Women Leading Through COVID-19
While the nation struggles with a new normal, these local women are among those leading their companies and organizations to provide help wherever they can.
Not long after Gov. John Bel Edwards issued the statewide stay-at-home order on March 22, New Orleans emerged as one of the first “hot spots” for cases in the nation. By mid-April, Louisiana had over 21,000 confirmed cases and climbing, and over 277,000 residents had filed for unemployment in the midst of what has become “the great shutdown.” Amid the turmoil, businesses and organizations in every industry are doing all they can to survive with no known end in sight.
In this, our annual women’s issue, Biz New Orleans is honored to share the efforts of six local women who are leading their organizations with the goal of not just surviving, but helping others weather the storm. Whether its pivoting to provide protective gear, petitioning lawmakers for change, or gathering the efforts of a whole industry to help some of the hardest hit, these women are leading with compassion, courage and ingenuity in a time that’s trying not only our region, but the world.
Using Tech to Lower the Threat
Founder of DOCPACE
Shelby Sanderford has a goal that’s particularly relevant right now. The 28-yearold New Orleans native wants to keep patients out of doctors’ waiting rooms.
To do this, her company, DOCPACE, is launching a text-messaging system that integrates with scheduling software at clinics. After testing it with two New Orleans clinics, Sanderford went public with it in mid-April. Patients sign up to be automatically alerted to delays and wait times — much like airline passengers do now with flights. This helps people avoid both the tedium of the waiting room and the threat of infection from other patients.
For physicians, DOCPACE provides data to help improve the process of scheduling appointments and, potentially, eliminate wait times. That could mean the ability to see more patients per day while improving patient satisfaction.
A graduate of Isidore Newman School with plans to become a physician, Sanderford changed course while a student at Southern Methodist University. During a college internship at Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, she learned about barriers to patient satisfaction, and that not only do providers not only want satisfied patients to return if necessary, their Medicare reimbursement depends on it.
“That was what triggered it,” Sanderford said.
Sanderford formed DOCPACE in 2014, envisioning the product as a mobile phone application. But after earning a master’s degree in business administration at Tulane University and raising some money, she transformed it into its current form. The company has five employees and contracts with a software developer.
Sanderford said COVID-19 has prompted her to add screening questions for patients (e.g., have they traveled to a coronavirus hotspot recently?) and more texts about avoiding infection.
The current climate, she said, has made her technology even more valuable.
“[Medical staff] can text patients exactly when the exam room is ready so they can wait in their car and come in when it’s time to be seen,” she said.
Amid COVID-19, DOCPACE is providing its service for free.
“This is an interesting time to have a healthcare startup,” Sanderford said. “I think a lot of opportunity will come out of it.”
Shortening the Payment Wait for Small Businesses
Founder and CEO of Baton Financial
After a 30-year corporate career focused on the financial side of small businesses, Rissi Lovern founded her own New Orleans company, Baton Financial Services Inc., in December 2017 to help solve a common challenge that, especially now, can be particularly impactful on businesses trying to get by.
A small business selling products or services to another business or the government typically invoices to be paid in 30, 60 or 90 days. One study, however, found the average lag for U.S. small business, prepandemic, was 51 days, essentially putting the vendor “in the business of lending,” Lovern said.
“It causes a slowdown in the company’s cash operations flow,” Lovern said. “The average small business has only 27 days of cash reserves.”
A financial technology company, Baton Financial aspires to create a network of banks that will pay small B2Bs almost immediately on delivery of a product or service to customers, much as Visa and MasterCard do for credit card merchants. The banks, instead of the B2B, shoulder the delay until the customer pays.
Lovern, 53, conceived the idea after a long career at Hibernia National Bank in New Orleans, where she helped build the small business line into a $3.5 billion asset, and at Equifax Inc. in Atlanta.
“I became passionate about it — so obsessed with it that I really felt there was an opportunity to build what I call a B2B invoice payments network,” she said.
Product development and marketing were well underway when COVID-19 froze the U.S. economy, but that hasn’t deterred Lovern from looking out for small businesses.
