The proverbial glass ceiling was shattered in Lafayette in January when two women assumed spots on the Lafayette City-Parish Council, but the biggest crack appeared seven months later as Hillary Clinton became the first-ever woman nominated by a major party for the U.S. presidency.
While the members of the diverse group of Acadiana women featured on the following pages can’t all say they were firsts, each of them has contributed to our community in ways too countless to capture in 500-word profiles. That’s largely due to the fact that these professionals, entrepreneurs, mothers and civic and community leaders are all still finding new ways to make those contributions, day after day. For the first time this year, we honor as part of the Women Who Mean Business Awards a life cut short: Scott City Councilwoman Tonya Carola. Carola, who died in June at the age of 48 after a lengthy illness, will be celebrated posthumously at this year’s luncheon.
Join ABiz on Thursday, Oct. 13, at 11:30 a.m. at River Oaks to hear more about the impressive and inspiring journeys of these women from the honorees themselves. Visit theind.com and click the INDEvents tab for tickets or contact Jenna King at [email protected] for more info.
FIRST OF THEIR KIND
Our 2016 Trailblazers became fast friends as they broke through a 20-year barrier at City Hall.
Nanette Cook and Liz Webb Hebert took different paths to the City-Parish Council. The daughter of former Lafayette City Councilman Al Simon, Cook has been a physical education teacher for three decades who, after raising five kids, chose to follow her father into public service, filling an empty nest with campaign yard signs, fundraisers and door-to-door politicking. Hebert was a young newlywed without children thriving in the professional pressure cooker of sales management at the Cajundome and Convention Center.
“I just genuinely want to help — I just genuinely care about the community I want to live in,” says 33-year-old Hebert, who found herself in a tough spot the day after qualifying for office when she got a letter from the state attorney general informing her that she couldn’t keep her job at the Cajundome — it’s owned jointly by the state and UL Lafayette and is partially funded by local government — if she were to win election. But she ran anyway, severed ties with the Cajundome and now has a similar “day job” at Lafayette Surgical Specialty Hospital.
“Thank God it worked out, especially with the economy the way it is,” Hebert says. “I’m blessed; I love this job.”
For Cook, public office was the next — and logical — step in the arc of her life.
“It was more of something that had been in the back of my mind for many years, but life just was happening too fast to stop and take action,” she says. “I was busy raising five kids, working full time, running kids to activities after school weekdays and on weekends.”
When her youngest, twins, turned 21 and moved out, she took the plunge — and she and Hebert landed in the same place: the first women to serve on the City-Parish Council in the 20-year life of Lafayette Consolidated Government, a distinction not lost on the folks at City Hall.
I am so happy for these two,” gushes Phyllis Walters, administrative secretary to Cook, Hebert and three fellow council members. “It’s great smelling perfume and hearing bracelets jangle in the hallways!” Cook and Hebert and their fellow rookie council members were sworn into office at a difficult juncture for Lafayette Parish: Low oil prices have the local economy gasping for revenue as sales-tax collections plummet, and their first year in office has coincided with a parishwide reassessment and some hard decisions to be made about property taxes — doubly so with the catastrophic flooding that hit the parish in August as a backdrop.
The pair has also pushed their own successful initiatives: Hebert teamed with Lafayette Police to create a safe space at police headquarters where online buyers and sellers can make exchanges; Cook sponsored a successful resolution directing the council to adopt paperless agendas.
Both will admit this first year in office has been challenging, but a special relationship was forged in that crucible.
“We just hit it off,” Hebert says of her fellow councilwoman. “We bonded instantly. We had so many connections.”
“Liz is about the age of my oldest daughter,” Cook says. “I see many similarities in these two women, so I was instantly fond of her. The more I work with her we have become friends, and she definitely does not need a mother — she is one tough young lady.”
Lisa Prejean is a communicator. She’s a thinker. She is an intangible fuel for Prejean Creative where she is an owner responsible for business development. The Lafayette firm handles a hybrid of creative and business needs for clients from hospitals and government entities to food and telecommunication companies across the country. And it all started when her husband, Kevin, took a chance more than two decades ago and she followed suit.
The Lafayette natives were both settled in careers and living in Missouri where Lisa worked at the University of Missouri and Kevin at an ad firm.
“When we moved away we realized what a unique place this is, and it took us 10 years to get back home,” she says. “Kevin left the ad agency and started Prejean Creative and tested it for a year to see if we could make a go of it, and I stayed at the university. Technology was developing that meant we could work from anywhere, and we could move back home.”
