New Orleans has always had high achievers, but the last few years have seen a large increase in innovative businesses and programs aimed at improving the quality of life here as well as the environment, technology and public institutions. Every year (except for 2005), Gambit honors 40 people under the age of 40 for their accomplishments and the contributions they've made to New Orleans.

Here is our 15th annual 40 Under 40.


Murtuza "Zee" Ali, 36

Associate program director, Interventional Cardiology Fellowship Program, LSU Department of Medicine; Director, Cardiac Catheterization Lab, Interim LSU Hospital; Chairman, LERN

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Born at Touro Hospital and educated at Charity Hospital, Murtuza "Zee" Ali returned to New Orleans in the summer of 2008, after completing his medical residency at Stanford University and a fellowship at Boston University. He planned to rebuild the LSU Interventional Cardiology Training Program, which educates medical students about the branch of cardiology that treats structural heart diseases using catheters in order to avoid scars, pain and long recovery periods.

Since then, the LSU School of Medicine faculty member has won nine awards from peers, residents and students and has served as the associate program director for the Interventional Cardiology Fellowship Program in the LSU Department of Medicine and director of the Cardiac Catheterization Lab at the Interim LSU Public Hospital.

Ali also is chairman of the Louisiana Emergency Response Network (LERN), where he directs the creation of a statewide network of hospitals that will provide coordinated and timely care for heart attack victims. Ali has garnered assistance from emergency medical services, primary care and specialty practices, patient advocacy groups and public health officials.

"To be able to participate in the design of a system that hopefully will improve the care and increase the access to great quality care for all residents of the state regardless of where they live is a very cool thing," he says. — Megan Braden-Perry



A.J. Allegra, 27

Artistic director, The NOLA Project

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

A.J. Allegra acts, directs, writes, produces, is stage manager, builds sets and is the artistic director of theater company The NOLA Project, and he's working hard to build New Orleans' vibrant theater community on a national scale.

"Theater arts in New Orleans have grown tremendously, with help from our theater company," he says. "We hope it has inspired others to do the same."

Founded in the spring of 2005, The NOLA Project has produced two dozen shows, including recent acclaimed runs of Shakespeare classics and the ambitious Balm In Gilead, staged in collaboration with Cripple Creek Theatre Company.

Allegra wants to showcase New Orleans as a national venue for theater, and its sprawling community of smaller companies that don't have permanent theater homes — groups like The NOLA Project have only a limited number of venues for theater, so they've come up with creative options, like staging performances at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

"We want to work to raise the bar for producing theater in the city and work to make it really great," he says. "New Orleans has a tendency to be lackadaisical, to say, 'That's good enough.' One thing we do is say, 'That's not enough. How do we fine-tune and make it better?'

The NOLA Project is producing a one-woman show, She Remembers, for Fringe Fest, November's citywide theater event. In March 2013, the company premieres the full-scale production Catch the Wall, which chronicles students' relationships to the charter school system and bounce music.

Allegra also teaches theater at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where he gives students their first taste of national ambitions.

"What we try to do as a company is create an environment [in which students say], 'Hey, my hometown is a great place to work,'" he says. "I have an obligation to my students to develop that." — Alex Woodward



Kellie Axelrad, 33


Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Dr. Kellie Axelrad will do anything to fire up the public about the importance of dental health. She even has the New Orleans Saints in on it.

Axelrad, a New Orleans native who graduated from Loyola University and LSU Dental School, contacted the Saints and NFL Play 60 to partner with the New Orleans Dental Association to present a dental screening at the LSU School of Dentistry in January 2013.

"[The Saints] are going to run a basic training camp on the fields and we are going to host a traditional event inside," says Axelrad, who will open a private dental practice in Lakeview next fall.

The event, which aims to educate the public about the importance of healthy teeth and gums, is for children from St. John the Baptist and Plaquemines Parishes because of the number of families affected by Hurricane Isaac. The dental association has held the annual event for the past 10 years, targeting groups of children based on need, but it is the first time the group has partnered with the Saints and NFL Play 60.

During Children's Dental Health Month in February 2013, Axelrad will visit young patients at Children's Hospital, handing out toothbrushes and teaching them how to take care of their teeth. She also volunteers for a range of other organizations focusing on pediatric care.

Axelrad says she has wanted to be a dentist since she was in the fifth grade, when her brother got braces and she learned that teeth could be moved. She was inspired to specialize in pediatric dentistry after working with someone who showed her the ropes of caring for kids.

"It is my passion, my craft, and it doesn't feel like much work when you love what you do." — Marta Jewson



Andrea Bourgeois-Calvin, 37

Water-Quality program director, Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation

Andrea Bourgeois-Calvin knew from an early age that she wanted to be in science, and she considered a career in medicine. "But I realized that I wanted to do something outdoors, do something that was good for the environment," she says.

As water-quality program director for the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, Bourgeois-Calvin has realized that dream. The nonprofit organization has proved critical in engineering the energies, strategies, funds and policies that have returned the lake's southern shore to a safe place to swim. On the Northshore, where Bourgeois-Calvin says our vital watershed's environmental health now faces its biggest challenge, her duties regularly take her "out in the field, out on the water."

Typically working the Bogue Falaya, Amite and Tangipahoa rivers in St. Tammany and Tangipahoa parishes, Bourgeois-Calvin — who earned a doctorate in geochemistry from the University of New Orleans (UNO) — surveys the waterways that collectively contain more than 700 individual water and sewage systems.

"It's a piecemeal system, " says Bourgeois-Calvin, who earned a bachelor's degree in biological sciences from Loyola University and a master's degree from UNO. "And because it's piecemeal, we have a harder time keeping track of it all.

"On the south shore, a big key to running around the water quality has been working with the parishes and concerned citizens in a regional approach."

Bourgeois-Calvin, who also is key in securing funds and analyzing field reports, says digital mapping advances are vital to the foundation's mission: "We've been finding sources of pollution since 2002, but the last few years of comprehensive mapping has really brought it to the next level." — Frank Etheridge



Nicholas Braden, 34

Vice President, Global Hunter Securities

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Investment banker Nicholas Braden explains his transition from Wall Street to Poydras Street as he steps out of a meeting in New York City to take the call on his cellphone. "Daunting. It's swimming without a life preserver" is how Braden describes his initial impressions of Wall Street, where the Newcomb graduate worked following his matriculation at the University of Pennsylvania's renowned Wharton School of Business. At Wharton he earned a Master of Business Administration with triple concentrations in finance, public policy and entrepreneurial management.