Baton Financial and its investors are now working to impress on the Trump administration the challenge that many small B2Bs, closed by the pandemic, will face when they reopen, which includes hopefully helping to close the nail-biting gap between the time a business invoices a customer and the time it gets paid.
“The solution must not be debt,” she said. Baton Financial currently has 18 employees and an office in the Central Business District. It recently signed its first contract with a bank to sell its product to small businesses.
Meanwhile, Lovern is working to keep the conversation focused on the needs of the small businesses that make up so much of the country’s economy.
“I don’t know where the discussion is going to go,” she said
Selling Homes Without the Handshake
Principal partner of Francher Perrin Group
Open house tours for gaggles of agents and prospective buyers? Forget about it.
Real estate agents now count among their tasks disinfecting doorknobs and surfaces after house showings, now taking place by appointment only. Home inspectors might now visit a house under contract one at a time, instead of simultaneously. One closing attorney even ventured out to collect signatures separately from the seller and buyer, instead of convening the group around the conference table at a law office.
Those are among the changes that Leslie Perrin, principal of the Francher Perrin Group in New Orleans, has noticed while operating during COVID-19.
“Contracts can be signed digitally, deposits can be made virtually, and lenders can get over 75% of their documentation signed by borrowers digitally,” said Perrin.
“Title companies are taking the paperwork to both buyers and sellers to complete the transaction and close on the property. We are all adapting to this new way of doing business. Everyone is open to doing whatever the buyer and seller want,” she said.
That “whatever it takes” approach, she said, typifies the Francher Perrin Group, a boutique firm under the Gertrude Gardner Realtors umbrella. She and fellow agent Bryan Francher formed the group 20 years ago.
Perrin started working in real estate after a home-buying experience of her own showed her the need to educate buyers on how the process works. She took a real estate course, got licensed, signed on with Martha Ann Samuel Inc. and, amid selling houses, started a class for first-time buyers.
Notwithstanding this year’s pandemic, she said, “now is an excellent time to buy.” Chief among the reasons: Interest rates in mid-April remained as low as 3.25 percent, below even 2019 levels.
These days, buyers can virtually tour a house via photos and video, and still arrange a personal visit with the agent and client wearing gloves and masks. It’s fairly easy for vacant houses, but Perrin said some owners of occupied houses don’t want their property shown until the coronavirus threat has passed.
“That could put a damper on selling a house,” she said.
Closings, too, can be a bit slower if the plumbing inspector, electrical inspector and other specialists prefer not to do their work at the same time.
In working with agents, Francher Perrin now holds virtual office meetings instead of having people gather in one room. Gardner has also been pushing more training webinars instead of seminars. The Francher Perrin Group continues to advertise in print and on streetcars, but has found social media referrals have jumped.
“This has pushed social media to the max,” she said.
While the pandemic has hammered many retailers, Perrin said real estate has been holding strong.
“We’re very fortunate,” she said. “We’re still busy.”
From Sports Fan Gear to Protective Gear
Co-owner of Sparkle City
Co-owner of Sparkle City
Sports team apparel can be so dull. But Margo Cory of New Orleans and Jaime Glas of Baton Rouge have teamed up to put some bling into game day.
Their 18-month-old company, Sparkle City, takes a team’s name, or perhaps its mascot, adds style and sparkle in the team colors and sells the original design on T-shirts, tank tops, knit sweaters and other pieces.
“We pride ourselves on being the unlicensed brand,” Cory said.
As COVID-19 shut down the United States, the company pivoted quickly by creating a glittering “Wash Your Hands” T-shirt, from which 19 % of the proceeds were donated to local food banks. The shirts sold out so fast that Sparkle City pivoted again and started making fanciful face masks, too. Sparkle City masks include a tiger’s face option for Louisiana State University fans, a mask that mimics the faux stained-glass chalk art that homebound children have been making on fences and sidewalks, and a third that sports an image of a handlebar mustache.
“A lot of nurses and doctors reached out to us,” Cory said of the company’s masks. “[The masks] bring us joy and bring their patients joy.”
For every $20 mask sold, Sparkle City is able to donate five standard N95 face masks to Homeland Security officials for distribution where Louisiana needs them most. The company acquires N95 masks from its regular merchandise manufacturers, both of which are in China, Glas said.