Lisa took the reins in business development and client relations as the couple relocated to Lafayette. Her background in communications and public relations was the perfect fit, and while working together came with challenges, the risk has certainly paid off long term with a business more than 20 years old and a marriage 35 years strong. It’s been a long trip with endless changes in the industry; yet, the heart of creative work hasn’t changed, according to Lisa.
“The tools have changed, but the basic principles are the same in our industry and in business in general,” she says. “It’s not just about making something look pretty. It’s the strategic thought and the end goal and what is the best way to get there, and we are very creative in the process — we bring together the creative and the business strategy. In the end we are helping our clients communicate with who they want to reach.”
It’s that sort of reaching the right people in the right way approach that has served Lisa well.
“Women are often natural planners and organizers and communicators, and that all fits into what I do,” Lisa continues. “Women are jugglers, and we keep all the priorities straight . A lot of our clients have strong female leadership, and while there is still progress to be made, there has been progress over the years.”
Part of that progress in Lisa’s personal life has come by taking risks and choosing to move forward even when there’s no guaranteed outcome — because she has learned there never is a guarantee: “Be bold in jumping into things. I analyze all the angles before I jump in, and while there is value in that sometimes, you have to take a leap of faith. If you fail, it’s not the end of the world. That fear of failure can be paralyzing. You have to have faith in the people around you and in yourself.” — AJE
Angela Cole may not be from Acadiana. It’s something you can sense early on in a subtle accent and certain turns of phrase. She may not be a part of the good ole boys club. It’s something you can see in her killer heels and fashion plate wardrobe. But Cole has a relentless work ethic that makes those other advantages seem irrelevant.
The senior vice president at JP Morgan Chase handles business accounts totaling roughly $150 million.
Born in Peru and relocated to Miami at age 6, Cole is the only girl of four children and a graduate of the University of Florida. She is fluent in Spanish and had her eye on international banking before she took a chance and moved to Nashville for her first banking job out of college in a management training program.
“I thought I’ll pay my dues in Nashville and migrate back to Miami. I spent 10 years in Nashville,” she says.
Somewhere into year eight she met her husband, Chad. The two were married after about a year, and the Acadiana man was ready to head back to Cajun country. Angela had some stipulations.
“I knew very early on he was the guy I would marry and he wanted to move down to Lafayette, and I said that’s fine … I will move if I can find a bank that deals with larger size companies and I can be in a banker role doing those larger size deals. I didn’t think he would find it.”
Angela Cole thought she knew Lafayette.
“I was wrong. I was really wrong,” she says.
Then she says one phrase: “oil and gas.”
It’s been 13 years since she made the move to work for Bank One, which quickly merged with JP Morgan Chase.
“It was only getting better when we moved, and today my client base is international. I didn’t have to be in Miami to do what I wanted, and the quality of life is so much easier and better here,” she says.
Cole is one of those rare women who seem to have the full spectrum of attributes in one package — a passion for business, helping others (she’s on the board of United Way of Acadiana and a mentor at the705) and panache for life.
“I’m a big believer in always keeping your ear to the ground and don’t be afraid to go where the opportunities are. I didn’t know anyone in Nashville. But I knew it was going to lead me where I wanted to go. Know what you want and seek it, but always be open to learning from other people,” she says.
Perhaps her best advice comes practically — the perspective of a woman who is often in a man’s world: “Always be prepared.”
“I may not come in and be able to talk about hunting with a client, but you learn everything about your client and everything about your product. Have the confidence to go out and win the big deal and have a disciplined approach of how you’re going to manage your career,” Cole says. “Your client is looking for a solution, and you can’t cheat your way out of being prepared.” — AJE
Christina Dayries loves to serve her community, and while she has been working in government most of her life, to call her a simple public servant doesn’t do her justice.
Dayries began her emergency and risk management career with the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury as an emergency planner and claims adjuster in 1996. She then began working as the executive management officer for Louisiana State Police in 2003 and since 2008 has worked for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
As part of her GOHSEP work, Dayries was responsible for establishing the governance structure and policy for the Louisiana Wireless Information Network. And she was instrumental in establishing the nation’s first statewide digital 700 MHz radio system in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“I was the one who kind of led that effort and helped get that operating,” she says. “And now, today, it is the top system in the nation.”
Dayries was also critical in helping to redesign the way the state developed plans and procedures in response to disasters after Katrina by working with the local governments through a unified command system.