He last worked on Wall Street as a vice president at Citigroup. "There's a lot of type-A types," Braden says. "Not a lot of Southern hospitality, so it takes a lot of adjustment for someone born and bred in New Orleans (to get accustomed to New York). It requires an extraordinary amount of discipline."

At Wharton, Braden met his wife, Shirin, a U Penn graduate from Austin, Texas. After school, Braden returned to New Orleans to raise his family — and for what he describes as "an amazing opportunity." He joined the energy-focused investment bank Global Hunter Securities where he raises capital and advises companies on mergers and acquisitions.

"New Orleans is an usual place to do something similar to what's done on Wall Street," says Braden, who lives in the Warehouse District. "And when people think of an energy-focused bank, they think it would be based in Houston."

"We're bringing Wall Street to Poydras Street," he says. "We're attracting the talent down here that typically works on Wall Street. We're making New York-type deals and they're earning New York-type compensation, but we're doing it all from New Orleans." — Frank Etheridge



McKenzie Coco, 37

President, FSC Interactive

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Upon returning to New Orleans after a stint on the West Coast, McKenzie Coco realized there was a void here that she could fill.

"(On the West Coast there was) a lot more innovative online marketing than I had seen in New Orleans," she says. "I saw there was a real need for people to be able to market outside the New Orleans community, because the New Orleans community had really dwindled after the storm."

In 2009, Coco founded FSC Interactive, an online marketing firm which this year surpassed $1 million in annual sales revenue. The firm provides social media management, search engine optimization, email marketing and other services. Some of FSC's clients include the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau and Loyola University.

Aside from her duties as founder and president, Coco stays involved in the outside community. She currently is chairwoman of the Junior Achievement Rising Stars Soiree and, as a self-proclaimed "bleeding heart" animal lover, she volunteers as a foster parent to rescue dogs.

She attributes her success and that of her company to the staff and clients with whom she works.

"One thing I've been very smart about is you always hire people who are smarter than yourself," Coco says. "There's such great talent at FSC, and I feel lucky that I get to work with the people [who] are in my office every day and lucky we have the clients that allow us the freedom and ability to really be partners with them." — Lauren LaBorde



Stacey James Danner, 38

Co-founder, Sustainable Environmental Enterprises

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Stacey James Danner decided he would do anything he could to help New Orleanians after Hurricane Katrina, so the Minnesota native headed south and co-founded Sustainable Environmental Enterprises (SEE), which helps low-income individuals access sustainable energy systems.

"Our real goal is to make sure all people, regardless of their income or where they live, can access renewable energy at a price affordable for their family," he says.

Danner received a Rockefeller Fellowship in 2008 and the next year received a Rockefeller Foundation Innovation Fund award. He has participated in White House round tables on domestic policy and green and sustainable industry.

Louisiana has one of the country's best state credit programs for financing solar energy systems, offering a 50 percent credit for installing panels, Danner says. He also hopes SEE can help people on fixed incomes convert to sustainable energy. "It's much cleaner and cheaper to do it this way (use solar energy) than worry about whether or not the utilities are going to cut off your lights," he says.

Making energy more affordable for New Orleanians while employing local installers is a win-win for Danner and the community. "I'm really proud of our innovative financing, which allows anybody to have renewable energy," he says. — Marta Jewson



Eliana de Las Casas, 12


Photo by Cheryl Gerber

While in New York City for an appear-ance on The Wendy Williams Show, 12-year-old Eliana de Las Casas got a taste of celebrity treatment.

"Even though the studio was four blocks away from the apartment (where we were staying), they would have a car service for us," she says.

De Las Casas, aka Kid Chef Eliana, made jambalaya and pralines on the talk show. At her age, de Las Casas already has hit some of the milestones coveted by much older chefs: With the help of her mother, children's author and storyteller Dianne de Las Casas, Eliana has written two cookbooks, Eliana Cooks! Recipes for Creative Kids and Cool Kids Cook: Louisiana, and has a budding line of spice blends called Sabor. She was also featured among 13 local Latinos in an exhibit at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, and she hosts a weekly web radio show called Cool Kids Cook on VoiceAmerica Kids.

Coming from a home that's frequently host to large family gatherings, Eliana started cooking at age 4. "I always just loved to be in the kitchen and experiment with food," she says. "Every birthday and Christmas, I always asked for something related to cooking or a kitchen utensil."

The seventh-grader, who says she always puts school first, plans to write more cookbooks in the Cool Kids Cook series, expand her line of spices and create cookware for children. Eventually she wants to attend the Culinary Institute of America in New York. — Lauren LaBorde



LaToya Devezin, 29

Library Associate, African American Resource Center, New Orleans Public Library

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

LaToya Devezin smashes the librarian stereotype of being quiet, meek and bookish. Passionate, multi-talented and energetic, Devezin aims to make the New Orleans Public Library the most high-tech, inclusive, essential public resource it can be.

"People think the library isn't necessary anymore," she says. "They say 'Why bother, when you can Google everything?'" A bilingual opera singer with degrees in music, library science and museum studies, Devezin is pursuing another in archival management.

"People think I sit behind a desk all day and check out books; they'd be surprised at what I actually do," she says. "I'm writing grants; I'm working on new programs."

Not only has Devezin helped improve the library's computer technology resources and created zones for children and teens, but she also has landed grants from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, among other sources. Through the library, those grants have brought music and arts programs to hundreds of kids.

The library associate has built up other resources, too, including assistance for residents applying for federal loans and college admissions. "It's crucial for our library to be awesome for the community," says Devezin, who wants to expand services even further. She's thinking about a public garden, a tech education lab and multilingual collections and resources.

An American Library Association Spectrum Scholar, Devezin is committed to bringing more diversity into the profession. "We don't have that many librarians of color," she says. "We provide so many different things to people on so many levels, and we want librarians to reflect the community they serve." — Eileen Loh



Sarah Devlin, 18


Photo by Cheryl Gerber

In March, then-NOCCA student Sarah Devlin earned a $10,000 scholarship for her student film portfolio. The prestigious 2012 Scholastic Arts and Writing Award, administered by the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers, is just one of 15 in the country. Past recipients include Sylvia Plath and Truman Capote.

