The Women’s Symposium
articles by MEREDITH MCKINNIE
photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK
The ULM Women’s Symposium annually highlights women from across Northeast Louisiana for their individual achievements, professional and personal. The panelists share their stories with ULM students and fellow community members to showcase the importance of success and failure in one’s journey. Here we highlight five of the 2023 panelists and why they were chosen as leaders in their respective fields. For tickets visit ulm.edu/womens-symposium/
As a little girl growing up in Mexico, Anahy Mejia-Saterfiel idolized Audrey Hepburn. Though Breakfast at Tiffany’s was barely a blip in Mexico, Anahy fell in love with Hepburn’s style, the polished, clean lines and her quintessential elegant walk. Born with feet that pointed inward, Anahy wore orthopedic shoes, day and night, and struggled to walk without tripping. Anahy strived to imitate Hepburn’s balance of strength and vulnerability, of being able to glide across the floor without fear of falling. Likewise, Anahy’s mother Rossy always looked polished and professional with pleated slacks and gold hoops. She taught Anahy to dress confidently and comfortably, to make sure she could move freely, especially in front of a crowd. When the Mejia family took a road trip, Anahy drew dresses on napkins and notebooks, inspired by the Mexican scenery. Her little dress journal inspired the little girl from Mexico to later become an entrepreneur in America.
In 2017, Anahy entered graduate school pursuing a masters in English. When she started teaching classes, she needed to update her wardrobe. She searched for modest, business casual attire and discovered cute online shops via Instagram. Rather than spending all her paychecks on clothes, Anahy figured why not open her own shop online. She had an eye for fashion and a relaxed, elegant aesthetic – soon Vence & Co. became a reality. At that time, online shops could be solely for shopping; social media personalities and personal branding weren’t as integral to marketing online fashion as they are now. On why she ventured into entrepreneurship, Anahy says, “I guess it’s the immigrant in me.”
Anahy opened the Vence & Co. storefront in August of 2022 on Antique Alley in West Monroe. Anahy says, “Our quality-over-quantity business model has made its mark in a world of fast fashion, shipping all over the world and forming amazing relationships along the way.” As a double major in English and French, Anahy fell in love with the little town of St. Paul de Vence in Provence, France. Anahy says, “It’s the kind of place that feels modern and welcoming,” so she used it as inspiration for Vence and Co.’s aesthetic and name. Outside of owning a boutique, Anahy works full time as an English instructor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe.
As the Special Projects Coordinator and Executive Assistant to the Chief Operating Officer for the City of Monroe, Kimberly Essex is the self-professed Swiss Army Knife, available and able to do a little bit of everything. Serving as a liaison for multiple city projects, Kimberly has learned the importance of boundaries, of communicating to others what she can and cannot do. This was not always the case. After graduating from Grambling State University with a Bachelor’s of Science in Business Management, Kimberly tried the banking industry before working as an office manager for The Radio People. When a vacancy on the morning show came available, Dave & Kim & the Morning Scramble was born. Kimberly learned the radio business quickly – that though an audience may be out of sight, they are still listening. Kimberly’s vibrant personality and comfort with making fun of herself made for a lively morning show.
In her new role with the City of Monroe, Kimberly leads with a “How can I help?” attitude. She begins her day with identifying three top priorities. Naturally one for organization, Kimberly relishes her role that necessitates keeping several balls in the air. She loves her community, and being actively involved in restoring this community fills her soul. When people approach Kimberly with a request, she quickly determines if the answer is a “yes, no, or maybe.” This allows Kimberly time to think about her prior engagements and assess her want-to. She learned these methods as she’s gotten “yolder,” a Kim term for still being young yet mature. She insists clarifying one’s limits is essential to communicating boundaries. You have to be clear and specific.
When she first graduated from college, Kimberly said yes to everything. People expected an affirmative answer which made it difficult to say no. And quickly, she experienced burnout. Kimberly’s learned to trust herself, to listen to that inner voice that knows it is too soon to commit. As a former people pleaser, she doesn’t like letting people down. As a Leo, Kim is loyal to a fault, but she’s discovered that pleasing others does not translate to pleasing oneself. Socially, Kim has two specific groups of friends, both of which fulfill different parts of her life. Kimberly knows the importance of respecting her own time and that of others. Her “two tribes” have learned that Kimberly likes and appreciates variety in her life. She can’t be at every event and realized she doesn’t want to – home always tops the list. Kimberly has been with her wife Emily Essex for the last thirteen years and calls Emily her everything.
Sarah Hoffman knows firsthand the importance of health and wellbeing. As a child, Sarah Hoffman suffered from severe anxiety. She often felt uncomfortable and like she was missing something everyone else had. As a teenager, Sarah found escape from anxiety in alcohol. Always in fight or flight mode, she craved relief for her system. After school, she took a marketing and real estate job in New Orleans, relished in a new relationship, and lived “normally” for several years. She still experienced stomach issues due to anxiety, though medical testing produced no definitive answers. When the relationship ended, Sarah spiraled. She tried counseling, but continued drinking. Addiction had complete control over her life for years. Aware that she was falling apart, the light came on and Sarah had a God moment. She entered in-patient treatment at Palmetto Addiction Recovery Center in Rayville, Louisiana, and it saved her life.
