2012 People to Watch

They are up-and-comers.



Some of them hold vital positions and the power to make our city better. Others are just getting started on personal goals and milestones that will distinguish them from the crowd. But these 14 people have one thing in common: they are all worth keeping our eyes on.

So here they are, alphabetical and phenomenal, our People to Watch in 2012.

Portraits were provided by Eric LaCour, Cody Willhite and Cord McPhail

Watch an exclusive video of our cover photo shoot on YouTube.

Hector Alila

Kenyan-born Hector Alila believes cancer will be cured “like smallpox was” and fully intends to be part of making that happen right here in Baton Rouge. Alila came to the States in his 20s as a student and earned a Ph.D. in physiology and immunology from Cornell. He spent more than 20 years in management, drug development and research, mostly in Pennsylvania, before moving here. His biotech startup, Esperance Pharmaceuticals, was formed in 2005 and became operational in 2007. “We started with three and are now nine,” says Alila, “all originally working at LSU except for me.”

Esperance is currently testing a drug that, if successful, will target and kill cancer cells without harming normal tissue in the body. The chemotherapy that most patients undergo as a part of current cancer treatment is “a scorched-earth approach,” says Alila. EP-100, the drug currently in the first phase of testing, “has the potential for changing all that. Patients would actually have the opportunity to get better without having to be very sick.” The drug will enter its second phase of testing this year, and its focus will be on patients with advanced ovarian cancer. The trial will finish in 2013, and Alila says, “We are very optimistic.” esperancepharma.com—M.H.

Kenneth Brown

Relocating to Baton Rouge last August with his partner and two young children elicited several questions from the Los Angeles friends of renowned interior designer and TV star Kenneth Brown. Most people just wanted to know why.

The answer, in short, is family. He didn’t want a Hollywood upbringing for his son and daughter; he wanted to live near his sister, and he wanted to obey his mother. It was her dream that he move back home.

“I kept feeling little whispers saying, ‘You need to spend more time at home,’” Brown says. “Then my mom passing suddenly was the brick that hit me, and I thought, ‘What are you doing? How much success and how many houses do you need? Time and family are more precious.’”

The HGTV and TLC veteran is developing ideas for a Baton Rouge-set series while continuing his commercial and residential work nationwide.

Alarmed by recent budget cuts that gouged LSU’s interior design department—flawed decisions made by those who think the profession is merely picking out pillows, Brown says—he pitched in as an instructor last fall. Brown is excited to be returning to the university this semester.

“Baton Rouge has changed so much in the 17 years since I lived here,” he says. “People are calling it a new creative capital of the South, and why not? Some of my clients are now coming here with the movie industry. I never intended to live in Baton Rouge full-time, but I can tell you here and now, this move is full-time.” kennethbrowndesign.com—J.R.

Nikki Caldwell

Her first season began just two months ago, but the new LSU women’s basketball coach has been on the job since last April. On the home front, she’s expecting. On the professional front, she’s got a big goal: to lead the Lady Tigers to the NCAA tournament.

Caldwell says she’s preparing a team that “understands what it’s going to take to compete at the highest level.” That level would be, at the least, a seed in the NCAA tournament—a level the Lady Tigers did not reach last year.

“I want them to remember what that felt like … but I want them to be fueled by the potential of what they can do,” Caldwell says.

To reach that potential, she’s working the team on the court and in their psyches. “I want them staying in the moment, to play every possession like it is the last,” she says.

Caldwell, who played and coached at Tennessee before she was head coach at UCLA, was familiar with the intensity of sports fandom in Baton Rouge. But only after she moved here did she understand the full magnitude of the sports atmosphere here, she says, “especially for football.”

As she spends more time in Baton Rouge, and the LSU sports promotional machine grinds on, Caldwell finds herself recognized more and more around town. She says she almost had to pull over when she spotted a billboard with a familiar face—her own. twitter.com/nikkicaldwell —C.F.

Steve Carter

He always had an interest in politics, but never wanted to run against his friends who held office. Term limits opened the door in 2007, and Steve Carter jumped right in, winning the opportunity to represent District 68 by only 80 votes.

The Republican didn’t let his narrow margin of victory stop him from tackling one of the state’s thorniest problems: education. “I was fortunate enough to be put on the education committee,” he says. It was a natural for him—the former LSU men’s tennis coach and assistant athletic director has run children’s tennis camps for decades and has helped to bring the work ethic and character development he believes the sport promotes to inner-city children through after-school programs. (He still plays, but at his age, “it’s brutal.”)