"I'm not used to having that much exposure," says Devlin, who accepted the award in front of a packed house during a ceremony at New York's Carnegie Hall. "I'm not sure if that was the best or worst thing, to be in front of that many people."

Devlin's eight-film portfolio included the one-minute film Strophe, Antistrophe, Catastrophe (dans le clair du temps) — she's fluent in French — and the films were screened on a loop at Parsons School of Design. They now are among items in an exhibit touring the country.

Devlin started making films in grammar school, and in 2009 her class assignment — a two-minute film called Writer's Block — earned three awards at the Louisiana Film Festival; it also was named the best film from a student.

This fall, Devlin taught filmmaking and animation to students at Lusher Charter School. While taking a break from Loyola University, where she's a freshman majoring in French, Devlin is working on several small films and music videos, including a stop-motion project and a full-length feature.

"Now that I'm out of school, I'm working on a lot of my own projects," she says. Several of Devlin's films are screening at the Contemporary Arts Center's Cinema Reset through Dec. 2. — Alex Woodward



Katherine Erny Gaar, 39

Founder, Frenchmen Art Market

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

With its clusters of chairs illuminated by table lamps and holiday lights, the Frenchmen Art Market resembles an intimate courtyard party more than a retail hotspot. That's exactly what Katherine Erny Gaar envisioned when she launched it in April.

"I make it very homey and inviting," she says. "I have it lit and pretty so people act like bugs and just naturally come in." The market is open from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. Thursday through Sunday.

By tapping into the vibrant Frenchmen Street nightlife, Gaar puts artists directly in the path of people looking to have fun and spend money.

"Most tourists now want to go to down to Frenchmen," says Gaar, a former jewelry designer. "The entire area is growing that way. It's not like other art markets where the artists have to decide, 'Are the people going to be there or not?' I'm bringing the artists to the people."

Gaar also saw a need to bridge a gap between the established Royal Street art scene and the emerging arts district on St. Claude Avenue in order to provide a platform for new artists as well as to offer everyone a fun way to experience art.

"It's just a lot of people hanging out, and the artists do really well," Gaar says. "Every day we redesign the layouts. People ask, 'Why don't you have premarked spots?' But I don't want this to be a normal market. I want it to be an art event." — Missy Wilkinson



Kathleen Gasparian, 39

Immigration attorney and partner, Ware|Gasparian

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

A grandchild of Armenian refugees who immigrated to the U.S., Kathleen Gasparian had always believed in the American dream. In her 20s, she was working at Loyola University with international scholars who wanted to move here — and it occurred to her that she could help immigrants realize their dreams.

"I thought, 'This is what I've got to do,'" she says. "I've got to help people get here." A firm push from a colleague led Gasparian to enter law school.

Now a partner at Ware|Gasparian, she's active in the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the Association of International Educators. She spends most of her time, however, helping people pursue citizenship.

It's not easy, due to the public's increasing hostility toward undocumented residents. "A lot of times when people hear I'm an immigration attorney, they say, 'I hope you're the one kicking them out,'" she says. "But that is a great opportunity to educate them and break down the mythology.

"The myths of the undocumented are very harsh: They are all using our health care system and costing us money and committing crimes. That always frustrates me."

The victories make it all worthwhile. Gasparian recalls certain asylum cases — a priest who faced harm upon return to his native Rwanda; Soviet nationals whose homosexuality made their country a hostile environment; immigrant women afraid to leave their abusive husbands — as reasons to keep going.

"I keep families together, and I help people find their future here in the U.S.," she says. "I have the best job in the world." — Eileen Loh



Kevin Griffin, 29

Radio producer; Founding member of 2-Cent Entertainment

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Anyone who wants proof of the power of a mentor need look no further than Kevin Griffin.

A producer at WBOK Radio and founding member of 2-Cent Entertainment, Griffin is also the product of a horrific childhood spent in the youth prison at Tallulah. Behind bars from the ages of 10 to 15, "I grew up fast," Griffin says. "I experienced a lot of stuff no kid should experience."

Upon his release, Griffin was angry and bitter. Two mentors — teacher Troy Moore and Moore's friend Sean Varnado — helped the teenager change his life. Now, through his media outlets, Griffin produces positive content by and for at-risk youth. That means giving them a voice: their 2 cents.

"They're kids," Griffin says. "They have feelings, and they know what people say about them. Don't underestimate them, because they're smart."

Griffin credits reliable role models for the man he's become. "Sean was there for me through thick and thin," he says. "He made me want to be in the lives of young people and do something different and positive. He was in his 30s, making six figures, single, no kids. He could've been doing a hell of a lot different with his time and money."

Now Griffin is trying to get more adults to step up. "When you see these young kids who are hurting, especially young black boys, please don't sit on the sidelines," he says. "Dealing with them is like doing heart surgery. It's a sensitive process. You can't hold them so tight you hurt them, but you can't be too loose or they'll get away." — Eileen Loh



Stephen Benjamin "Ben" Hales, 38

Senior Vice President, Marketing and Business Development,

New Orleans Saints and New Orleans Hornets

Ben Hales is a busy man.

In addition to life at home with wife Dr. Kendall Goodier Hales and daughters Madison, 9, and Caroline, 4, Ben Hales is in the midst of a most unusual New Orleans Saints season, his 13th with the NFL organization, as he prepares for his inaugural campaign with the NBA Hornets, acquired earlier in the year by his boss, Tom Benson.

Hales has performed duties for the Saints ranging from broadcasting to stadium operations to game entertainment to community affairs and youth programs. He played a vital role in inking the Superdome sponsorship deal with Mercedes-Benz. In an email, he characterized that deal as "a tremendous benefit to our city" in creating a partnership that now "hosts the many highly rated televised sporting events we host in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that function as an advertisement for our city and region."

Considering all the Saints' successes in recent years, as a brand and as a team, Hales predicts similar results with the Hornets. That franchise has been one of the NBA's worst teams in recent years, but it now holds great promise thanks to Tom Benson's purchase of the team and the addition of budding stars Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers during this year's draft.

