Mothers, daughters, friends, wives, entrepreneurs, teachers, community activists, role models. This year's group of WWMB honorees and Trailblazers embody the best of Acadiana.
Photos by Robin May
Susannah Malbreaux stands tall for good reason. A former model, she honed her poise and elegance in front of a camera lens. The 1972 Lafayette High School grad and UL Lafayette student always intended to own her own business, but she went through several management careers before she opened Elite Model and Photography agency in 2007. “I have the opportunity to help young girls develop personally and professionally. In the workshop I conduct, I include poise, posture, etiquette, self-confidence building and self-esteem building,” Malbreaux says. “I tell the young ladies, whether they become professional models or not, this training will help them in their professional life, whatever they become.”
Her desire to nourish and polish young people spills over to the community as a whole as well. She has sought out leadership roles on community development boards with the aim of “making Lafayette one of the best places in the world to live.” Malbreaux is on the board of commissioners for the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, the vice-chair of the Democratic Lafayette Parish Executive Committee (with an eye on the vacant chairmanship spot) and a community organizer. “I like helping people,” she says.
Malbreaux’s worked as a forum organizer for a consortium of civic groups united as the State of Greater Black Lafayette. A once and future member of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce, she is currently a member of the Black Chamber of Commerce. Both the chamber and LEDA allow Malbreaux to work on economic development, the key, she says, to building a strong community. Her most recent action was organizing a trip to the January inauguration of President Barack Obama. She chartered a flight that carried 200 Lafayette residents to Washington, D.C., to participate in the historic inauguration of the country’s first African-American president. “Now people want me to arrange a trip to the White House,” she laughs.
Think twice about 16 and pregnant. Deidre Toups did. Now she’s president of an oil-service company in an industry — perhaps more than any other — dominated by men. Just over a year ago, Toups was promoted from vice president to president of HB Rentals, which, as the name implies, rents living quarters and other amenities for both offshore and onshore drilling operations. The company is a subsidiary of Superior Energy Services based in Harvey (suburban New Orleans). Her promotion was widely reported in the press, in part for the major crack it made in a thick glass ceiling. “It was a little intimidating, because it mostly is men in the industry,” Toups admits, “but I guess I’m confident about my education and my experience and I’m also willing to admit what I don’t know, and that usually opens up a lot of conversations for me.”
The teenage Toups, baby son in tow, moved to Germany with her soldier husband. This is in the mid- to late 1980s when Lafayette was still in the swoon of an oil bust. Seeing bigger and better things for herself and her child than being an Army wife and an Army brat, she returned to Acadiana, earned a GED and enrolled in then-USL in accounting. She got her degree in 3.5 years, was the top graduate at the commencement ceremony, and later earned the highest score in the state on the CPA exam. “I was pretty driven,” she says. “I had a family to raise — I was a single mom.” A single mom no more, Toups has since remarried and has two daughters — ages 12 and 6 — who occupy most of her spare time; her son is now in college.
Toups went to work for Broussard, Poché, Lewis & Breaux in Lafayette for four years straight out of college. After getting her CPA license, she landed at HB Rentals as chief financial officer. “I was a little uncertain about getting into the oilfield for my career path,” she says, “but it’s been a great opportunity for me and it’s allowed me to move out of accounting and into management... It’s a great company to work for; a lot of great people. I think we have a really good team of people who know the technical side of our business, and with my finance background it just seems to be a good combination.”
Toups acknowledges that she has run across some old guard oil men suspicious of a woman in their midst, but says her willingness to learn, to ask questions and seek advice typically wins them over. Like many people who achieve success in business, Toups credits hers in part to the organization, and those surrounding her. “I really stress the importance of the fact that it’s great people that have helped to get where I am and supported me. We’ve got a great team of people. I attribute most of my success to them.”
When the Ford Foundation visited Lafayette and the LITE Center last October, it was blown away by a presentation from a Carencro High faculty member so much that it views Carencro High as a possible recipient for funding based on the work of its computer and business program.
That program is the Academy of Information Technology, and that faculty member is Kit Becnel, its director.