After completing the program, Sarah gathered printed resumes and started visiting real estate companies. As fate would have it, she missed her exit and ended up at John Rea Realty. The team became her family, and she focused on staying sober one day at a time. Craving a career with an intentional purpose, Sarah started looking for work with a nonprofit. Now Sarah works with the Food Bank of Northeast Louisiana as the Director of Development. The position gives her the opportunity to help people meet their most basic need. Sarah says, “It is incredibly humbling and rewarding to be involved in hunger relief work, which not only impacts the individuals we serve, but also improves the wellness of our entire community.” She wanted to use her challenges as assets. Though recovery is not always easy, Sarah is living an incredibly rewarding life. She continues to attend professional counseling and is part of a peer support network. Sarah shares her story to destigmatize addiction and mental health issues. When people are struggling or have family members who are struggling, they need sounding boards, an unbiased viewpoint from outside the circle.
Addiction doesn’t discriminate. What held Sarah back from seeking treatment initially was shame. It’s never too soon to ask for help. Now Sarah finds fulfillment in genuine connections with other people and nature. She has a supporting, loving family that made the road to recovery much lighter. If you have a child struggling with anxiety, Sarah recommends getting them into counseling to help them learn good coping skills. Mindfulness meditation is one of Sarah’s favorite practices to keep anxiety at bay, and is now being taught in some schools. Talking with professionals allows those with anxiety to dig deeper and identify a cause. Doctors can provide safe medications for people in recovery, for temporary or extended use. When choosing a doctor, make sure the provider understands addiction. Now 11 years sober, Sarah says, “Although I still struggle with anxiety sometimes, I no longer let it keep me living life to the fullest. Whether it’s rock climbing with my partner Sam, or taking a risk at work, I’m packing in as much fun, love, and different experiences I can into this one precious life!” If you’re struggling with addiction or mental health issues, Sarah’s advice is to “Never Give Up.”
Ghofrane Zaidi is a Tunisian exchange student majoring in psychology at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Ghofrane was also a student at Tunis Business School where she majored in Business Analytics and minored in Marketing. Since coming to the states in August of 2022 as part of the Thomas Jefferson Scholarship Program, Ghofrane has immersed herself in American culture, actively engaging in ULM campus activities and traveling across this country. Her idea of America didn’t quite match reality. Ghofrane expected Americans to be superficial – more Hollywood – and she expected the streets to be crowded with people. Monroe has welcomed her with open arms. The people are warm and curious about her culture and home country. She has been enveloped in southern hospitality.
Ghofrane appreciates the opportunity to study in the States. The university system is easy and efficient with shorter sessions. She likes that everything is digitized, making the transition smoother. She loves all the RSO events on campus and ULM’s size. It’s a community unto itself, and Ghofrane relishes all the campus activities. She spends a lot of her time at the International House where she can cook and play games with other international students. Interacting with other students from Nepal, Ukraine, Rwanda, Japan, Nigeria, and Russia, to name a few, allows Ghofrane to glimpse a bit of the world in the lives of her newfound friends. In the meantime, Ghofrane is making the most of her time stateside. She has big dreams, and exploring the world is the first step toward realizing those dreams.
Diving into the campus experience is essential to growth during college. Being so far from home, Ghofrane has made a little home here. She volunteers at the Wesley Foundation on campus and with the Autistic Society and the Red Cross. Ghofrane is working to hone her soft skills and leadership potential, which means staying involved and alert. Formerly, Ghofrane served as president for Trinity-TBS, a college club that provides training in the tech field and organizes gaming tournaments. She has participated in several competitions, like the Hult Prize, an international business competition that challenges young people to solve the world’s most pressing issues through social entrepreneurship. Studying at ULM is her current adventure, and her impression of America has shifted dramatically from what she glimpsed on TV back home in Tunisia.
Dr. Valerie S. Fields
As the First Female Vice President in ULM’s 92-year history, Dr. Valerie S. Fields-Simmons knows the impact of opening doors for women in leadership. Having instituted three major ULM initiatives – Tuesday Ties with Guys, Sipping TEA (Transformational Empowering Alliance), and VIP-White Glove Program – Dr. Fields is forward thinking, working diligently on behalf of ULM students. As a trailblazer, Dr. Fields is consciously aware of being a role model for future generations of women. In the workplace, she says it is important to stay composed and confident, to establish your own work boundaries and respect the boundaries of others. According to Dr. Fields, identifying and instituting boundaries begins with conversations that should precede conflict.
After serving for the last three years, Dr. Fields admits that her honeymoon period as the Vice President for Student Affairs has come to an end, and she is pushing both staff and students to do the hard work of self development. As a leader of multiple generations of women with diverse backgrounds, Dr. Fields is constantly pushing budding leaders to reimagine and reconsider the status quo, to push the limits of what they think is possible for the betterment of everyone. She takes a similar approach with students. Dr. Fields pushes students to intentionally define parameters, even on the basic level of defining words. For a student activity, Dr. Fields had dry erase boards placed at student gathering places on campus. Questions like “What does transformative mean to you?” and “What does alliance mean to you?” invited student contributions. As buzz words circulate, the meaning can often escape the message. Dr. Fields pulls students and co-workers back to center, to re-examine and redefine the baseline.
Dr. Fields is inspired by unapologetic leaders, pioneers who respect tradition but aren’t afraid to challenge norms. Dr. Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to the U.S. Congress and the first woman and African American to seek a party nomination for U.S. president, once said, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.” Dr. Fields takes a similar approach to leadership but with defined boundaries. Dr. Fields keeps her professional and personal relationships separate. Dr. Fields checks her feelings at the door, and reminds herself that people are usually well-intentioned. Working together demands a two-way street of respect and boundaries.
Originally from Winnsboro, LA, Dr. Valerie S. Fields-Simmons earned a B.A. in Early Childhood Education/Elementary Education from Southern University A&M in Baton Rouge; an Ed.S. and Masters in Administration and Supervision from University of Louisiana at Monroe; and a Doctorate in Curriculum and Instruction with a Cognate in Technology from LA Tech University in Ruston.