"Our teams' long-term success is directly tied to the growth and success of New Orleans and the Gulf South region," Hales says. "It only makes sense for us to be invested in, and be an active participant, in that growth." — Frank Etheridge




Marshall Hevron, 35

Attorney, Adams and Reese LLP

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

When Marshall Hevron went to his first meeting of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post in New Orleans in 2005, he was surprised to be the youngest person in the room. After meetings where the number of members continued to shrink, Hevron and a few others joined together to revive the post, making it relevant for younger veterans like themselves. Where once a group of eight was a good showing, Hevron's recruitment efforts have brought together more than 100 veterans.

"For those who joined the military at a young age, went to war and saw combat and are now back home, it's hard when no one in their peer group knows where they're coming from," he says. " [The post] provides a space where everyone knows who you are and where you're coming from."

The New Orleans native spent six months in Iraq in 2003; he worked for U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu both in Washington, D.C. and New Orleans before attending Tulane Law School and joining the legal team at Adams and Reese. He says the VFW post not only provides a space for veterans to talk freely among themselves, but also offers services for returning vets such as job placement, job preparation and legal advice.

"One thing we realized after we recruited members was that there was a community of veterans in New Orleans and no one had done anything to link them together," Hevron says.

"I hope to develop projects that impact not only the veteran population, but all of New Orleans. If anyone has the spirit to revive the city, it's our veteran population." — Marguerite Lucas



Rox'E Homstad, 38

Instructor, Lighthouse Louisiana

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Rox'E Homstad says the best way for someone to get her to do something is to tell her she can't. And because she's deaf and blind, she says people are always telling her what she can and cannot do.

"One of my goals is to really educate people about what a person with a disability, or a deaf/blind person can do," Homstad says. "I feel like I've made quite a bit of progress since moving here, but we have a long way to go yet."

Homstad has always been blind, but after returning to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures, she suffered health complications from mold growth that left her profoundly deafened. She recalls how difficult it was to navigate the city after the hurricane and flooding. "I remember how afraid I was, how it was a struggle every day to just get out of bed and face the world," she says. Instead she honed her skills in teaching blind and deaf individuals how to use assistive technology and to read Braille.

Raised in Idaho, Homstad was drawn to New Orleans after reading about the city in novels. She first became involved with the Lighthouse for the Blind New Orleans (now called Lighthouse Louisiana) in 2004, when she taught Braille at a summer camp for blind children, Homstad later designed a program to teach Braille to adults. She also helps clients use assistive technology, centered on telecommunication such as an iPhone paired with a Braille display.

"Historically, people who are deaf/blind have been very isolated and cut off from the rest of the world," Homstad says. "I love helping people who are deaf/blind to access the wide array of information out there ... teaching people to use these devices and letting them drink in the world." — Marguerite Lucas



Anna Hrybyk, 38

Disaster planning programs director, Louisiana Bucket Brigade

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

To Anna Hrybyk, disaster planning isn't limited to covering windows and sandbagging, and being a champion of the environment isn't limited to picking up trash and recycling. Hrybyk believes one disaster begets another, and that was proved true by Murphy Oil's million-gallon oil spill following Hurricane Katrina, Chalmette Refinery's 11 million-gallon release of polluted water after Hurricane Gustav and Stolthaven Chemical Plant's release of 191,000 gallons of chemicals in the wake of Hurricane Isaac.

"People will tell me, 'Oh, I'm used to the smell because I live right next to the refinery,' but I tell them that they're not supposed to smell that," Hrybyk says. "Part of the problem is that so many of us just think you're supposed to smell bad smells all the time that no one thinks to report it."

She is working to change that mindset and have companies be held responsible for polluting. "If it doesn't get reported, no one gets penalized for it and that's why reporting is so important," Hrybyk says. "If you smell something like oil, rotten eggs, cabbage or any other weird smell, you should first report it to us at 504-484-3433 and then call the state police's hazmat hotline at 877-925-6595."

Through Louisiana Bucket Brigade, residents who live next door to industrial plants can use an EPA-approved bucket to take air samples and learn whether the air they breathe has high concentrations of known irritants and carcinogens including benzene, carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide. Results of such bucket samples, along with reports of pollution, are listed on the Louisiana Bucket Brigade's iWitness Pollution map at — Megan Braden-Perry



Sara Hudson, 29

Web and social media coordinator, New Orleans Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Sara Hudson's one directive was to help prepare every New Orleanian for a hurricane. "We are the hurricane capital of the world, but there was no one place for people to get information before hurricanes happen and during and after," she says.

When she began working for the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in 2011, she proposed, designed and advocated for the website and @NOLAready Twitter handle to keep citizens informed about the storm, damage and government response.

Hudson proved her dedication during Hurricane Isaac, staying in City Hall and keeping residents updated through the website and Twitter, even when her contract with the city expired during the storm.

"There was no way I was going anywhere," Hudson says. "When there's a job to do, you do it."

She partnered with local volunteers, Evacuteer and the Red Cross to mobilize hundreds of volunteers attending a Lutheran conference in June to hand out more than 50,000 hurricane preparedness brochures in one day.

When her friend Rafael Delgadillo was injured in a shooting last year, Hudson helped create Respond Against Fear And Violence and organized RAFApalazooza, an event that raised more than $17,000 to help with Delgadillo's medical bills. Hudson also is a member of the Young Leadership Council and 504ward, and is a graduate of Emerging Philanthropists of New Orleans.

"Everything I've accomplished, I've accomplished working with extraordinary people," she says.

The NOLA Ready team has been invited to speak at a conference in California next year. When Hudson's boss told the organizer that NOLA Ready, which sent about 2,000 tweets during Hurricane Isaac, was a one-woman operation, they were surprised.

"When you meet Sara Hudson you will see, she is a small army," her boss replied. — Marta Jewson



Johanna Kalb, 34

Associate professor, Loyola University New Orleans College of Law

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Before she even passed the bar, Johanna Kalb was a student member of the litigation team that successfully challenged the use of military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld.

"Now I'm lucky to live in a city that's full of incredible social justice lawyers who are at the forefront of the movement to bring human rights home to the U.S.," Kalb says. "Loyola has also been a great fit for me as a university that's deeply engaged with the community, where commitment to social change is part of the educational mission."