Sparkle City’s two owners, both 31, first crossed paths while students at LSU. Although they ran in different circles, they were aware of each other because “we both wore bright, sparkly things,” Cory said.
Cory and Glas started the company in 2018 with 120 shirts: half themed for LSU and half for the New Orleans Saints. “We sold them in, like, a day,” Glas said.
At one point they received an email from LSU, not a cease-and-desist order for selling unlicensed merchandise, however, but a sales opportunity.
“We ended up outfitting the entire LSU sports operations office and the team’s parents, too,” Cory said.
Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, Sparkle City had already expanded to creating team apparel for colleges across the South. The company now has merchandise in 80 stores from Florida to Texas.
“Boutiques reached out to us before we ever thought about wholesaling,” Cory said.
The next targets are fans of the other 31 NFL teams and the huge Dallas Apparel & Accessories Market.
“Our whole thing is just creating brand awareness at this point,” Cory said.
Hospitality in the Time of COVID-19
Leah Sarris, RD, LDN
Executive director of New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute
Executive director of Louisiana Hospitality Foundation
Restaurants, bars, hotels — these jobs make up a big part of our economy, representing over 36,000 jobs in New Orleans alone, and all have been deeply affected by the current COVID-19 pandemic. From the first closings, the industry has been banding together to support workers and make every effort to hold on until brighter days arrive. Recently, Biz New Orleans spoke to the two women leading top organizations within this industry — the Louisiana Hospitality Foundation and the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute — to catch up on the multitude of different efforts in place to try and sustain one of the top tourism and culinary destinations in the world.
Jennifer Kelley, executive director of Louisiana Hospitality Foundation, has always worked within the organization’s mission to support hospitality workers in times of need through workforce development as well as need-based grants. Those grants have taken on a new urgency in the time of COVID-19, and Kelley has been endeavoring for weeks to source new funds and donors to support workers.
For Leah Sarris, RD, LDN, executive director of New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute (NOCHI), leading the relatively new culinary training center in this time has required flexibility and new ideas to serve students and generate donations. Her students and staff are pivoting to keep the momentum moving forward.
Why is philanthropy for tourism and hospitality workers important during this time?
Kelley: I know we say this all the time, but it’s true: We are different than the rest of the country. Our local economy isn’t built like other parts of the country and lacks diversification. This pandemic hit our workforce really hard. It’s very important to consider how we can provide support to the members of our community who have never seen anything like this, even with previous disasters such as hurricanes. So many of our residents are living near or in poverty, do not have savings or “rainy day” funds, and are struggling to piece together basic living resources such as shelter, food and medicines for their families. Now more than ever, we need philanthropic efforts to provide help to these people.
Sarris: The hospitality industry is low-margin and cash-reliant; bills are paid pretty much by people coming in the door. So, obviously the industry is struggling to simply pay the overhead, let alone their employees. Hence, there have been massive layoffs as we have to balance the longevity of business with the short-term costs of payroll. Getting us through this spot is not only necessary for us to be able to re-open our doors once this has passed, but also to be able to keep paying our workforce when they really need it. Most people in the hospitality industry live paycheck to paycheck, and this is the “busy season” in New Orleans that gets many people through the year. Even if this improves by August (if there are not still social distancing measures in place, which seems doubtful), that is a slow time in New Orleans, so our industry will not be able to make up for lost revenue.
How do you see the people and businesses of New Orleans stepping up to help right now?
Kelley: Louisiana Hospitality Foundation (LHF) is working with so many different support initiatives that make me proud to be from here! Neat Wines is donating $1 per bottle sold across the state of Louisiana, Dirty Coast has a T-shirt fundraiser, Fish Fry Fridays will conclude this week on Good Friday with an outstanding lineup of restaurants offering a $15 fish plate (entree and side) and $2 from every plate gets donated – and matched by Tabasco. New Orleans City Council President Helena Moreno rallied together New Orleanians to share their voices to encourage supporting the LHF fund for hospitality workers, Demario Davis of the Saints and his wife, Tamela, provided a $25,000 matching challenge, and there was a major gift from Peyton and Ashley Manning. These are just a few – the list is growing. We get excited when the phone rings from someone who wants to get involved. They also trust the fund and are encouraged to learn that 100% of each gift goes directly to awards!