“We’ve had some success,” says Carter of the Legislature’s efforts at education reform. “We attempted to pass term limits on school board members. It passed the House but not the Senate; we’ll try that again. And I’m interested in trying to reform as far as tenure.” He’ll be able to get going on that without taking time out to campaign: he was unopposed in last November’s election. stevecarterla.com —M.H.

Brian Dixon

At the start of the year last August, students at Mentorship Academy met for classes at LSU. “Start at college, end at college,” was the message executive director Brian Dixon was sending to his ninth- and 10th-graders.

Dixon began the school two years ago at the corner of Fourth and Florida streets downtown as a Type 1 charter school focused on technology and projects. Students have a choice of two technological directions: the digital arts, including creative filmmaking, website creation, graphic design and computer programming, or science, including engineering, chemistry and math. Projects trump lectures, says Dixon, because they foster critical thinking, problem solving and team building.

The son of a clergyman, Dixon grew up “all over,” living in California for seven years before he came to Baton Rouge. His original ambition of becoming a rock star morphed into sharing his creativity with kids. He spent eight years teaching English, theater arts, filmmaking and digital production, authored The Innovative School Leader’s Guide to Social Media, and still runs a website devoted to helping small businesses with social media marketing. brianjdixon.com —M.H.

Jessica Heap

To the legions that follow their “stories,” former Baton Rougean Jessica Heap is a familiar face for her role as Eden Baldwin on The Young and the Restless. But she’ll always be a science nerd. “I have my copy of Discover magazine next to the Hollywood Reporter at home,” says Heap, who holds a biological sciences degree from LSU.

The recent shift from indie films and TV movies to daytime television—and her move from Baton Rouge to Los Angeles—was almost a culture shock for the young actress as she entered a rapidly evolving game. Last year saw A-listers James Franco on General Hospital and Julianne Moore on As the World Turns, while Heap blossomed on The Young and the Restless.

“My agent called it boot camp for actors,” she says of the high-pressure gig that allows for on-the-fly scene changes but very few second takes. “Now I get that.”

Heap shot two episodes and memorized 25 pages of script on her first day. “Everyone from cast to crew is very supportive, but early on the director likes to challenge you to see if you can handle it,” Heap says. “It’s sink or swim.”

The CBS series shoots Tuesdays through Fridays, leaving Heap little time for other long-term projects, but she hopes her schedule in 2012 will allow for more flexibility. That could open doors for her like soaps did for Demi Moore, Meg Ryan, and most recently, Amanda Seyfried.

“I’m itching to do another film,” Heaps says. “I miss that, but I know that I’ll grow and be a better actress because of this experience.” jessicaheap.com—J.R.

Anna Heine

Barely into her teens, Anna Heine is already earning success with the game of golf. In 2012, she and her father, a former instructor, plan to take that athletic success to a national level.

At 12, Heine won the BREC championship for girls aged 17 and younger. In October, she and a partner won the Ladies Fall Classic at Webb Park by an impressive five strokes.

Heine comes by her course skills naturally; her father Randall won the BREC junior tournament back in 1978.

This year, Heine is working to earn a spot on the All-State girl’s golf team and a place in the U.S. Kids Gold Teen World Championship in Pinehurst N.C. “My goal is to finish higher than 47th,” she says.

Even at her tender age, she knows the basic formula to success on the greens and fairways: practice, practice, practice. She also trains with local golf fitness expert Kolby Tullier. “I definitely have to practice every day,” she says. “Even after I play a round.”

All that practice is a little easier because the family lives a few doors down from Webb. Heine’s life isn’t all golf though. She likes to listen to music, makes sure to read at least one new book a week and she knits scarves.—C.F.

Nick Hwang

Most musicians with classical training would love a job playing in a symphony or scoring soundtracks for TV and movies. You know, something normal. Not Nick Hwang. The local composer and LSU Laptop Orchestra veteran is too busy pushing the boundaries of music, performance art and technology by combining all three in ways the public has neither seen nor heard before.

Hwang’s latest creation is an iPad-friendly digital instrument called GUA that he co-designed with partners J. Corey Knoll and Andy Larson. In June it will receive its first global audience when his group performs at a renowned international music conference in Linz, Austria.

