.

What is the one thing you would change in our community?
Financial literacy. Money problems are the No. 1 cause of divorce the family unit is so vital, especially today, and anything that we can do to keep that safe and sound and sheltered would make our community a much better place. Financial security and financial literacy is a major component of that. If you have a plan and you‘re on the same page and the same team we set goals and plan for emergencies and plan for things, and that‘s what I work so hard to do.

maren Rosen is a woman. And she means business. She‘s broken the mold in an industry dominated by men and generational lines in the period of time it takes some to just get their feet wet. At 31 years old, she is the VP of merchandising at Stuller Inc. and breathing fresh life to the industry giant with a drive that comes from within and a fuel that seems endless.

"I knew the vision [of Stuller] and saw the transition it was in and saw where it needed to go and needed to revamp our look and our products," Rosen says.

It seems like a natural fit for the driven but creative violin player who found her way to Stuller in quite the creative way.

Born and raised in Lafayette, Rosen went to ESA then Loyola, where she garnered a hefty scholarship playing the violin. It‘s where she minored in business and first had a taste of the retail world. After New Orleans she headed to New York City and landed a few jobs in retail - chief among them the visual merchandising manager for Ralph Lauren.

With a career full throttle and a boyfriend with a vision for real estate and land development that could bring her home to Acadiana, Rosen decided to make the move back down South.

"We wanted to have a change of pace and we ended up back down here," she says.

She became a personal shopper and played the violin. And the next step? She wasn‘t entirely sure. Someone from Stuller read her wedding announcement noting the Ralph Lauren gig and called her for an interview.

"A few months later I started at Stuller on the sales team."

The best piece of advice you ever received
If you find what you love doing be the best you can be. Be better than everyone else around you, and others will come and be a part of that. Don‘t be afraid to put yourself out there and think outside the box. That‘s the magic formula.

as a little girl in Opelousas, Marcelle Fontenot wanted to be everything from a movie star to a teacher. Unlike most little girls, she‘s all grown up and kind of doing both. The beloved anchor at KATC-TV 3 remembers vividly being "hooked" before age 10 on what would later become her career path.

"I always knew what I wanted to do. By high school I was the one reading at the school assembly and majored in communications from day one and was always participating in this event and speaking before this group or that group. I was always the anchor. I did the writing and the delivery," Fontenot says.

It was 10 years in August since she first headed to KATC, and that face we see each night on the news - fresh but knowing, welcoming and inquisitive - is not just a mask. It‘s the real thing.

Perhaps it‘s the outpouring of what she calls her best piece of advice - "be who you are. Be true to yourself and don‘t forget where you came from."

Fontenot hasn‘t forgotten a thing. Not the street or the neighborhood. Not the public school in Opelousas or her affection for boudin. In her first meeting for her first anchor job, she made one promise (one she‘s kept) - "the only thing I can promise you is that I will be myself. The me you see on TV and the me you see at Downtown Alive! is the exact same person. The TV is my profession, but that doesn‘t define who I am. It is what I do. I‘m still that little girl from St. Landry Parish, and I‘m there twice a week TV lady is a hat I wear."

The other hat Fontenot is rocking these days is motherhood (one on board and another on the way) and student (she‘s working on her master‘s). And it‘s perhaps the woman she grew up watching she can credit for pulling off the balancing act.

"She showed us who and what a strong woman is," Fontenot says of her mom. "Balancing home and work. She may not have thought we were paying attention, but we were and I‘m just like her."

What is the one thing you learned first day of your first job?
I thought news just happened. They said people will get to know you and bring it to you and I never thought it would happen. It‘s nonstop news all day every day now. Whether it‘s in the grocery - "I lost my dog" or they think a suicide was a murder. The gamut all comes my way now. I couldn‘t envision people would open up. I thought people were afraid to talk to reporters people have an understanding for what we do and the fact we are not here to hurt you but to bring to light issues and hopefully bring about resolution in those issues.

Some people would call Patsy Randall‘s past something to overcome. On her it looks more like fuel. The assistant district attorney and Northside grad is a study in accomplishment over circumstance.

"I came from a very poor family. My father sexually abused me. I went to the high school people said was a failing school. I managed to go to law school and college and become an attorney," she says with the sound of splashing kids in the background at bath time.

The single mother of two prosecutes felony drug cases in the 15th Judicial District, works with the adult drug court program and runs the parish‘s diversion program that allows first time offenders a way out of the charge if they work hard to complete classes, stay clean and do community service.

While Randall always wanted to be an attorney, she didn‘t expect to find herself where she is.

"I thought I would be a very rich corporate attorney," she says with a laugh. "And I haven‘t done anything near that. I‘m a mother chasing around kids and going to karate and dancing and I never would have envisioned that."

In her job, her No.1 goal is to affect some sort of change in people‘s lives. She deals with drug addicts and dealers and works to find out what‘s going on in their lives.

"You realize it‘s not always a choice they made because they thought it was cool," Randall says. "There‘s some underlying story, and I hope my defendants say I at least cared about them and some of the words I say stuck with them and helped them to change."

Who is a woman you admire?
Vanessa Randall is a hearing officer in Lafayette, and when I told her I wanted to go to law school, she said, "It‘s going to get tough - just call me and I‘ll listen to you cry." I say that now, "If you get discouraged call me, and I‘ll listen to you cry." We all have those days.

marie Desormeaux Centanni is living the dream job. The legislative and media relations consultant is lobbying the state Legislature and managing communications for politicos and most currently the Chamber SWLA in Lake Charles.

The girl who grew up in Abbeville fell in love with journalism while working in Washington, D.C., as a page when a reporter asked her a question.