The 2011 Loyola Professor of the Year and author of a forthcoming casebook on human rights advocacy, Kalb decided to concentrate on human rights law because she felt discouraged by the human condition: "Law school can be frustrating for students who care about the problems of poverty and inequality in the U.S.," she says. "I became interested in human rights law while I was in school because it offered a way through the impasse, since federal and state law often doesn't offer very satisfying solutions to these issues."

Kalb is helping pilot a human rights clinic at the Loyola College of Law to assist law students who feel the same frustration she did — and as a vehicle to campaign for human rights.

"This kind of partnership epitomizes Loyola's commitment to learning through service," Kalb says. "Students can apply what they're learning in the classroom to increase the impact of the work of social justice advocates in practice, creating an amazing synergy." — Megan Braden-Perry



Mark LeBlanc, 27

Paralympic Sailor

Photo by Amory Ross

As an elite competitive sailor, Mark LeBlanc finds it interesting that he still trains with the same drills he learned growing up. "They're just a little more complicated, but it always comes down to the basics," says LeBlanc, who competed in the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

LeBlanc, who was born without a left forearm, grew up on the water, learning sailing from his dad and grandfather. As a kid he loved team racing, and in his teen years he taught sailing to disadvantaged children.

Though it was late in the game, LeBlanc decided in 2007 to compete for a spot in the 2008 Paralympics in the 2.4-meter category. He considered it a precursor for the 2012 trials, but LeBlanc ended up coming so close to winning — losing on a tiebreaker — that he was crushed.

He shifted his focus to the 2012 games: raising funds, training hard and getting organized. His persistence paid off when he placed first in the trials for the games in London.

Though at a disadvantage as an American in a European-dominated sport ("In the U.S., sailing is seen more as a hobby, but over there, some of the sailors have salaries," he says.) — LeBlanc competed well. He raced in 10 events, recording five top-5 finishes and placing sixth overall. "It was a three-week adrenaline rush," he says.

LeBlanc has put sailing on the back burner for now as he searches for a job in civil engineering. "The guys in the boats ahead of me (in the London games) were in their 40s," he says, "so I have plenty of time to go back." — Eileen Loh




Angela Massey, 18

Student, Boston University

Photo by Nicole Sievers

Angela Massey's galactic research was published in a scholarly journal before she had even received her diploma from Lusher High School. A six-week research internship in science and engineering at Boston University (BU) in 2011, the summer before her senior year in high school, led to the paper "Refined Metallicity Indices for M Dwarfs Using the SLoWPoKES Catalog of Wide, Low-mass Binaries," in which Massey was listed as a co-author. The paper was published in the March issue of The Astronomical Journal.

"I looked at binary pairs in our Milky Way which are stars close enough together that their gravity causes them to orbit around each other," says Massey, who wrote computer code to sort through a large database and establish which stars really were pairs and which were just "perceived" pairs. "These stars make up 70 percent of the star population of our galaxy, so they hold a lot of information about the makings of our galaxy."

Currently a freshman at BU, Massey is studying astronomy and physics and is again working with researcher Andrew West, her mentor last summer. "He made my first experience with astronomy amazing," Massey says. She also is working alongside graduate and post-doctorate students in West's lab and says one of the best things about college is seeing the research applied.

Massey had never studied astronomy before she applied for the BU internship, but stated she was "very interested and would work hard." She now plans to earn a doctorate in physics or astronomy and eventually become a professor. — Marta Jewson



Max Materne, 25

General Manager of After-Sales, The Transportation Revolution

Zachary Materne, 30

General Manager of Sales, The Transportation Revolution

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

The Materne brothers both began riding motorcycles in 2002, the same year their family became involved in the industry by opening a Vespa dealership along Bayou St. John. Younger by five years, Max was 15 at the time and used a provision in his state-issued motorcycle endorsement that allowed him to ride within a 1-mile distance of his home in the Gentilly subdivision of Lake Oaks.

"It was closed off, a pretty easy, safe place to ride," Max says.

Today he enjoys pushing his Daytona 675 bike to speeds more than 155 mph while riding at The NOLA Motorsports Park in Avondale, a new attraction that promises to transform local interest in the Maternes' passion and profession. NOLA Motorsports, with Zachary's help, already has brought the first professionally sanctioned motorcycle race to Louisiana — the AMA pro racing finale, The Triumph Big Kahuna — fostering a huge surge in local exposure to a sport that's as big as NASCAR in Europe but little-known in America. It's also brought an expansion of the Maternes' family-owned and operated business, The Transportation Revolution in the Central Business District, with the recent opening of their Speed Shop at NOLA Motorsports Park.

"[The new park is] not only for the guys who want to do track days and spectator racing, but it's given us a location for a business that really works out there," Zachary says. "It's not only a garage, but we have a 400-square-foot lounge with a bar, couches and a TV. We offer a valet service to keep and maintain your bike for you. Some marinas do this, as do some horse stables, but no one had yet been doing this here."

He credits the success of their business — which was initially the venture of their parents, Gayle and Stephen — to Max's stellar reputation for servicing bikes using the dynamometer technology novel to New Orleans — and both brothers' passion for the sport.

"Really," Zachary says, "we're trying to engage you in the whole bike culture." — FRANK ETHERIDGE



Alexander McConduit, 26

Children's author, Founder of W.R.I.T.E.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

As a native New Orleanian, Alexander McConduit wanted to see more books with characters to which children in the Crescent City could relate easily. While working his day job, the muse hit him: "I was working at Harrah's for two years doing social media marketing when one day the words 'The Little Who Dat' just popped into my head, so I thought it would be a good idea for a book, and then I just wrote it," McConduit says.

Following the success of his books, The Little Who Dat Who Didn't and Snowballs for All, McConduit founded a children's publishing program called Write, Read & Illustrate to Educate (W.R.I.T.E.), which he operated at SciTech Academy with 80 second-graders. Through W.R.I.T.E., McConduit helps children foster their creativity by teaching them the basics of writing, illustrating and publishing over a three-week period, and inviting guest presenters such as 2009 40 Under 40 honoree Brandan Odums and local children's author Denise McConduit, Alexander's aunt.

Alexander is still involved in freelance social media marketing, and he used fundraising site IndieGoGo to raise almost enough money to cover the cost of publishing all the students' books using and CreateSpace.