“It’s all about exploring what is possible,” says Hwang, a Florida native of Taiwanese heritage.

Hwang is fascinated with making musical composition accessible. His group’s recent installation, Social Structure, allowed visitors to easily create electronic soundscapes by stacking blocks on top of wired metal bars and each other while projected images from Facebook and Twitter reacted to the movement of the blocks. The piece was a comment on the potential downside of social media information overload.

“I’m interested in creating opportunities for people to truly interact with art,” Hwang says. “I want to turn people into agents of sound.” nickhwang.com —J.R.

Mo Isom

Senior LSU goalkeeper Mo Isom has completed her most successful season on the soccer pitch, but she’s just getting warmed up. With one more year of NCAA eligibility, the six-foot-tall Georgia native will try out in March as a walk-on place kicker for Les Miles’ football team.

The record-breaking goalie is graced with a powder-keg leg. She scored a stunningly rare 90-yard goal in 2008, and last summer she boomed a 51-yard field goal at the football team’s indoor practice facility. While she was training with the team throughout 2011, sports reporters finally busted her kicking through the uprights in September, and the story broke.

If the charisma this former model and actress-turned-broadcast journalism major shows with her popular Meaux Vs. web series and segments on ESPN are any indication, she will handle the media scrutiny and tryout challenge with panache.

Mature and playfully candid on camera, Isom has overcome many personal obstacles, including a near-fatal car accident, a bout with bulimia and her father’s suicide. She blogs openly about her personal life and her faith in Jesus Christ and delivers motivational talks to schools, churches and teams throughout the South. “Those difficulties have opened up so many opportunities for me to do what I love, to share my heart and talk to people,” she says. Isom graduates this December, but first hopes to kick in Tiger Stadium.

“I realize trying to play football will get a lot of attention, but I don’t want people to assume that’s why I am doing it,” Isom says. “Truly, I just love the game and love being a Tiger. I want to be one for as long as I can.” moisom.com —J.R.

Ted James

State Rep. Ted James is tired of seeing Louisiana be a farm system for thriving creative class industries in other states. We talk a big game about keeping our best and brightest here—and certainly James is a proponent and former beneficiary of the TOPS in-state tuition program—but Louisiana is failing to do so, and we have to admit it, he says.

“Our generation does not keep the same job for 30 years,” says the 30-year-old McKinley High School and Southern Law School alum. “I’ve had four jobs since law school. We have to start creating the kinds of opportunities that young people are interested in, or else they’ll continue to leave.”

The Legislature needs to help the private sector create and sustain those jobs and to push for universal pre-K and a balanced budget in 2012, James says. Though he’s a young Democrat in an increasingly red state, as a former staff attorney and legislative draftsman, James has experience writing bills for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. “I’ve already been in the fire and helped people find compromise,” he says.

While campaigning through social media with “Team Ted” supporters, the youngest House member became a strong voice for the generation known as Millennials. He could easily have chosen to work in Houston or Washington, D.C., but he stayed to fight for the future of his hometown. “I’m living proof that ‘It takes a village,’” James says. “Growing up there were a lot of people who saw potential in me that I did not see, and I see the same thing in Baton Rouge.” teamted2011.com —J.R.

Carolyn McKnight-Bray

Carolyn McKnight-Bray knows she’s stepping into a challenging job, and she knows she needs to work on her golf game.

She heads to Baton Rouge this month from Dallas to run our local public parks system, leaving her job as head of procurement for the City of Dallas.

McKnight-Bray has an immediate goal. “I want to get settled in Baton Rouge, get to know the people of BREC and to understand the needs and desires of the whole community.”

She says she already realizes how much the existing parks and recreation system means to Baton Rouge, and she wants to improve on what we have. “A great city needs a great parks system,” she says.

With renovations and improvements under way valued at well over $100 million, BREC leadership’s challenge is managing those capital projects while operating and improving upon existing facilities. Does McKnight-Bray feel pressure to perform?

“I’m not nervous,” she said. “When you’re doing something you enjoy, you’re not in the hot seat.”

To keep up in a golf-crazed city like Baton Rouge—BREC operates seven golf courses— McKnight-Bray says she’s already looking forward to improving her performance out of the tee box.—C.F.

