The Independent Weekly honors Acadiana's most influential and energized women professionals.
Whether working in the fields of business, health care, education, art, law, or banking, this year's recipients of The Independent Weekly's annual Women Who Mean Business honors exemplify perseverance and determination. Their tireless dedication to their careers, families, friends, and neighbors are shining examples of selflessness in Acadiana, and we are fortunate to have these talented women who always strive to make a positive impact on our community.
2007 Trailblazer Award
Shirley Fisher opened her first day-care center at the request of her neighbors.
It's the kind of thing people who know her would expect from Fisher ' when it comes to young children, Fisher's dedication knows no bounds.
"Every child has something to offer the world, if they just get the chance," Fisher says from the offices of Fisher Early Childhood Education on Ridge Road. At 80, she's still teaching at the school every day.
At her side is her husband, David Henry Fisher Sr., who has been with her every step of the journey. The two opened the first preschool center in their home, then moved into the current Ridge Road facilities in 1971. They opened a second campus in June 1998 on Farrel Road. These days, their son Lindsey runs the Farrel Road facility and daughter Stacy Brown operates the Ridge Road campus.
Both Shirley and David Sr. continued with their educations and brought all their knowledge to bear on the centers. Shirley has a bachelor's degree from UL Lafayette and has done graduate work at LSU and Columbia University in New York. David has a bachelor's degree from UL and earned his master's and doctoral degrees from LSU. His dissertation on gross motor skills, which he dedicated to his wife, was completed by working with children at the Lafayette centers ' work that has been incorporated into the curriculum.
The Fishers have always worked to better their centers and the community. For years Shirley was active in the national campaign to have kindergarten classes added to the public school curriculum, even though it would mean losing all her 5-year-old clients. "It just meant my classes of 4-year-olds grew as people learned about the value of early childhood education," Fisher says.
With Shirley and David Sr. as role models, the whole family is involved in the lives of children in one way or another. Daughters Sharon O'Neill and Sandra Fisher work with the schools while daughter Susan Fisher is on staff with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Acadiana. Daughter Shelly Romero works in education, and son David is an optometrist ' with a thriving clientele among area youngsters.
Fisher raised all seven of her children while working; before opening the center, she taught second grade for 10 years. Today, while still teaching daily, she finds time to enjoy her 19 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
And it's the children Fisher has met over the years who have left the strongest impressions on her ' like the little boy with cerebral palsy who was turned away by educators. "He was just 5 years old," she says. "His mom had taken him to Lourdes when he was very little, just to ask for his survival. He couldn't move or talk, but his eyes were alive. I knew he could read." Fisher researched the condition.
"I knew that if I could teach him to read 10 words, I could teach him to read," she says. "After we had worked together a while, I'd say 'out' and he'd shift his eyes to look out the window. I'd say 'in' and he'd look back inside.
"I was working to get him ready to go to public school, where he could work with a home-bound program, but I didn't say anything because I didn't want to get his hopes up. We worked through his kindergarten, first and second grade, and then he entered public school as a home-bound student.
"When he graduated from high school, I cried and cried and cried. He wrote me the most beautiful letter, saying he didn't know where he would be without me," Fisher says. "But I told him he was wrong," she adds. "Your mother and God helped you. God just used me." ' Judy Johnson
If the silver and turquoise jewelry and the raven hair weren't enough of a giveaway, the interior of Jeanette Alcon's office leaves no room for dispute. A large map of the Indian tribes of the United States anchors one wall, along with a weaving and a Native American Lifeways Festival poster that proclaims her heritage. "Pueblo Indian," she says, "from New Mexico. All of my ancestors as far back as I know lived in that part of the world."
Alcon is the executive director of Lafayette's free medical clinic, the Lafayette Community Health Care Clinic, a place were low-income people without health insurance can get all kinds of attention, from dental work to OB/GYN care. She has overseen the growth of the nonprofit organization nearly from its inception 13 years ago and guided this brainchild of the Lafayette Parish Medical Society as it began a collaboration with the city's hospitals, the LSU schools of medicine and dentistry, and the plethora of doctors, nurses, pharmacists and members of the community who volunteer their time.