She credits these endeavours to how much better the response was from state and local governments to the historic flooding that swept over South Louisiana in August, in contrast to their response after Katrina.
“It’s drastically different,” she says. “It was 100 percent better than where we were back at Katrina. Lots of planning has gone in and lots of money has been invested in getting the state ready for the next event.”
But despite these improvements, Dayries, who is now deputy director of grants and administration for GOHSEP, has had her hands full lately working damage control after the recent flooding.
“It has not stopped,” she says. “It’s been like 13- to 16-hour days every day since [Aug. 12].”
This is on top of her regular commute from Maurice — where she lives with her husband and two children — to her office in Baton Rouge, which she has made each day for the last 13 years.
“I absolutely love going to work every day,” she says. “It’s important to kind of say that I’ve never really had a bad day. It’s intense a lot, but you see the rewards on the end of what you do every day. So it makes it easier to get up and, for me, drive an hour and a half one way, and miss time with my family. I give up a lot of that to provide my expertise or provide the assistance that I can at the state level.”
Dayries has a strong affection for her community and the government work that sustains it. She doesn’t see herself ever working in the private sector.
“I love government,” she says. “I love watching what it takes to provide for the citizens from local government like trash pickup and mosquito control to the state level like providing for public safety and emergency activities. There’s a whole lot going on behind the scenes that your average citizen doesn’t realize, and I like being a part of that.” — WN
Dr. Gwen Fontenot
Dr. Gwen Fontenot likes to build students. Academia is her foundation. And her business acumen serves as her primary tool.
As interim dean of the B. I. Moody III College of Business Administration at UL Lafayette, Fontenot is responsible for all functions and matters relating to academic programs and their support services within the college.
“Building students and being able to give them the resources to help them fully develop in their careers is what I’m most proud of,” Fontenot says. “Working with the students is what I like most.”
Fontenot holds a doctorate in philosophy and marketing from the University of North Texas and a master’s degree in business administration from Northeast Louisiana University (now UL Monroe). But the Vidrine native intended to become a lawyer while getting her undergraduate degree from LSU before getting married and moving to Monroe to find her calling as a business educator.
“I originally wanted to be a lawyer, so I was studying in law school and got married and moved to Monroe and it didn’t have a law option to study, so I changed to business education,” she says. “I just kind of felt at that time that teaching might be something that I would like to do since I was going to have to transition over.”
Fontenot began teaching marketing at UL Lafayette in August 2001, eventually working her way up to head of the Department of Marketing and Hospitality.
Fontenot is also director of the UL Study Abroad Program, where she is responsible for 600 students in the areas of marketing, legal studies and hospitality management. She served as the site director for the Italy program before taking over as dean.
“Many of [the students] haven’t left the area; it’s their first flight out of the country,” Fontenot says. “To be able to share with them foreign travels and cultures and to see them just grow into a whole different human being from the time that they leave here, in Lafayette, and go study abroad and come home is just amazing.”
Fontenot also pioneered the development and creation of the Northwestern Mutual Sales & Research Laboratory while she was department head, which has led to national awards for the students who trained there.
“Just to have the chance to be able to work with the students and help them develop — whether that’s in study abroad or in the new financial services lab — that’s what drives me,” says Fontenot.
“The opportunity to be a part of such a life-changing experience with the students is something that I’m passionate about,” Fontenot continues. “I’ve been privileged as department head, and now as interim dean, to be able to have a significant impact on that. I just feel very blessed to be in the position that I’m in. It’s not an opportunity that everybody gets.” — WN
There’s no better way to shatter glass ceilings than to bootstrap your own way to the top. Janet Brewster has burst through plenty of them herself in her 16 years as chief executive officer and owner of Brewster Procurement Group.
The Honduran native wasn’t handed her success, even as she networked her way to creating her own business 10 years after becoming a U.S. citizen, and she doesn’t take it for granted that she can rest easy and expect her career to continue to thrive.
From where she sits, her work speaks for itself. It doesn’t reflect whatever obstacles to success are conventionally seen to be in front of women of color.
“I do not focus or look at myself as a woman, minority-owned business, but as a business that creates value,” she says.
And create value she has. Brewster’s work has taken her to space and back, so to speak, with a supply contract for NASA’s space shuttle program. After a chance encounter with a space program buyer, Brewster pounced on the opportunity to become a bespoke supplier for the nation’s space exploration program, outfitting astronauts with protective gear for their trips to and from the International Space Station and the film, pens, batteries, adhesives and resins that they used along the way.