Becnel, a Destrehan High grad, moved to Lafayette in 1973 to attend USL (now UL Lafayette) and never really left. With a bachelor’s degree in business education, a computer literacy certification, teaching experience in the area and a lifetime of computer and business experience, Becnel has spent most of her life immersing herself in the framework and infrastructure of the business world here in Lafayette. So it was no surprise when then-Carencro High Principal Don Aguillard and Assistant Principal Annette Samec asked Becnel to become the director of the AOIT in November 2003.
She spent the rest of the ’03-’04 school year planning the program, which included having AOIT join the National Academy Foundation, which helps build career academies in several fields that include finance, engineering and hospitality/tourism; there are more than 550 such specialized academies nationwide. In its six years of existence the local academy has garnered numerous accolades. On top of winning the prestigious Aldo Papone award for high school reform, one of six given nationwide, and the ASPIRE Cohort award, one of 24 awarded nationwide, both in 2007, the AOIT under Becnel has a perfect 100 percent placement rate in its internship program. Now that’s unheard of.
The IT paid internships happen between the students’ junior and senior year, when they work 180 hours at their designated business. Becnel, with the help of her advisory board, parents and others, places the interns herself, unlike other academies that have agencies handling that task. When you can have up to 75 students to place, that can be massive undertaking.
In October, Becnel and the rest of the academy will host the ASPIRE Design Showcase, where other academies will come in to view and critique the work they are doing, to help move the program forward. The NAF thinks so highly of Becnel that its director personally invited her to the Bay Area Video Coalition in San Francisco in early March to attend a design showcase in anticipation of her showcase.
“I really think that by today’s standards, watching how I can help mold and shape tomorrow’s workforce gives me great pleasure,” Becnel says.
Compile a list of all the charitable organizations Judy Briscoe has been a part of and you quickly realize it may be easier to make a list of the ones she has not worked with. Despite her successful personal career that often means very long workweeks, she devote countless hours to a diverse group of non-profits and other community groups.
Her volunteer work started about 18 years ago, when she took a job with BellSouth Mobility. “The company played a major part in the community and afforded employees many opportunities to volunteer,” says Briscoe. “My job at BellSouth led me to take on a board position with Louisiana Open that I continue to serve to this day.”
The BellSouth job may have been the stepping-stone into volunteering, but it was the position with the Louisiana Open that teed off her charitable endeavors. “My volunteer work with the Louisiana Open for the past 16 years is what opened the doors for me to be in contact with many non-profits in our area,” she says. Since then she has been on the board of directors for Acadiana Youth and worked with Festival International, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Acadiana, LEDA, Acadiana Outreach, and the Alzheimer’s Association, just to name a few.
The apples aren’t falling far from the tree in the Briscoe family. A single mom with three daughters, Briscoe has had the pleasure of watching two of them follow in her charitable footsteps. Leslie is the development director for the American Cancer Society, and often partners with her mother in other charitable projects. Juliana just returned to Lafayette after finishing an internship at the University of Houston, and is now volunteering as well with several different non-profit organizations in the area.
Briscoe also helps keep her work family in charitable spirits. As assistant vice president of public relations at Home Bank, her job entails lots of communication within the community, which makes it easier for her to help in getting others involved. “A large part of my work here at Home Bank is to ensure that our company is a huge supporter of community efforts, the universities, and many other worthwhile non-profit events,” says Briscoe. “This work responsibility affords countless opportunities for me to assist in planning and implementing charity events.”
Briscoe shows no signs of slowing her increasingly manic schedule down anytime soon. “Besides my full time job, my volunteer work has grown to be a way of life for me, and I plan to continue that for as long as I am able.”
Penny Angelle Frederick
When you have lost hope, ensnared in the endless automated phone operator loops of government agencies, abandoned on the shores of unanswered voicemail, don’t despair. There is a real live human being who will come to your rescue. Her name is Penny Angelle Frederick. Her phone number is 337-291-6400. That’s all you need to know.
But there is a back story to this mystery woman who has saved many from smashing their cell phones on the pavement and hurling their laptops out bedroom windows. Penny Frederick grew up in Henderson, graduating from Cecilia High School in 1977. She was planning to go off to college and become a lawyer. Instead she fell in love, got her diploma from Spencer Business College and went to work at Trappey’s. That lead to a job at Petroleum Helicopters Inc. “But I was always fascinated with government,” she says.