It was a hurricane that blew her into Louisiana long ago. Her aunt, a Red Cross volunteer, came to help New Orleans with the recovery from Hurricane Betsy in 1965 and fell in love with the city. As a young college graduate with a degree in foreign languages, Alcon was at loose ends. Her aunt invited Alcon to New Orleans, where she got a job as a community organizer with the Council on Aging, setting up a senior center in 1974. This led to another nonprofit job, the brand new Louisiana Office of Indian Affairs, created under Edwin Edwards in the mid-70s. She went on to set up an Inter-Tribal Council of Louisiana, a nonprofit organization she directed for 18 years. "It was a historic moment, an amazing time in Indian affairs in Louisiana," she says. Six years after taking on the job with the council, she was instrumental in the inception of the Institute for Indian Development, which provides resource development for the tribes.
After a business venture failure in recycling ' "it was ahead of its time," Alcon says ' she found herself in Lafayette looking for a job. Her work with the state caught the attention of Dr. Terry Cromwell, president of the Lafayette Parish Medical Society and founder of the clinic. He put her on the advisory panel. Alcon applied for the executive director post three times before the clinic hired her; she has led it for the last 14 years.
"This is different from Indian affairs," Alcon says. "Indian affairs was a cause that burned in my heart. This speaks to me in a different way ' seeing people be able to come here to get health care services who do not have any opportunity anywhere else. They tell me, 'I don't know where I would go if this clinic didn't exist.'"
Now that the clinic is well established, Alcon has new goals for the future ' stabilizing funding, educating her clientele and growing the clinic's endowment to spend less time raising funds. "I'd like to see us move into a preventive care arena, not just crisis management," she says. "We want to get the patients to partner with us in their own health care."' Mary Tutwiler
When the position of regional director for the Louisiana Technical College was created last year, the faculty senate agreed on who should lead them ' but it took almost a year for it to happen.
In April, the Louisiana Community and Technical College System's board of supervisors approved the promotion of Phyllis Dupuis to head the seven-campus region. Although Dupuis had been the 130-member group's overwhelming choice, she was passed over in favor of City-Parish Councilman Chris Williams, whom then-system President Dr. Walter Bumphus recommended for the position. But after Williams was abruptly reassigned to a position in Baton Rouge, Dupuis ascended to the post.
After serving LTC for almost 30 years, most recently as dean of the Lafayette campus, Dupuis now oversees all of Region 4's technical college campuses ' Lafayette, Crowley, Ville Platte, St. Martinville, Abbeville, Opelousas and New Iberia.
With the local workforce in crisis, Dupuis' promotion could not have come at a better time. Area businesses are scrambling to find qualified workers; there is a pressing need for the working poor, underemployed and unemployed to be become trained and viable candidates for skilled positions; and employer/employee matching for post-secondary graduates isn't sufficient to keep people from leaving Acadiana.
But these are times when Dupuis excels, and she hit the ground running. After working closely with state Sen. Don Cravins Jr. and state Rep. Elbert Guillory for a couple of months, the trio already has a campus under way in Eunice, an extension of T.H. Harris in Opelousas. Dupuis says people in that community did not have transportation to other colleges in the region, so she's bringing the training to them. "It's a project that's probably a little overdue," she says, "but we're just excited to have the opportunity to offer [training] to people in that part of the state."
Dupuis is committed to being proactive in combatting the workforce problems and says she will be soliciting a significant amount of input from faculty. "Technical colleges are supposed to respond to needs as quickly as possible," she says. "So many skilled workers are retiring," the director says, noting the aging baby-boom generation. "Katrina and Rita made [the workforce situation] worse, but it was inevitable that we would get here."
Dupuis is pushing for entry level workers to get additional training so they can boost their salaries. "Right now, because of the hurricanes, we have a lot of free training." She says Region 4 has teamed up with LITE and LEDA to create a virtual reality welding trainer system. "That's another one of those jobs that you just can't enough of," she says. The system will be integrated into the LTC's welder-training program and is free to qualified applicants. The training simulator is one component of a $1.5 million advanced manufacturing grant awarded to LEDA and Region 4 to train 175 individuals in advanced manufacturing occupations including welders, machinists, industrial mechanics and electricians.
Those who know Dupuis well say she's not afraid to get her hands dirty and would just as soon hop on a ladder as push paperwork. "I want to see what it looks like up there," the director says.
Debbie Burkheiser, Region 4's chief workforce training officer, met Dupuis in the late 1970s when the fresh-out-of-college Dupuis joined LTC as an instructor. Burkheiser believes her hands-on approach will serve the region well. "She doesn't ask her employees to do anything she wouldn't do," Burkheiser says.