"I was very good with public speaking and thinking on my feet," she says.

That love sent her into the realm of political reporting, and she eventually earned a degree in legislative affairs at George Washington University in D.C., where she was the press secretary for Congressman Mike Ross of Arkansas and soon learned valuable lessons on how to communicate the message to an audience.

"I got to use what I knew as a reporter and then help him try to get more coverage and work with media," she says.

It was that ability - to quickly become an expert then boil down the essence of a message and deliver to the right audience in the right way that has likely best served her throughout her career from TV anchor to her stint with our first female governor.

"You understand what language legislators speak," she says. "As a reporter you‘re trained to become an instant expert and then tell that story quickly."

Name some women who have been role models to you?
Susan Desormeaux (Centanni‘s mom). She loved to work and gave me such a positive outlook on women who worked. She didn‘t need to. She did out of duty. She had a talent to share and that was a benefit to others and for personal achievement and she took joy in that. She gave me a very positive outlook of women who work. And Gov. (Kathleen) Blanco. She was a stay-at-home mom for 15 years before she thought about public office she taught me to accept what God gives you and deal with it. Things will come your way but make the most of it and adapt and things will change. Rise to the challenge. The fact she could enter the workforce later in life - it‘s amazing and taught me a lot about patience and graceful acceptance.

Sarah Berthelot has that rare combination of a quiet spirit with a fierce purpose. She is deliberate, thoughtful and unafraid to act. Berthelot is the CEO for the Louisiana Association of United Ways, a mother of two and a woman who finds the need and works to meet it.

She began working for United Way of Acadiana in March of 2005 and stepped up to the state association just months ago where she is part of a virtual team that serves United Way across Louisiana. She collaborates; she works on projects with nonprofits and other United Ways and donors. She works on advocacy efforts and exchanges of information - all for the betterment of communities across the state.

She has a way of balancing people and their needs with logistics. She has long had a heart for this career - long before she could put a name to it.

"I was drawn to being involved in my school and active in organizations and clubs," Berthelot says. "I‘ve always enjoyed working with groups of people to get things done. And organizing and planning."

Today she says she‘s grateful that her professional journey has brought her to a place where she spends her time working with people and organizations that better people‘s lives.

Best piece of advice
Know your truth. Especially in leadership. You have to know who you are and why you are doing the things you‘re doing. You have to really know it. You have to know your limits and you have to know yourself. I feel as though knowing your truth and being able to speak and explain and reflect is very important. I remember someone telling me that 20 years ago. It is a piece of advice that becomes more valuable in time.

The piece of advice that resonated most when moving into the workforce - keep learning from the people around you and keep adapting and keep trying to predict what should be done next, and that‘s still important today. The most successful people are those who never stop learning academically or from people around them, and I hope I can do that myself.

lorna Bourg says she came from a "worker bee" family. If the queen bee is a hard worker with a mind so innovative it rivals the labyrinths of a honeycomb, then Bourg just may be the queen bee. The woman with a brain that‘s as big as her heart and vision that is the definition of groundbreaking, Bourg is building communities. Quite literally.

The once-nun and ever-scholar who can tout educational giants like Harvard on her résumé and contemporaries like Gloria Steinem in her roster of friends and inspirations is at the helm of Southern Mutual Help Association, where she steered the effort to create a secondary market by convincing IberiaBank to buy $100 million of its loans thus creating the largest secondary market for home mortgage loans with a local bank in the country. Sound lofty? It is both lofty and hand-to-the-grindstone hard work. Southern Mutual is a lending service that is building communities literally one house (and in many cases) one life at a time.

"If you are willing to invest in yourself, we are willing to invest in you. Do you have a vision for your community and family and are you willing to work for that? We will help you achieve your idea," Bourg says.

She is now working diligently for a mammoth New Iberia traditional neighborhood development that has been five years in the making with a $150 million price tag. It‘s a monster of a job. The good news is that for Bourg, it‘s clear this is not a job. This is her life‘s work. Her job, she says is "to listen very well. To create what is missing. To create prosperity and a fair shot for all of our citizens. A fair shot at a good quality of life for our Louisiana folks."

What is the one thing you would change about our community?
We would mature not to be tolerant of differences but appreciative of our differences. As the world gets smaller and smaller it becomes important to not only tolerate but appreciate our differences. We are a smaller world than we were in the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s.

a serious artist is not a hard thing to find. But one that is seriously joyful, means business and has a heart that beats for her work is a combination as rare as the work of Melissa Bonin.

The New Iberia-raised painter has a degree in fine art and in French and has a real passion for both. At one point she combined the two loves, spending time creating in France. Unlike many artists who begin with more traditional structure and move into abstract, Bonin began abstract and moved toward more landscape. It‘s a move to which she credits the masters of Europe. A move that has served her well and no doubt garnered a following that has allowed her to open her own gallery in New Orleans.

"They are like my children - these paintings - when someone walks in and really feels something about the work I really want them to have it, and I know it needs to be in their home. I‘ve had people just walk in and start crying. I just paint. It‘s not my job to figure out how people respond. It‘s amazing when people do get it and it makes my job worthwhile."

Your definition of success
At this point it boils down to joy. I try to make joy the goal of every choice that I make. Will this bring me joy? Early on you figure out - what will help me to survive. Right now where I‘m at is about joy. I opened the gallery in New Orleans and became an independent and I self represent. I can run around and bring work to all these galleries I‘ve shown in Europe and many different states, but it‘s not bringing me joy and it‘s putting a strain on the creation of the art I will wake up and paint and fill up my gallery one piece at a time. And get to meet those who buy them, which I absolutely adore, and the clients become like family.