He is eager to bring W.R.I.T.E. to another school and perhaps another grade. He currently is working on his third book, Buddy Goes to the Bowl, a sequel to The Little Who Dat Who Didn't and the second in a series Alexander plans to continue. — Megan Braden-Perry



Allen C. Miller, 39

Attorney, Phelps Dunbar LLP

President, New Orleans Chapter of Court Appointed Special Advocates

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

When he's not winning court cases, Allen C. Miller is volunteering with the New Orleans Chapter of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), WRBH Radio for the Blind and Print Handicapped, the Young Leadership Council (YLC), the Metropolitan Area Committee and Odyssey House Louisiana.

"CASA is an organization that deals with abused and neglected children, ensuring that those individuals who typically don't have a voice, do have a voice," Miller says. "I've been the president for the last three years. Our job is to ensure that the child has an independent third-party [who] makes a recommendation to the court considering the child's well-being and what's in his best interest."

Miller also is involved with several legal organizations and has been commended by the Children's Defense Fund. Yet, he originally had no desire to become a lawyer: "I took a strange journey toward being a lawyer," he say. "The reality was just that I was really good with the liberal arts in school. I was an English major who loved the English language, so I found that the best use of what I believed to be my strong points was to be a lawyer.

"I love being a litigator because it's like theater to me. You get to wear many different hats, so solving your clients' problems is always fun. And I do both sides, plaintiff and defense work, so I see a variety of things, and my life is never dull. I really enjoy being an advocate, whether for children or my clients." — Megan Braden-Perry



Nicolas Nevares, 31

Event experiences director, Solomon Group

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Born on Christmas, event planner Nicolas Nevares was perhaps destined to grow up to create dazzling, delightful celebrations. In fact, he centers each event on one goal: to make guests happy.

"The first question I ask a client is, 'What do you want your guests to remember? What is the experience you want them to take away?' Then we backtrack and build the event to create that feeling. We start with the big picture, then design the puzzle."

Nevares started his career as a Loyola student, helming a fundraising gala for the Geoffrey Scholarship — the first endowed scholarship at a Jesuit university created for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. That event caught the eye of Tony Leggio at Blaine Kern Productions, who eventually hired Nevares.

Nevares later moved to BBC Destination Management and became a certified meeting professional. In 2009, the Association of Destination Management Executives named him "Rising Star of the Year." Now at Solomon Group, Nevares serves as education chairman for the International Special Events Society. He's known internationally as an industry expert on technology trends.

Despite all the accolades, it still boils down to the excitement of creating a thrilling event. Nevares recalls attending the Lazarus House fundraiser on Halloween in New Orleans, while still at Loyola.

"It was so over-the-top and such a great party; it made me realize that this is what I wanted to do," says Nevares, who has organized the successful Lazarus Ball for the nonprofit. "It's always had a special place in my heart." — Eileen Loh




Erin Reho Pelias, 32

Owner, ZukaBaby

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

When Erin Reho Pelias couldn't find cloth diapers or other natural products she wanted locally, she opened a store so other parents in New Orleans wouldn't face the same issue.

"These are products that are hard to buy online if you've never seen them and you don't know what size you need," Pelias says.

She opened ZukaBaby, a natural parenting boutique, on Magazine Street three years ago. It offers cloth diapers, baby clothes, breastfeeding supplies, eco-friendly feeding items and more. The store also hosts natural parenting classes.

Pelias is a founding member of the Green Light District, a group of eco-conscious businesses in the Lower Garden District.

She became interested in a holistic view of the body when a chiropractor told her that diet was an important part of recovering from a back injury. She received training in nutrition and holistic diets, which influenced her parenting style.

"Having a baby swayed me over to natural parenting," Pelias says. "I wanted to be able to bring my daughter to work." She recently completed the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program. "It has really helped me grow my business," she says.

Pelias helps coordinate a community garden near her home as well as organizing ecology awareness events through the Green Light District. — Marta Jewson



Josh Perry, 35

Executive director, Juvenile Regional Services

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

"Our clients have been denied so much, and need so much," Josh Perry says. "Our clients have not been educated well; they have been denied the mental health care they need; they don't have the physical health care they need. They do not have family support."

Perry is a juvenile public defender and his clients are the at-risk, impoverished youth of the New Orleans area and, to an extent, all of Louisiana. Not only has Perry steered the independent nonprofit into a holistic model — connecting clients with social, educational and health services they lack — but he travels around Louisiana teaching public defenders how to effectively represent juveniles.

"We fight for the dignity and rights of our clients," he says, "and not just strong case outcomes, but strong life outcomes." That involves providing clients with a rehabilitative "holistic model of defense" plus "zealous advocates and strong, passionate defenders," Perry says.

"People presume I work for guilty kids trying to get them off, and they don't know how many of our clients are factually innocent of what they're accused of ... but they also don't realize that doesn't matter," he says.

"Our clients, when they come into the justice system, learn how people in power are prepared to treat them. If we show them they can't trust us, we show them they can't trust their government. If we show them their rights won't be respected, we show them that nobody's rights should be respected," Perry says. "We're part of the solution. We're part of fixing this." — Eileen Loh



Jolene Pinder, 34

Executive director, New Orleans Film Society

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

"Tired? Yeah, I guess I'm a little tired," Jolene Pinder says with a laugh a few days after the close of the successful New Orleans Film Festival (NOFF). She is a huge part of why the local festival has grown so tremendously, with Pinder working hard to obtain sponsorships, expand the breadth of programming and increase the number and quality of submissions.

The Tallahassee, Fla., native landed her position as executive director of the New Orleans Film Society, the organization which has presented NOFF for the past 23 years, during the 2010 festival, which Pinder had been invited to participate in as a juror in the documentary division. At the time, she was living in New York City, where she produced documentaries and orchestrated the city's Media that Matters film festival.

Pinder, whose University of Florida Documentary Institute thesis evolved into the Emmy-winning Bismillah, a profile of a Muslim woman in Minneapolis leading a Girl Scout troop and running for mayor, wanted to return to the South, "but it had to be at the right time and the right job," she says. Clearly, she found both.