Amy Mitchell-Smith

Four and a half years since she arrived as director of the Baton Rouge Film Commission, Amy Mitchell-Smith has helped create and facilitate a major boom in film production for the city. Last fall, Mitchell-Smith announced the arrival of the area’s first sustained TV series, Breakout Kings. She then stepped down from her post to launch an ambitious production company, Cienega Motion Picture Group.

“It was definitely a calculated risk for my family, but when else am I going to do this?” she says. “The time is now.”

During her five-year stretch at Miramax in New York City, Mitchell-Smith helped acquire the critically acclaimed foreign films Amelie and City of God. Now back in the private sector, she is able to leverage her vast industry connections and passion for good storytelling as a content creator. For 2012, she is planning a slate that will mix homegrown films with international co-productions and the adaptation of Louisiana-centric literary properties from LSU Press. She plans to showcase South Louisiana music and musicians in one film and hopes to add a touch of art house cachet by attracting international directors like Pedro Almodovar and young talent from Brazil and Argentina to helm projects in the state.

“Many of the great film movements began during times of economic uncertainty,” Mitchell-Smith says. “Here in Louisiana, I believe we can create something that feels like the French New Wave.”—J.R.

Colt Patin

His name may sound like an LSU football player’s, but Colt Patin’s passion is that other thing we do so well in Louisiana—food.

A brief stint at a Target was the only non-food-related job he’s ever had; he started in high school, washing dishes at Café des Amis in his native Breaux Bridge. A little more than a decade later, he’s sharing his talents with others as an instructor at the Louisiana Culinary Institute, having been a chef at several of Acadiana’s best-known restaurants. A string of culinary awards beginning in 2008 was topped off with Louisiana Cookin’ magazine naming him one of the Top Five Chefs for 2011.“Teaching’s always been a dream of mine, and I love being in the kitchen,” says the chef, who graduated from LCI with a concentration in baking and pastries.

Patin has several TV appearances to his credit, cooking for the cast and crew of Swamp People and boiling crawfish for celeb foodies Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern (for whom he also prepared a four-foot-long whole stuffed gator).

His plate sounds full enough, but it’s also heaped high with charity gigs, including the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the March of Dimes, and Heartstrings and Angel Wings, a group he helped organize after the premature birth of his son. lci.edu—M.H.

Chas Roemer

Given his last name and Republican connections, Chas Roemer could have chosen any number of entry points into state politics. The 41-year-old conservative picked the most controversial fight he could—the one in the schoolyard. As a member of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE), the Harvard graduate and charter school co-founder has continually touted reform for public school budgeting, funding, incentives and even teacher tenure, one of the hottest of hot-button issues. “I’m the only one fool enough to do that,” Roemer says.

In his first term, Roemer’s outspoken stances certainly raised the profile of BESE, even if it was at the expense of his own political brand—a concept Roemer says he has little use for. “I watched my dad lose (the governor’s race in 1995), and what I realized is that life goes on, so let’s take some risks,” Roemer says. “Most people looked at BESE like a political dead end. I looked at it as a place to start.”

Now, he’s newly re-elected to a board with eight out of 11 members allied with Gov. Bobby Jindal’s education agenda, Roemer’s quest for an ambitious customizable approach to every facet of K-12 learning could finally trigger a sea change in 2012.

“It was a political war,” Roemer says. “Now, it won’t have to be a fight. It will be a discussion. There are no more boundaries. Before, we had to maneuver within the box. Now the box is gone.” chasroemer.com —J.R.

Dewayne White

In beating out more than 30 other applicants for the job of Baton Rouge Police Chief last May, Dewayne White came full circle. He started out on the force in 1983 and was there for six and a half years before joining the Louisiana State Police, where he spent 21 years.

“I think the department had become complacent and was failing to challenge itself,” he says. “What you have to do is analyze your resources and allocate them accordingly. We’re looking at our crime stats weekly, at where our trouble spots are, and how do we aggressively get in there and address them. You listen to the people on the front line, take their suggestions, apply your own theories, and you come up with something that works.”

White thinks he’ll come up with a significantly improved homicide rate, and he is looking forward to comparing the number of murders committed in the 30 days prior to implementing his plan against the first 30 days after it’s been in effect.

He also wants to increase his officers’ community presence. “Getting out of your car and interacting—that’s what I want these officers to do. We have to win back the trust of the people. I think we’re lacking in that respect, especially in the African-American community.” —M.H.