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By Tobin Levy
Photography by Billy Rood
Styling by Graham Cumberbatch | April 24, 2015 | People
Meet eight Austin women who are visionaries and leaders in their fields—from food to fashion. Because of them, the city is bigger, bolder, and brighter.
Before the name Kendra Scott became synonymous with jewelry design, Scott started a hat company for women undergoing chemotherapy. She quickly realized she’d have to broaden her demographic and inventory if she was going to stay in business. “I remember saying to myself, ‘I will never be in retail again.’”
CROWN JEWEL: This year Kendra Scott Design, Inc., which she started out of her house in 2002, will open 19 new boutiques (two more in Austin), bringing the total to 40 stores and 650 employees nationwide. One of Austin’s favorite success stories, the 39-year-old Kenosha, Wisconsin, native is beguilingly Texan with her slight twang and elegant mien. Her signature jewelry is feminine, colorful, and, like Scott, ebullient. She is also giddy when it comes to the company’s new 43,000-squarefoot headquarters: the top floor of a new building on 38th and Lamar. “It’s Vogue meets Google,” she says. “We’re having a yoga and exercise studio and a smoothie bar.”
THE BEAUTY OF GIVING: Scott, who is a mother, remains dedicated to giving, particularly to causes related to women and children. Each store collaborates with local nonprofits, and last year the company made half a million dollars in charitable contributions and donated more than 50,000 pieces of jewelry.
POWER POINT: “I knew if I could do what I love—which was working in fashion, being a great mom, and giving back to my community— that would be true success for me. Kendra Scott Design was built on the foundation of family, fashion, and philanthropy.” 1400 S. Congress Ave., 512-354-4737
Although Catherine Robb, a granddaughter of President Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, was raised in Virginia, she graduated from UT’s School of Law and moved to Austin to be closer to her grandmother. For the last eight years of Lady Bird’s life, they met for dinner every Tuesday night. “People think she must have had all these wise sayings, and she did, but it was really the way she lived her life that influenced me,” Robb recalls.
PHILANTHROPIC PASSIONS: In addition to practicing law at Haynes and Boone, LLP, she is the founder and honorary chair of the LBJ Future Forum and board chair of KLRU-TV, Austin’s PBS station. “I love the idea of being something without boundaries—that sort of goes out and fi nds people and tries to educate them and enrich their lives.” Robb, 44, is also a board member of the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Mayor’s Health and Fitness Council; a recent inductee into the Texas Lyceum, which cultivates the state’s future leaders; a speaker at April’s Women’s Power Summit; a volunteer with Back on My Feet, a running group for the homeless; and a fan of triathlons. For Robb, ennui is either an abstraction or an impossibility.
HER OWN WAY: As to whether she feels pressure because of her family history, she says, more or less, no. “I was really lucky to be born into this family—being surrounded by really good, loving people [whom] I hope I can make proud and live up to in some way.” Robb carries on their legacy, while quietly fostering one that is very much her own.
POWER POINT: “I’m really blessed to have wonderful friends and family who are like a little mutual admiration society. They hold me accountable when they need to, but also always believe that I can do anything, which allows me to think that maybe I can.”
A Houston native who cocreated Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, Meredith Walker has a gift for bolstering confidence, offers a casual familiarity, and has a soft spot for pets. She moved to Austin in 2006 from New York, leaving her job as the head of the talent department at Saturday Night Live, where she became close friends with Poehler. They conceived Smart Girls in 2008 as a multimedia platform to inspire and encourage young women during adolescence. Smart Girls quickly became a 24-hour job: “This feels like there’s so much more at stake.”
INSPIRING AND INSPIRED: Last summer Walker spearheaded a Smart Girls Summer Camp in Austin. She also volunteers with the Austin Animal Center and serves as a mentor at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders. Women like Molly Ivins and Linda Ellerbee have inspired Walker, 45. She sees Austin as the perfect place to celebrate and share their legacies. “So many women here are passionate about social justice and change for the better.”
PET PROJECT: Smart Girls, which is working toward nonprofit status, has a large adult following interested in the subjects covered, ranging from community activism to pet adoption. The site will soon feature animal “singles ads,” with friends such as Jack Black channeling a shelter dog. “He’ll be like, ‘I’m just looking for someone who is pretty consistent with food,’” says Walker, whose new dog, Banjo, definitely hit the jackpot.
POWER POINT: “I love what I do—advocating for young women, encouraging them to fi nd their own passions, to embrace their own talents, and to change the world by being themselves. If I am able to help even one young woman achieve that, then I would count myself as very successful.”
The paradox that is interior designer Claire Zinnecker begins with her long, neatly tousled hair. She arrives with her locks pulled back, without makeup, wearing a denim button-up, faux fur vest, a scarf, skinny jeans, and ankle boots. It’s thoughtful insouciance with minimal accessories: the type of fashionable ensemble that allows women to look glamorous after a 12-hour flight. Zinnecker, who, in 2013 founded her eponymous design firm of one, also has a penchant for short, empire waist dresses, “pops of color,” and power tools.
TO DIY FOR: The 28-year-old exemplifies the millennial generation. She is confident, comfortable working from home, a DIY enthusiast, and an Instagram aficionado. Her almost-daily snapshots of an elegant and uncluttered life have earned her more than 12,000 Instagram followers. She is part style maven and part Bob Vila. (Her handcrafted Mason jar herb garden was featured on his site.) Zinnecker also makes shelves, light fi xtures, pendants, and planters. “My family’s motto has always been, ‘If you can make it, then why would you buy it?’”