"The film industry here wanted to be engaged in [NOFF]," she says. "They just needed someone to make the connection. It just makes sense to have a major film festival and also promote the work of local, independent filmmakers. We're very pleased with this year's results, but also really working to expand." — Frank Etheridge



Nik Richard, 26

Author; Transportation Planner, Regional Planning Commission

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Whether writing poetry or screenplays, painting from imagination or memory, planning transportation or communities, Nik Richard keeps one motivation in mind: his hometown, New Orleans. In 2008, Richard won an NAACP Award, AFI Silverdocs Award and a PBS P.O.V. Award for the short film about disaster tourism, New Orleans For Sale. Also in 2008, he wrote, illustrated and published Love and Water, a book of poetry about his feelings for and frustration with New Orleans.

"Man, that's so old!" Richard says. "I'm writing another book, A Dream for Sale, which should be out soon, but separate from that and my work for the Regional Planning Commission, I've been working on urban planning." Richard's latest project is a study on the land use of the Milne Boys Home, including an architect's blueprint of what the land could look like with recreational space, taking into consideration historical use.

Richard, appointed to the Alcohol Beverage Control Board by former City Council President Arnie Fielkow, will upload his study onto so citizens can learn about development realities. "I've been trying to educate people on the history of [Milne Boys Home] because there are so many restrictions with what you can do with the property," Richard says. "My plan focuses on bringing all those documents [to] one place, educating people on who's in charge of it, what the purpose of it was and then doing land use studies.

"They're printing stories in the paper, which get people excited but really aren't about anything because all they're saying is that they're cutting the grass and fixing the windows." — Megan Braden-Perry



Tommy Santora, 33

Communications specialist, Adams and Reese LLP

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Tommy Santora likes to stay busy. Head of communications at Adams and Reese LLP, he also works as a freelance journalist, plays sports or exercises most nights and volunteers. That's a full plate by most standards, but Santora faces an extra challenge: He has myasthenia gravis (MG), a rare muscular dystrophy disease that causes chronic fatigue, muscle weakness and a host of other intermittent symptoms.

Diagnosed at age 12, Santora underwent thymus removal surgery and manages the disease with medication, diet and exercise. When he began experiencing double vision in 2011, he looked for a support group but found there wasn't one in New Orleans.

"I called the national foundation in New York and they said 'If you want to start one, we're more than willing to have you go ahead,'" Santora says. He used his marketing background to publicize the new group. "Thirty people showed up at the first meeting," he says. "The Muscular Dystrophy Association says there are about 60 people diagnosed in New Orleans."

Encouraged by the feedback, Santora organized a fundraiser MG walk with a $25,000 goal. New Orleans was the first and only city to achieve its fundraising goal.

"I used every trick from my marketing and journalism background, and it all came together," Santora says. "I've got to use my talents in the professional field to create interest for the support group and raise funds to research this disease, because there's a long way to go." — Missy Wilkinson



Shaun Walker, 28

Reid Stone, 29

Co-owners, HERO|farm

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Reid Stone and Shaun Walker owe the success of their marketing strategy and design company, in part, to two disasters: Hurricane Katrina and the economic collapse of 2008. Katrina gave them the impetus to return to New Orleans: "I wanted to be part of a defining generation that didn't give up on a city and was here in its darkest hours," Walker says. A series of layoffs at the large advertising agency where Stone and Walker met led them to strike out on their own. "After the first round of layoffs, we were thinking, 'What would happen if we did our own thing?'" Stone says. "The axe fell, and we hit the ground running. Four years later, we're still here."

The business they created, HERO|farm, has doubled its revenue every year while racking up a series of accolades, including being named Business of the Year by the International Association of Business Communicators. Stone and Walker are members of Tulane University's Public Board of Advisors, and they were among YFS Magazine's Top 20 Young Entrepreneurs of 2011.

Their mission is a humble one: "With everything we do, we want to give back in some way or do something that benefits someone," says Walker, a New Orleans native.

"Do great work for good people is our motto," Stone says. "If we're going to interrupt someone's day with a message, we want it to benefit them somehow. That's the filter we put on all our marketing."

HERO|farm does at least one pro bono campaign per year for a nonprofit. Past pro bono clients include New Orleans Mission, March of Dimes, Green Light New Orleans and Boy Scouts of America. Stone says that's one way he and Walker create opportunities to do meaningful work.

"When we started this company, we wanted it to be more than just advertising," Stone says. "Having made ads for people who were a flash in the pan — that's not a legacy. But leaving messages that make somebody smile or fixing things in our community, that's the guts of what we try to do." — Missy Wilkinson



Andre Lewis, 26

Drilling Engineer, Chevron North American Exploration and Production Company

Co-Founder, Verius Property Group

Michael Merideth, 26

Co-Founder/Vice President of Commercial Development,

Verius Property Group

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Montgomery, Ala., native Andre Lewis moved to New Orleans to accept a lucrative position with Chevron after graduating from Tuskegee University with a degree in mechanical engineering. He settled in Kenner and while traveling around the metro area, he noticed a troubling amount of blighted property and sub-standard housing.

Lewis partnered with his longtime friend, Tuskegee Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity brother Michael Merideth and founded Verius Property Group to provide housing solutions for low-income families. The company already has established 20 units and amassed $1 million in assets. It partners with the City of New Orleans' affordable housing initiative and is active in the Jefferson and St. Bernard Parish markets.

"Seeing these units before and after, it's amazing," Lewis says.

Merideth also came to New Orleans to work for Chevron on offshore rigs. While at Tuskegee, he played short-stop and second-base before playing in the minor leagues, first for the Milwaukee Brewers, then in Arizona and New Jersey.

"Work brought me to New Orleans," Merideth says. "From there, I transitioned in my entrepreneurial endeavor. I always wanted to be a business owner, and ... I took a leap of faith and it has taken off from there.

"Our mission (at Verius) from the very beginning is to provide high-quality, financially affordable housing for people regardless of their physical condition or economic situation." The two friends now are working to expand the Verius model to Alabama and New York.

"What I've learned," Merideth says, "is that you can be successful at anything that you have passion for." — FRANK ETHERIDGE




Kelly Schulz, 38

Vice President of Communications and Public Relations, New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

When Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, Kelly Schulz was living and working in Texas. The storm and ensuing levee failures flooded the region and destroyed her family's home in St. Bernard Parish.