Her move into the first estate, more than 20 years ago, was a job as a caseworker in the office of state Rep. Harry Lee Benoit. “We’re like social workers, helping constituents,” she says. Her first area of expertise was food stamps. She also helped with social security issues, connecting with Jan Becker, a caseworker in former Sen. John Breaux’ office. In 1988, Jimmy Hayes was elected to Congress, and Frederick applied for the caseworker position in his Lafayette office. “There were 19 other applicants,” Frederick says. What gave her the edge? “I was fluent in Cajun French.” Her boss on the ground in Acadiana was current Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret. Perret says Frederick is the quiet, unsung hero of government service. “Many times, I have personally witnessed Penny going beyond the call of duty when someone needs help,” says Perret. “Like getting to work extra early to assist people needing help that are in another time zone. Or, patiently waiting for a constituent to finish screaming at her for something the federal government did to them. She does not take things personally and is always willing to go the extra mile for others.”
Hayes switched parties to Republican and ran for the Senate; when Democrat Chris John won the District 7 seat, he asked Frederick to stay on. Four years later, the same scenario took place: Charles Boustany, a Republican, moved into the office. Frederick assumed she would be out of a job. Boustany met with Frederick. “What I do,” she told him, “is not about Ds and Rs. It’s about the people. When they call we never ask if they are Democrats or Republicans.” Boustany had the good sense, according to Perret, to retain Frederick.
“We help people every day,” says Frederick. “It’s not just about legislation. It’s about people trying to get a passport. Veterans trying to fight for their benefits. They fight a war and then come back and fight for their benefits for the rest of their lives some times. I fought the fight because I’ll never know what a day in combat was, but you watch what it does to families and it’s devastating. When you do one good thing, it gives you the fuel to take a few more steps forward. That’s why I’ve stayed here so long.”
Bonnie Robert Will
For Bonnie Robert Will, climbing the ladder of success meant climbing a utility pole — literally. Right out of business college, the Northside High grad went to work for South Central Bell. “Operator, may I help you please?” The operator’s post was followed by a promotion to typist, and roughly a year later, when the company opened up its installation repair technician jobs to women, Will was one of the first of two women in the area to apply and get the job. It entailed climbing utility poles and going into customers’ homes to install telephones.
Will enjoyed the freedom of having her own company truck and the physical activity — which she says kept her in the best shape of her life — but the higher pay was the big attraction. “I was really good at it,” she says. “I liked drilling holes in people’s attics and walls.”
Company officials saw other strengths in Will, a knack for customer service and effective sales skills, and soon hired her to train technicians to sell the company’s products when they went into customers’ homes. At age 28, when she returned to work after having her first child, another promotion was waiting: manager of two phone center stores in Lafayette. Within four years she’d move up to zone manager for 17 stores in Louisiana and Mississippi, and was then offered a post at the New Jersey headquarters. The constant travel took a toll on her, and Will decided to return to Lafayette after only a year. Her first job back in Lafayette was with Service Chevrolet in 1988, where she handled marketing, training and PR. She left Service to run her family’s boat business in Jennings, which was sold in 1993, rendering her jobless.
While at a UL football game she ran into a couple of guys from KPEL, whom she had known from her Service days, and was offered a job on the spot. She later moved over to KLFY-TV10 and landed her first media management job in 1997 back at KPEL/KTDY; in 2001 the company moved her over to TV stations KADN/KLAF as general sales manager. Within a couple of months, she was general manager of the two stations — the first female in Lafayette to serve in this capacity.
When she was let go from the locally owned TV group in February 2005, which Will describes as “devastating,” she turned to Nannette Frye, then-president and general manager at KATC-TV3 (the second female GM of a TV station in Lafayette), who was more than happy to snag her, naming Will general sales manager in March 2005.
It was a great career move for Will. KATC has consistently gained ground in the Nielsen ratings, which has helped her team chalk up record sales years. Despite the slowdown in the economy, “We’ve made seven months of budget, and we’re working on eight,” Will says. “I have a really excellent, seasoned staff.”
Though she is remarried now, Will spent much of her career as a single mom and still managed to build an impressive list of local community involvement. Also, from 2002-2004 she spent a week each spring in Mexico, helping to build two cinder block homes with concrete floors for families that had been living in shacks. “We would leave them with a home,” she says. “It was remarkable.”