' Leslie Turk
DR. PAULA CARSON
When reviewing Dr. Paula Phillips Carson's extensive list of accomplishments, it's hard to believe that she has done so much by such a young age. At 24, she had already finished her Ph.D. in organizational behavior at LSU. Recognizing a rising star when it sees one, UL Lafayette snapped her up as a faculty member, right out of school.
For the past 15 years, Carson has made her mark as an outstanding teacher and administrator at UL. She served as the first female dean of the B.I. Moody III College of Business, associate dean and MBA programs director. As a faculty member, she was bestowed with the UL Foundation's Distinguished Professor Award. During her outstanding tenure, she has published numerous papers, receiving five best paper awards in the process. Additionally, she has written six textbooks, including one on the American Library association's bestseller list.
At the peak of her career as acting dean of the college of business, Carson faced an age-old dilemma ' career versus family. In June 2006, she had a baby daughter, Alexandra. With son David, age 9 at the time, husband Kerry and a demanding position, Carson decided that something had to give. She made the difficult decision to step down as dean but stayed on as a professor of management.
Carson says she couldn't juggle it all without the help of her family and friends. "One of the real key critical things to my success and my ability to do what I've been able to do is all of those people that help out with the family ' the schools that my children go to, the churches, the grandmothers, the friends and the caretakers," she says. "When you are not having to worry about whether your children are developing and flourishing, then you can concentrate on your own work so much better. So, I'm very fortunate that my son goes to a very good school, and my baby daughter stays with my Mom. It has enabled me to do a lot of things I could not otherwise do."
Carson has also made her mark on the community ' working with Le Centre International de Lafayette, the Center for Cultural and EcoTourism, Ascension Day School, Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and the Junior League of Lafayette. Three years ago, UL appointed her to the Lafayette Economic Development Authority as a commissioner. "That's also been extremely rewarding," she says. "The work that LEDA does is phenomenal. Their ability to really market into and utilize the best that Lafayette has to offer is just amazing."
Carson has also spearheaded learning initiatives where students worked with more than 150 local businesses on marketing plans, strategic planning, financial and accounting challenges and other issues. "Everyone understands that the university has an obligation to produce high quality students who have wisdom and marketable skills to go to work in our labor force," she says. "But, even more than that, I think it is incumbent on the faculty to use their resources to assist the business community at an actual operational level, as well as serving on boards and on other policy-making positions to assist them." ' Lisa Hanchey
ELISE BOUCHNER AND CHRISTINA HARPER
Four years ago, employee training specialist Christina Harper and employment law attorney Elise Bouchner decided to combine their expertise to start a new business. With their extensive experience and gung-ho attitudes, the two budding entrepreneurs hatched an idea for a startup company to train workers. The business quickly took off, expanding even beyond the founders' expectations.
"We knew each other professionally and became personal friends through our business associations," Bouchner explains. "And, we both noticed that business leaders were constantly challenged with getting the results that they wanted, and really using their people to their advantage. So, we saw the opportunity to create something that did not exist in the marketplace."
Harper, a former Stuller Learning Institute administrator, and Bouchner, an employment law litigator, pooled their talents to create The Training Source. This unique enterprise assists businesses with all of their employment needs, from training to human resources. Together, the two young professionals created a multidisciplinary solution called the "The Performance to Results Process." Harper explains: "We collaborate with companies to help them maximize the return on the investment that they make in their people every day. We help these growth-oriented businesses to develop and implement the systems that will help them attract the right people, improve their productivity and increase profits."
The Training Source is generally geared toward proactive owners of businesses with 35 to 800 employees but also works with smaller and bigger companies. Within the past year, the savvy pair has gone global, acquiring Abbott Laboratories in Chicago, Ill., as a client.
Although Harper and Bouchner realized that they had a niche, they had no inkling that the business would become what it is today. The Training Source now has five certified professionals from multiple disciplines on its team. "Business has been unbelievable," Bouchner says.
"We did not have the vision of how big we would be," Harper adds. "And now, we are poised for our next growth strategy, which will be something well beyond where we are right now."
For these successful first-time business owners, failure was never an option. "We had known each other for years, and I said to Elise, 'I've never failed at anything, and you've never failed at anything either, right?'" Harper recalls. "And Elise said, 'Of course not.' So, not succeeding was never something that entered our minds or will ever enter our minds."