"I'm from New Orleans and went to LSU, but I lived in Dallas for 10 years and loved my job as a publicist," she says, "But then the offer came [to work as the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau's vice president of communications and public relations]. People in Dallas thought I was crazy (to move to a devastated city). But it was such a great opportunity — an opportunity to come home and help rebuild the city by helping promote tourism."

Saying the success of tourism is largely "based on perception and impression," Schulz and her team have succeeded in countering misinformed perceptions like those she encountered in Dallas following Katrina, as well as those that surfaced after the BP oil disaster in April 2010.

"Even in 2007, when we had the Convention Center back open, the Superdome back open, we got calls asking, 'Do your hotels have electricity?' After the oil spill, we had to inform people it was 100 miles away.

"Basically, we've gone from 3 million visitors, and these were mosly FEMA workers and emergency contractors, in 2006 to 8.75 million in 2011, which is better than a typical year pre-Katrina," Schulz says. "For the past six years, it's been incredible to be a part of the tourism industry, which has been key to the city's recovery." — Frank Etheridge



Dana Stumpf, 37

CAO, Durr Heavy Construction

President, Gentilly Landfill

Founder, Samson LLC

Dana Stumpf believes soccer is the sport of the next generation in New Orleans, a belief that led her to found Samson LLC, a program to facilitate soccer camps and community programs for local youths in 2008.

“Soccer is the world’s sport,” she says. “It was so fascinating to me that it is popular everywhere else but the U.S. However, that is steadily changing.”

Shortly after founding Samson, the business purchased the minor league soccer team, the New Orleans Jesters. Stumpf says she wanted the team to be “a uniquely New Orleans brand focused on the NOLA family regardless of their background, race or culture.”

In 2012, she gave the team to NOLA Soccer Academy (NSA), the nonprofit community/youth affiliate of the Jesters that works with organizations such as the Carrollton Boosters and Big Easy Sports. Stumpf stresses that the Jesters and NSA are focused on quality development and players’ overall experience rather than mass-producing average players.

“We want kids and families to truly learn about the beautiful game and become fans for life,” Stumpf says. “We focus on development both on and off the field.”

Besides her passion for youth and soccer, Stumpf spends her time as the Chief Administrative Officer at Durr Heavy Construction, as well as president of Gentilly Landfill.

Stumpf says her passion for New Orleans has inspired her involvement in the city.

“I only have the right to expect certain things of my community if I am willing to contribute and work hard to get them,” she says. — Marguerite Lucas



Ashley Thomas, 27

Owner, Creative Vibe

Outreach and communications specialist, Total community action

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Ashley Thomas founded Creative Vibe because she believes small businesses should be able to market themselves as well as large corporations do. The New Orleans native and Xavier University graduate's idea for a company providing graphic design, T-shirt design and photography services won her an $18,000 start-up fund from the Allan Houston Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurship.

"My mission is to provide affordable, accessible and quality graphic design services to all business owners," says Thomas, a graphic designer and photographer.

Thomas is the outreach and communications specialist at Total Community Action (TCA), a nonprofit that provides a range of services to families in need; she also has performed design work for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and Roots of Music. Through TCA, Thomas conducts a summer program to teach young people graphic design, which they can develop into marketable skills. Her work with the TCA prompted the National Community Action Agency to invite her to make a presentation at the group's annual conference.

Creative Vibe has done design work for New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Roots of Music, and Thomas also finds time to maintain the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship's website as a volunteer.

She plans to continue working in the community and hopes to become a well-recognized name in New Orleans, all while helping business owners help themselves. — Marta Jewson



Iam Christian Tucker, 29

President/CEO, Integrated Logistical Support Inc.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Whether she's working undercover as a police officer, or running an engineering company responsible for some of New Orleans' most critical public projects, Iam Tucker says she just wants to give back to the community.

Growing up in an engineering family, "I didn't have dolls, I had IBMs," says Tucker, whose father Robert founded Integrated Logistical Support Inc. (ILSI). Tucker went in her own direction at first, majoring in criminal justice at Louisiana State University and becoming a Baton Rouge police officer. Worried about police work putting his daughter in harm's way, Tucker's father lured her back into the business in 2008.

"It was so hard to leave being a police officer," Tucker says, "but once I got back to New Orleans, I loved it."

The skills she learned as a police officer — self-reliance, leadership and an ability to handle the unexpected — helped Tucker transition into her role heading up a minority woman-owned civil engineering company.

"Being a leader is the same in any field," she says.

Under her leadership, ILSI landed contracts with the Army Corps of Engineers for levee fortification, the Sewerage and Water Board for street improvements, as well as other large projects important to area residents.

"It is a lot of pressure to get it right," she says. "Working on the levees — I care about them so much. I trust in our work so much that I just bought a lot right there on Bellaire Drive (just steps from the 17th Street Canal). Our expertise is pretty damn good." — Eileen Loh



Allen Villarubia, 27

Commercial Underwriter, Gulf Coast Bank and Trust

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

New Orleans native Allen Villarubia's short career path has already yielded huge benefits not only for himself, but also for his hometown and professional and personal passions.

As an undergraduate at the University of New Orleans, Villarubia was a triple major in finance, economics and business administration while also working full-time for the Louisiana Small Business Development Center (SBDC). During an 18-month period, his work with the center raised more than $10 million in capital for local businesses, earning Villarubia the 2010 Louisiana Startup Superstar award.

"It was a lot of Main Street, places you and I go in," Villarubia says of the enterprises he worked with at SBDC. "But they represent a wide variety of industries."

He returned to UNO to earn his Master of Business Administration degree, with a concentration in finance. His responsibilities at SBDC primarily involved connecting entrepreneurs with loan officers at banks and the federal Small Business Administration program.

"I spent a lot of my focusing on loans, so I became [SBDC] office's loan expert," Villarubia says. "That's what led me to my current position [as commercial underwriter for Gulf Coast Bank and Trust]."

Now, the Lower Garden District resident looks to parlay this professional experience to help boost his passion: volleyball, a sport without a facility in post-Katrina Orleans Parish. "We're trying to raise the capital to secure a location and launch [NOLA Beach Volleyball]," Villarubia says. "It's an exciting process." — FRANK ETHERIDGE