Though her telephone pole climbing days are long behind her, Will says that job molded her professional career. “It was difficult at times,” the 56-year-old sales exec admits, “and installation repair technicians don’t cry. It gave me a lot of self confidence.”
Johnnie Marks is what most people would have called a career student — except that she’s the kind who kept getting degrees and certifications, among which is a master’s plus 30 in education and certification in administration and supervision. She parlayed that knowledge into a career in education that spanned more than 23 years, retiring as principal of Paul Breaux Middle School in 1998. Actual retirement, however, was the last thing on her mind. “I retired to go into business,” she says.
A decade later, Marks is the owner-operator of four McDonald’s restaurants: two in Pineville, and one each in Port Barre and Henderson. “We chose McDonald’s because it’s such a great company. You never see a McDonald’s close its stores,” she says. But deciding on McDonald’s was merely a small, first step. “Just because we chose McDonald’s,” Marks says, “did not mean they would choose us.” Marks spent 18 months in the company’s training programs and was later joined by her husband when he retired from ExxonMobil (though she says he’d been assisting her along the way).
McDonald’s has done an excellent job of weathering the national downturn and is reinventing itself in hopes of attracting non-traditional customers to its economical menu. In the midst of the recession, the company launched a line of premium coffees it calls McCafé and rolled out the concept nationwide this spring with one of its biggest marketing campaigns ever. “My two Pineville stores started last summer. We were one of the first to start, and it’s been great,” Marks says. Each conversion to a McCafé store requires a $60,000 to $100,000 investment on the part of the franchisee, depending on the existing layout of the restaurant. The lower price point for an iced mocha or latte, two of Marks’ top sellers, is attractive to customers, and if free Wi-Fi is made available, Marks thinks McDonald’s will be in a position to dominate the coffee shop market. “We keep asking McDonald’s to negotiate free Wi-Fi,” she says. “We hope desperately that’s going to happen.”
More recently the fast-food chain rolled out its Angus third pounder, which also has been garnering rave reviews. “It’s like what you will find at your casual dining restaurant [except that] it’s $3.99,” Marks says. The Angus burger has been in the pipeline for several years, so it’s not a strategic move resulting from the economic downturn. Still, it’s serving the purpose of bringing a new wave of customers through the doors. And like the café initiative, it just might keep them long after the recession passes. “It came at a good time for us,” Marks says.
Marks’ 27-year-old daughter, Crystal Vallo, is herself in training to become an owner-operator. “That was a decision we allowed her to make,” Marks says. If she gets McDonald’s stamp of approval, her plans are to either open her own stores or continue on with her parents’ existing restaurants.
Marks says the transition from the classroom to business wasn’t as difficult as she imagined. “I tell a lot of my friends who are from the education community that I am still doing so much teaching and coaching and training. I am still teaching. I’m just not having to do the lesson plans. [McDonald’s] does the lesson plans.”
Dr. Ann Laurent
As a high school student, Dr. Ann Laurent often made extra money by babysitting for her neighbor and family dentist Dr. Craig Strait. At the time, Laurent knew that she wanted to do something in the medical field, but she wasn’t certain what direction she wanted to go in. After spending some time in the Strait household, her future started to take shape. “Dr. Strait seemed fulfilled, respected and able to balance work with personal time,” Laurent says of her mentor. “I knew above all else that the primary role I wanted in this life was to be a mother, so I figured dentistry would allow me to be more of a ‘master of my own domain,’ rather than answer to the demands of on-call hospital duties [as] is required from physicians.”
She graduated from the LSU School of Dentistry in New Orleans in 1983, but was unable to find an associateship upon returning to Lafayette due to the economic downturn that was beginning to take hold. After a year of working in dental clinics in Lafayette and Denham Springs, she was able to get one with Dr. Sam Moss at an office he was renovating on South College Road.
While trying to build a clientele with Moss, Laurent still had to work long hours to make ends meet, traveling to Denham Springs twice a week and often working until 9 p.m. and on Saturdays due to the practice’s working-class-friendly hours of operations.