The two talented young women say the key to their success is integrity. "Our core idea that we started out with was to approach our clients, each other, and anyone who became affiliated with us with complete integrity," Bouchner says. "Our interest has always been in what our clients need, the result they need to have happen, and how we can make that happen. It's all about helping the client." ' Lisa Hanchey
You might not have met Vergie Banks yet, but you've probably seen her work. Since 1996, Banks has been painting a recurring image of a young girl in pigtails riding a red tricycle, painted in bold acrylic colors on canvas. The series, The Little Red Tricycle, depicts Banks as a child growing up in a myriad of south Louisiana settings. "I wanted to express who I am as an artist," she says, "and being that I'm a Creole from this culture, I wanted to take my little red tricycle on a journey with the culture. I'm engulfed in beauty all around me. Louisiana has a lot to offer."
The youngest of six children, Banks grew up in the rural areas outside New Iberia and Broussard. Her father, Robert Broussard, farmed peppers, potatoes and okra in Broussard. "That's where I learned about business ' that you've got to put your hands to it, to be an entrepreneur," she says.
Banks graduated from UL Lafayette in 1992 with a fine arts degree, as a sculptor and a metalsmith.
Soon after she begin working with the Acadiana Arts Council's Bright New Worlds program, teaching art to local children. "There are no boundaries working with children," she says. "They're free. They're minds are unlimited, as far as creating. You don't hear, 'I can't do this.' They want to try. They want to show you that they can. Adults have more of their guard up. They have panic attacks because they're scared they're going to fail. Children jump hands over heels into paints or the pastels. They don't have a problem with expression."
Banks works in a similar fashion, choosing to forgo a rigid work schedule and to work only when inspired. But just because she's not painting doesn't mean she's not working. "There's an ongoing process of designing art in my head," she says. "Even if I'm not putting it on canvas, I'm designing."
Banks says she draws inspiration from the word of God and her friends and family. In fact, her family has made her art their business as well. Married for 21 years, husband Kendall was an insurance and investment agent who initially brought postcard sized prints of Vergie's work to his clients to promote her work. Today, Kendall's in the business of selling Vergie's art. The couple's 14-year-old son, Cortrillis, is also an artist. Vergie and her son are planning an upcoming joint exhibition at the Zigler Museum in Jennings.
Whether it's an exhibit, a work of her art, or her life, Vergie tends to view it all the same way: "You're given this opportunity, and if you don't take it you're sort of dampening something in you if you don't use it." ' R. Reese Fuller
When architectural plans finally got under way for a new courthouse in downtown Lafayette 10 years ago, one federal judge's attention to detail stood out. Unhappy with initial floor designs, Judge Rebecca Doherty took time to fly to Houston with the architect to look at Terrazzo samples. Freddie DeCourt, who served as a liaison between the judges and architects on the project, says it's hard to argue with the end result. "The proof is in the floors," he says. "They're gorgeous."
It's this type of hands-on diligence that has made Doherty one of Lafayette's most highly respected judges. Now in her 16th year as a U.S. district judge for the 5th Circuit, Doherty goes to great lengths to research and prepare for each case. Her opinions are typically extensively written, firmly grounded in the law and rarely get overturned. Several of her rulings have garnered national attention. She unequivocally rejected a case brought by cockfighting interests to challenge a federal ban on the transportation of fighting birds over state lines. She also presided over a high-profile case with LSU involving the school's compliance with Title IX regulations, which prohibit sexual discrimination in college athletics. Doherty wrote a detailed, nuanced opinion, rejecting the standard of using a "proportionality test" to determine Title IX compliance. She admonished LSU, writing that the school's failure to provide opportunities for female athletes was "a result of arrogant ignorance, confusion regarding the practical requirements of the law, and a remarkably outdated view of women and athletics which created the byproduct of resistance to change."
After a short stint as an English teacher, Doherty got her law degree from LSU and began practicing in Lafayette with the Onebane Firm in the mid-80s. She quickly rose to become one of the firm's first female partners and co-founded the firm's environmental law section. In 1991, President George Bush tapped Doherty for the federal bench, making her the first woman to be inducted as a federal judge for the Western District of Louisiana and the second woman to be inducted as a federal judge in the state of Louisiana. Doherty says she has always been motivated at her job by a firm belief in the integrity of the judicial system.
"The system is all we have," she says. "You take care of the system, you honor it and that means everybody has to do their job and do it well."