Sarris: Wow – people are amazing! I see small restaurant owners preparing free staff meals for those laid off or in need simply by their own giving and asking for donations from those that are able, and succeeding (check out Palm & Pine, Toups Meatery and Blue Oak BBQ, to name a few)! I see massive efforts from nonprofit organizations to prepare food for everyone from hospital staff to the elderly and hospitality and gig workers. Check out Feed the Frontline NOLA from the Krewe of Red Beans. Talk about innovative! Their model supports everyone from restaurants to laid-off musicians and those on the frontline. World Central Kitchen has been working with Hands on New Orleans, Revolution Foods and NOCHI to distribute food to seniors in need, free of charge to them. Crescentcity.com is doing similar outreach with food, and my friend Sarah Manowitz even helped launch a virtual tipping system for bartenders (have a drink, tip a random bartender out of work!). The way people are stepping up really is amazing.
Is LHF considering increasing the per person grant amounts now or in the future?
Kelley: You are referring to the Hospitality Cares Pandemic Response Fund, our partnership with United Way of Southeast Louisiana. At this time, we are not considering increasing the amount per person. We are actively working within the fund’s program parameters and identifying eligible applicants to receive the awards. We are pleased to report that awards are going out daily. The responses have been heart-warming. Here’s some feedback we received from a recipient:
“I am a single mother who is in night school and now has lost her job because of the COVID-19 virus. I have my bills still coming and a young son to feed,” said a Hospitality Cares Fund grant recipient who wishes to remain anonymous. “I have been sitting here for two weeks wondering what I am going to do. As soon as I received this [notification] email, I cried instantly for I am so grateful there are such gracious souls out there that are willing to help us. People like me still have hope!”
Can you share any details about the impact COVID-19 is having on NOCHI specifically?
Sarris: It’s been challenging. Much of our revenue comes from events and public-facing classes, which have obviously abruptly stopped. As a nonprofit startup, there wasn’t a lot of padding to begin with. However, we are doing our best to be innovative and get through it, and we have a lot of supporters.
With our certificate program, we’ve had to move as many of the classes as we can online, quickly, as many schools have had to do. It has been especially challenging since learning to cook is very hands-on. However, our staff has done a wonderful job of making things happen, and our students have been incredibly flexible. We’re definitely looking forward to getting back into the kitchen. We’re not sure how this is going to affect us going forward, and for the rest of the year, but we’re rolling with the punches like the rest of the world.
What else should we know about your work?
Kelley: The 100% part [of gifts LHF receives] seems to be very uncommon in this field of relief work. We might not always be 100% toward the fund, with no administration fees, but this time we were able to set it up that way.
Our fund began issuing award emails on March 27, which was important timing for the recipients. We are still in the process of daily application review and awards for the fund, but the timing of being able to get the funds moving into the community before the first of the month – the first time people had to deal with their basic living expenses like rent – was so important. People are dealing with fear of the unknown, they don’t know how they can pay their bills when social distancing has closed down their employers, and federal stimulus money hasn’t yet made its way to individuals in our community. We are definitely providing a hand up when they need it most.
Sarris: We have been challenged to find innovative ways to teach and engage the public. Our ‘Cooking in Quarantine’ classes have been wildly successful. These pay-as-you-can classes are every Tuesday and Thursday at 5 p.m. I am leading them, demonstrating meals and working with people to adapt and eat great food on a budget using what is on hand. It’s actually been a very bright spot amongst all of this! You can learn more at nochi.org/shop, and I also recommend following us on Facebook.
By the Numbers
New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Jobs
Total number of jobs in New Orleans in 2017
are in the hotel industry (161 hotels)
are in full-service restaurants (564 restaurants)
in limited-service restaurants
are food service contractors
Total of 36,915 jobs or 17.76% of all jobs in New Orleans
SOURCE: Data Center Research, 2017