From 2000 until the program’s end in 2010, she took the shuttles as her charge. She watched from the John F. Kennedy Space Center as the materials she provided blasted from seaside launch pads, carrying the hopes of the American scientific community with them. She lobbied Congress on behalf of the shuttle program and the small businesses that supported it. In the wake of the Columbia shuttle disaster, she addressed her fellow suppliers at a symposium in Cape Canaveral about the crucial role suppliers play in protecting the men and women launched into the unknown.
But perhaps Brewster’s most important work has taken place at home in Lafayette and not the outer climes of space. An active member of a dizzying array of minority commercial organizations, Brewster serves as a leader respected in an all business circles, regardless of the demographic. She’s a member of the Greater Southwest Louisiana Black Chamber of Commerce, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council and the National Minority Supplier Development Council, to name but a few. Through her work with these groups individually and as a communicator among them, she’s built relationships that uplift the business community at large and prove that a diverse business community is a more powerful community.
“I see so much potential for collaboration and partnerships between all these professional business organizations,” she tells ABiz. “So many opportunities to network and get to know one another, so much potential to create value for all those affiliated with these organizations.” — CM
A monumental undertaking, One Acadiana’s emergence from local business lobby to multi-million dollar regional economic development powerhouse was fraught with existential risk. At any moment during the 2014 transformation, the group’s rapid rollout of initiatives and explosion of new employment threatened to out-pace its cash flow, a danger that could have sunk the enterprise before it ever got afloat.
Thanks to the quiet, confident fiscal stewardship of Jill SanFilippo, the commercial chamber’s chief financial officer and vice president of administration, One Acadiana pulled off an unthinkable miracle — uniting the roughly 150 investors scattered across nine parishes and municipalities in a singular vision of regional economic power.
One Acadiana Chief Executive Officer Jason El Koubi counts SanFilippo’s experience and good sense as one of his team’s most valuable assets.
“Everything went remarkably smoothly during that transition thanks to Jill’s tremendous leadership, careful planning and good judgment,” El Koubi says. “She instilled credibility with our volunteer leadership and investors and became a trusted partner to everyone involved in managing the organization.”
SanFilippo’s money management acumen kept One Acadiana operations up and running through the most vulnerable moments of its birth. A single misstep could have pushed the organization, already operating with little margin for error, over a financial cliff with no parachute to soften the landing. Her boss gives her the credit. But she prefers it rests with the team.
“One Acadiana’s team culture is a perfect fit for a modest person like [me.] We’re all working together to make Acadiana one of the best places in the South to live, work and raise a family,” she says.
For an organization entrusted by its members with millions of dollars in investments, fiscal responsibility means more than paying the bills and keeping the lights on. The scores of business partners in the joint venture that is One Acadiana expect progress and results with an efficient use of the funds provided. Staying lean becomes exponentially more difficult as businesses get bigger.
Following the transformation, One Acadiana not only got bigger, but it also adopted an entirely new financial model that tripled its previous operating budget to $15 million. SanFilippo’s work kept anxious minds at ease as One Acadiana evolved into an organization with no local precedent. Her fiscal management pulled One Acadiana safely through a precarious transition, and her presence continues to keep the organization financially poised for the foreseeable future.
Her work reaches across the organization’s ballooning web of members, employees and initiatives, steadily guiding the process of growing an economic driver that serves more than 1,500 businesses around Acadiana.
Her behind-scenes-efforts have paced a generous cash reserve that sustains a lean and nimble operation able to jump any hurdle that comes its way, while giving it cushion to survive difficult times.
Pacing for the long haul is something that SanFilippo, a former Academic All-American cross country runner, knows all too well. Her years in distance running groomed in her the mental focus and fortitude to hold fast in shifting lanes.
Thanks to SanFilippo, One Acadiana stayed ahead of the financial risk that nipped at its heels throughout its emergence. More important, her day-to-day work keeps One Acadiana safely ahead. — CM
Courtney Reynolds doesn’t have an off switch. She knows it.
“I am so used to being in work mode I tend to forget about ‘me time,’ and it catches up with me the hard way sometimes,” Reynolds admits.
Most days start at 5 a.m. with either a morning walk or operating CReynolds Cleaning Service, one of two businesses the Lafayette native owns and operates. The other, Creative Events Group, is an event-planning company.