"You're dealing with people's lives," she continues. "You remember the old adage, 'Well, don't make a federal case out of it.' If you're coming to federal court, it's serious business. So if you come to my court, we're going to dot our i's and cross our t's, and we're going to do it right. It's not worth doing if you're not going to do it right. So we take it seriously at my joint." ' Nathan Stubbs
When Karen Hail entered the banking field 36 years ago, women were a rarity at the executive level. But her intelligence, gutsiness and integrity launched her to the top of the industry, garnishing Hail two consecutive rankings as one of the "Top 25 Women to Watch in Banking" by U.S. Banker magazine.
After the Eunice native graduated from LSU with a bachelor's degree in finance, she quickly advanced in the banking field at First Bank of Eunice, followed by National Bank of Commerce in Lake Charles. Her reputation as an expert in start-up banks attracted the attention of the late Natalee Farasey, a founding member of MidSouth Bank and the first woman on its board of directors. Farasey recruited Hail to MidSouth, serving as a mentor and friend throughout Hail's stellar career at the fast-growing community bank.
Under Hail's guidance, MidSouth made astounding gains. Over a five-year period, the holding company's assets doubled to more than $750 million, increasing to $824 million as of June 30 this year. While those familiar with Hail's work give her credit for these gains, she is quick to attribute MidSouth's success to her team of co-workers.
Despite the accolades, Hail remains refreshingly modest. In fact, she was unaware that she had been nominated for the prestigious Top 25 award until she heard the cheers from her colleagues when the announcement came in that she had won. She says the proudest moment of her career occurred while she was sitting with co-workers Jen Fontenot and Teri Stelly, as well as family members, during the award ceremony. As she looked around the room, she noticed that she was surrounded by fellow winners from such high-powered banking organizations as Citigroup and Wachovia and realized what an honor it was to be a part of that group.
Her banking work keeps her fully occupied, but Hail still finds the time to be actively involved in the community. Since 2001, she has participated as a board member of Big Brothers/Big Sisters, serving as president in 2001-2002. She was also a charter member in the first Leadership Lafayette class of the Greater Lafayette Chamber of Commerce in 1986 and has been a tireless volunteer for United Way.
But even with all of her achievements, Hail's most rewarding experience has been the adoption of four children, now ranging in age from 22 to 31. At the time she became their legal mother, all of the kids were older and had been in the custody of the state after being rescued from abusive or drug-addicted parents. Raising them has presented new challenges for the accomplished banker but, says Hail, "It was all worth it. I would do it again." ' Lisa Hanchey
DR. ANGELA MAYEUX-HEBERT
Dr. Angela Mayeux-Hebert takes on the boy's club head on. She's an orthopedic surgeon in solo practice, the only woman in her field in Lafayette. As past president of the Lafayette Medical Society and former chief-of-staff at Lafayette General, she has had the job of herding a group of notoriously independent individuals. A self-described cowgirl, she is partnered with her husband and other local cattle producers in Acadiana Natural Beef, a ranching operation to raise and retail organic grass-finished beef for the local market. And the equestrian in her devotes her spare time to serving on the board of the Acadiana Therapeutic Riding Organization, which offers physical and psychological horseback riding therapy for handicapped children. Medical missions to Mexico over the course of five years and French studies still don't keep her busy enough. "As soon as we get this beef business going, in November I want to get more involved," she says of ATRO. "I want to become an instructor."
Mayeux-Hebert grew up in Brusly, a small town on the west bank of the Mississippi River between Port Allen and Plaquemine. Both her parents were French-speaking "red-dirt Cajuns" from Avoyelles Parish, she says. Her grandparents in Marksville spoke no English; her parents were shamed into attempting to lose their accent and culture, and she was not taught the language of her heritage. What her mother, an English teacher, did teach her was how to speak well. "The road to success is how you present yourself," is what Mayeux-Hebert says her mother drummed into her. And it's clear from Mayeux-Hebert's forthright tone, a country twang laced with quirky humor, that she took on those early lessons as a challenge. Choosing orthopedics as her speciality is rare for a woman. When she was board certified 12 years ago, there were 27,000 male orthopedic surgeons in the state. Among women, Mayeux-Hebert was number 212. "Well, you know, we use power tools," she quips. "Not many women are comfortable with that." Competing in what is largely looked on as a male profession has been very rewarding for Mayeux-Hebert. "It's difficult at times," she says. "It's very scary to take on the leadership role. But it's a blessing you cannot overlook. What I would like to convey to women in business in Acadiana is to go ahead and take the leadership opportunities. They'll expand your horizons and opportunities like nothing else. Nothing will ever equal that." ' Mary Tutwiler