Her hard work paid off. Moss helped her come into her own and nurtured her talent while letting her go it alone with her own place. “I moved from associate to sole proprietor with my own practice, under his leadership, sharing overhead costs. That relationship lasted 14 years.” However, she eventually moved out, and has been a solo practitioner for more than 11 years at her office on West Martial Avenue.
Laurent is considered somewhat of a pioneer; when she graduated in dentistry there were only a handful of women dentists in her class. She was also one of the first female dentists in this area, and is still one of only ones with a solo practice.
Laurent loves to work, and it’s apparent that dentistry is her passion. “I love what I do,” she says. “There have been so many advances in techniques, materials, and technology, that the array of services and standard of care we can offer to patients is exciting.” But it is the personal interaction that fulfills her the most. “Unlike most surgical professions, we are fortunate to establish long-term, hopefully lifelong relationships with our patients. It’s these relationships that make the profession the most rewarding for me.”
Laurent also finds time to devote herself to missionary work between her practice and a rich family life. “With two children still at home, my time resources are somewhat limited, but I generally do a yearly week-long outreach either in Mexico or Central America with various faith-based organizations, as well as some local work here at home.”
After 25 years as a State Farm agent, Lucy Chenevert stills enjoys her work as much as when she first opened her doors.
A native of Lebeau, La., and a USL (now UL Lafayette) graduate, Chenevert earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education and taught at Truman, Judice and Carencro elementary schools before deciding to make a change. Even though she enjoyed teaching and mentoring young people, Chenevert was ready for a new vista, a new challenge: She wanted to take on the world of business, despite that it was the mid-1980s and the Lafayette economy was in the tank.
When State Farm announced plans to open a new agency in Lafayette, Chenevert jumped at the opportunity. Unbeknownst to her at the time, she would become the first female African-American State Farm agent in the area. In fact, when she landed the job, there were only two other women in the area working as State Farm agents.
“They didn’t look at me as a woman or a black woman,” Chenevert recalls. “They looked at me as an agent of a company.”
In those days, insurance was a male-dominated field, and breaking that barrier was tough at times, but Chenevert set out to build relationships with her policy-holders, most of whom are still with her today. “No one is going to come because you’re a new agent, but because they need you,” Chenevert says. “You have to prove yourself — that you’re gonna be there for the long haul.”
“We’ve always had confidence we could get her on the phone,” says Greg Davis, director of the Cajundome who has been with Chenevert State Farm for about two decades. “She is honest, she is hardworking and she runs a good operation.”
Building the business was especially tough during the early years because Lafayette’s economy was in recession, Chenevert says, but she kept a close eye on customer service (much like she is doing in today’s challenging economic environment). There was little money for advertising at the time, but after about three years, the agency really began to take off, mainly through referrals and word-of-mouth advertising.
Longtime customers like Davis attribute Chenevert’s success to her trademark honesty and personal touch; because of that, her agency is still flourishing. Lucy Chenevert State Farm Insurance is indeed a family affair, as Lucy’s husband, Lawrence, manages the 1401 W. Pinhook Road office.
“First of all she has a lot of pride in her community and serving her community,” says Annette Hayes, an agency field executive for State Farm who has worked with Chenevert for three years. Chenevert also takes great pride in the fact that State Farm has always maintained such a high level of respect in the insurance business and she works every day to protect that reputation. “She is very proud to serve State Farm,” Hayes says.
Sue Fontenot (posthumously)
Elaine Mann knows the old adage “If you love what you do you’ll never work a day in life” is true. Matriarch of the successful Lafayette car dealership family and long active in the Hub City’s civic life, Mann founded the Elaine Mann School of Dance more than 40 years ago — one of the most successful dance-instruction companies in Lafayette history — which she sold in 2002. And she did it while raising four children, founding a Mardi Gras krewe and being on the boards of several charities. “It was great,” she says, betraying no sense that being a female business owner in the 1960s had any disadvantages.
A dancer since childhood, Mann had the good fortune of being offered the opportunity to take over the business of her mentor and dance teacher, Gertrude LeBlanc. But LeBlanc’s studio was located near the Congress/University intersection, and young families in Lafayette were moving south. So Mann moved her new enterprise to Johnston Street. “I had an option to buy in five years,” she recalls of the original lease agreement for the property. “Well, I bought it the next year.”