“While everyone is headed to their 9 to 5, I am having breakfast, visiting a new business owner in the area and tending to commercial cleaning clientele,” she says. “My average day usually ends at 10 p.m. when I finally wind down or take a trip to Red’s for my evening workout.”
In addition to owning two businesses, Reynolds has served as president of the Greater Southwest Louisiana Black Chamber of Commerce for the last two years. She’s been a member as a business owner for eight, and has previously served as the organization’s second vice president and as its special events chair.
Did we mention that lack of an off switch?
Reynolds’ perpetual motion has paid off: Earlier this year the GSLBCC was recognized as Chamber of the Year for 2016 by the National Black Chamber of Commerce.
“We nominated Courtney because of her tireless efforts to promote and grow small business here in Acadiana, primarily in the African-American community,” says Missy Bienvenu Andrade, director of investment relations for One Acadiana. “She constantly strives to connect business owners with opportunities and inspires those around her with her positivity and work ethic. Courtney is a bridge-builder in every sense and has taken collaboration in our community to a brand new level.”
Having a “black chamber of commerce” in the 21st century might seem like an anachronism — a throwback to Selma and the Civil Rights Movement. Not so, says Reynolds, who believes her organization serves an ongoing need.
“Black chambers of commerce are designed to assist minorities — not only black — to be less fearful of evolution, change and most importantly diversity,” she notes. “This chamber does not serve to put blacks against opposite races, nor does it serve to limit whom you conduct business with. This chamber has been a driving force for knowledge to both young and old, men and women, [those] who lack self-confidence, knowledge or respect. Most blacks and other minorities are often overlooked for contracts, bidding, certifications and more. This chamber pushes and directs accordingly.”
Although she doesn’t have much “me time” to show for it, Reynolds says she’s most proud of being “an example for women across the Acadiana region, being a business owner for eight years and counting, being nominated and awarded various awards and, most of all, being alive and making memories that my parents, family and close friends may witness daily.” — WP
Tonya Carola will forever be defined by the promise she made following an organ transplant in 2009. At that time, she pledged to do more with her life, dedicating her energies to the community she loved. A young and determined woman, she set out to take on a life of service by storm. “I told myself, if I make it through this, I will no longer sit at home letting life pass me by,” Carola said. “I would find some way to get out and get involved and take full advantage of my second chance.”
First she spoke at drivers’ education classes for the Louisiana Organ Procurement Agency about organ sharing. “After I met my donor’s family, I could no longer do the same volunteer speaking, because the story was no longer mine to tell,” she said back then. “The 28-year-old son of Roger and Vicki Antley died from severe head trauma in a car crash. Because of Lance Antley’s family’s difficult decision to donate his organs, he saved the lives of two people. I was the recipient of his liver, and another person received his pancreas and kidneys.”
Carola worked for Republic Services, the nation’s second-largest waste management firm. Through that affiliation, she became involved with the Scott Business Association and One Acadiana (formerly the Lafayette chamber). She credited state Rep. Vincent Pierre for suggesting, while he was running for office in 2011, that she explore her own interest in politics. The following year, she began attending Scott’s city council meetings in preparation for One Acadiana’s Leadership Lafayette program. The process fueled her strong sense of community.
She signed on as a charter member of the Scott Boudin Festival committee and impressed everyone with her hard work and enthusiasm. She joined the Rotary Club of Lafayette North in 2013, and by 2014, she was voted its president-elect while serving as the Scott Business Association’s president. Carola ran for public office in 2014 and was elected to become Scott’s second city councilwoman (Hazel Myers was the first). She worked on the successful initiative to have Scott designated as a Louisiana Certified Cultural District, and she strongly supported the city’s first responders.
Carola had plans to accomplish much more before leaving this world and public service. She died in June 2016, at age 48, just days before she would have been inducted as a Rotary officer had her life, health and schedule not become so demanding. Her ex-husband, whom she recognized for helping her so much through the hard times of 2009, was there along with his family to help her when her health failed in late spring.
Carola’s mother, Janie Schoelman, and daughter, Alex, both express great pride in Tonya’s accomplishments.
On Nov. 12, Cajun Harley Davidson will honor her memory in tandem with its poker run beginning at 8 a.m., and her Rotary Club will pay tribute to her memory at its trivia fundraiser that evening in the Frem Boustany Convention Center at the Heymann Center.
“Scott is my home and I want to do more than just live here,” Carola said.
Indeed, she did. — Theresa Rohloff