“She was a trailblazer back in the days when women were not business owners,” says eldest son Ben Mann. “She certainly brought dancing, and as a business owner back in the ’60s, to the forefront.”
Elaine Mann began with $100 in seed money and hands-off advice from her husband, Louis, who was on his way to a wildly successful career as a car dealer. “He told me what to do, but he wouldn’t do it for me,” she recalls. “Most of the students that were with Mrs. LeBlanc came with me, but like I said, the young families were [on the south side], so that’s where my population of students began,” Mann says. “And it was scary ... my note at the dance studio was $128 dollars a month, and I thought if I don’t get any students I won’t be able to pay that.” But she managed just fine. By the late 1970s there were five Elaine Mann School of Dance locations: the original in Lafayette along with studios in Abbeville, Breaux Bridge, Rayne and Youngsville. In each case, Mann used a keen business sense to spot a demand and capitalize on it. “As it happened I was very fortunate.”
In each expansion of her budding dance empire, Mann made sure those running the studios were people she liked and people she trusted, and she made sure they were invested in the enterprise as well. “When you cut somebody a little piece of the action, they’re going to work,” she says. Mann deepened her connections in the regional dance community with the co-founding of Dixie Dance Masters, a three-state chapter of the prestigious Dance Masters of America and was a delegate on the DMA board as well. But she always made time for family. “I was fortunate,” she recalls. “My hobby was wonderful. It happened to make money, and it was a good business.”
For so many people who knew her, or knew of her, the first word that came to mind when longtime Abbeville attorney and former 15th Judicial District Judge Sue Fontenot died last July was “trailblazer.” At the time, Lafayette Consolidated Government CAO Dee Stanley, who was a reporter and anchor when Fontenot was on the bench, called her a female trailblazer in both politics and law in southwest Louisiana. “It was not unusual for her to be in court at midnight,” he said, “and if she was there, the lawyers had better be ready.”
That preparation and devotion to her profession were also pointed out in a moving eulogy 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal Judge Sylvia Cooks wrote about her dear friend of 34 years. “If you knew Sue, you knew when it came to the quality of her work she was a perfectionist,” Cooks wrote, “‘never late,’ [Sue] would say. She would start preparing months ahead of a scheduled trial — eating, sleeping and breathing every fact in the case until she was so prepared she was masterful in her delivery before a jury ... of course Sue was not easy on the lawyers who opposed her at times — but at the end of the case most of them would get a great big hug from a lady with an extraordinary gift to make you her friend.”
Fontenot was just as tough when she was elected to the bench; and while her style was at time unorthodox, she always got her message across. Cooks recalled the day when a young man walked into the courtroom with a “‘bad diggity’ attitude with his poor mama in tow.” He just thought he was in charge of the show. “He soon found out the lady on the bench, in addition to knowing how to use a gavel, sure knew how to throw her shoes — the poor boy, after ducking two times, finally understood the show was over,” Cooks wrote. “It was time for him to learn a thing called ‘respect.’” After the incident the young man turned his life around and returned to let the judge know it — and to collect on his hug. He also attended the funeral.
Fontenot was a fighter, having battled cancer three times before her death at the age of 62. She made headlines a year before she died when she fought off a man who attacked her in her Mouton Cove home. Police advised people to be on the lookout for someone with eye injuries and bite marks.
For much of her adult life, Fontenot was active in politics in areas not usually explored by women. She was a state district judge from 1979 to 1987, ran unsuccessfully against then-District Attorney Nathan Stansbury in 1990 and was also unsuccessful against DA Mike Harson in 1994. She also ran for the state Senate in 1996. Despite those setbacks, she more than made her mark, leaving all of us to wonder how different the system might be today had Fontenot succeeded in those endeavors.
Though she penned the eulogy, Cooks was too overwhelmed by grief to deliver it, relinquishing the honor to another of Fontenot’s close friends, Cameron attorney Jennifer Jones. Ironically, it was Cooks who delivered — in the same church, St. Mary Magdalen — the eulogy Fontenot herself wrote but was unable to recite only four years earlier for her brother James, a former state senator.
Sue Fontenot had two children, Jean Paul Perrodin, a Lafayette physical therapist, and Ahna Segrera, who now lives in Tennessee.