COVETED CLIENTS: The Austin native was quick to develop an impressive residential and commercial client list, including Adelante Boutique. Her work attracted the attention of Larry McGuire, of the McGuire Moorman Hospitality group (Perla’s, Elizabeth Street Café, Jeffrey’s), who offered her a position as designer and project manager. One of her fi rst projects with him was the highly anticipated remodel of By George on South Congress.
POWER POINT: “I don’t think about [competition] much, and I really hate comparing myself to people. I stand by my work, try to keep moving forward, and talk to my mom when I’m feeling sad.”
A philanthropist, community activist, and founder of Lexus of Austin, Vicki Roberts has carried on her family’s legacy for more than two decades. Her grandfather opened a BMW dealership in Dallas and invited Roberts’s late father to learn the business. Roberts worked her way up in a predominately male business, studying all facets, from turbo charges to internal combustion systems. “Dad didn’t think that I could be a good mother to his grandchildren and run the business the way he did, which was dusk till dawn,” says Roberts, who is a marvel of tenacity and pragmatism, and who wanted a more balanced life than her father had. For her, this meant having a sole dealership she could raise alongside her children. Lexus of Austin is celebrating its 25th year with the opening of a second dealership in Lakeway.
IT’S PERSONAL: Roberts helps raise millions of dollars per year for local nonprofits, especially the Center for Child Protection. Roberts’ mother, Maxine, helped start the organization in the late 1980s in response to the death of a former Lexus employee’s son, who was killed by his stepfather.
TRUE COMMITMENT: Roberts leads by her parents’ example of giving back. If a salesperson wants to be involved in a charity, she offers them a fixed contribution with the stipulation that the employee must participate. “If it’s an event with their church or Habitat for Humanity and their kids are there, then they’re teaching their family about giving back to your community. How do you put a price on that?”
POWER POINT: “The secret to my success has been learning to hire great people. I always tell my employees: ‘You have the power to make or break my reputation and my business with each decision you make.’” 9910 Stonelake Blvd., 512-343-3400
“There is this real desire to not be a place with potential, but to be a place that is realizing its potential,” says Simone Wicha, director of the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, which will soon feature Austin, a building designed by painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly, on the institution’s grounds. Recently, a Houston couple donated 120 modern Latin American artworks valued at $10 million to the world-class collection. Wicha, who took the helm four years ago, attributes her professional sangfroid to her degree in mathematics from UT. “For me, math is a key element to leadership. I like problem solving, and am an extremely analytical and strategic thinker.”
AN EYE FOR THE UNEXPECTED: Wicha, who grew up in Mexico City, had a career path that included The Kennedy Center, the Julliard School, and the Noguchi Museum. She says, “I feel like I breathe like myself in art museums.” Her multicultural and multidisciplinary background makes her ideal for broadening the Blanton’s audience. When reviewing plans for an exhibition or program, she says, “We ask ourselves: Is it thought provoking? Is it beautiful, interesting, or is it expected? We don’t want it to be expected.”
COMMUNITY BUILDER: Concerts are a regular part of the programming. “This is a music town, and it brings these two worlds together,” says Wicha. “I want more of Austin to recognize and appreciate this treasure and realize it’s theirs, because your cultural institutions really help defi ne who you are as a community.”
POWER POINT: “There are different steps to how I got here, but a large part is that I have good common sense, a real passion for what we’re doing, a good strategic mind that can get us where we need to go, and a drive to push us there.” 200 E. Martin Luther King Junior Blvd., 512-471-7324
As Austin’s most effusive newscaster, Quita Culpepper is annually named “Best TV Anchor” in The Austin Chronicle (“You Can’t Quit Quita”)—and she is also the city’s favorite. After 16 years with KVUE, Culpepper’s continued presence is treasured in a place increasingly defined by change. She is smart, approachable, energetic, and enigmatic in a “Keep Austin…” kind of way. She is an impeccably dressed laser tag enthusiast, an avid comic book collector, a regular at Comic-Con, and at-home in the most disparate of social milieus. She welcomes typecasting only from casting agents. Culpepper has appeared as a Texas reporter in several movies, including Bernie, The Quiet, and Booth, and in the TV series Killer Women.
DEVOTED TO AUSTIN: Culpepper is a rarity in the news world. Whereas most in the business jump from station to station, Culpepper’s first job was at KVUE—and she’s not planning on leaving. “Why would I go anywhere else? I love this town,” she says, adding, “It took me a while to get an anchor position, but I wouldn’t call my road unforgiving. I would call it well-taught, interesting, and well-deserved.”
THE STORYTELLER: Culpepper anchors KVUE News Weekend, reports three days a week, and does a consumer segment called “Does it Work Wednesday,” during which she tests abstruse products, such as Amish Secret Handmade Wood Polish. She intersperses hard news with heartfelt humaninterest stories. “We need… stories that will make you want to get out there and make a difference in someone’s life.”
POWER POINT: “When I get up every day, I just ask the universe: ‘Please send down some good stuff for us all because I don’t want to just be about the horrible things happening in the world. We need to hear good news too.’”
Lauded pastry chef and James Beard nominee, Laura Sawicki is co-owner of one of the city’s hottest new restaurants, Launderette. She is also a hypnotically fast-talker—capable of eloquence at rapid-fire speed in much the same way she can make a hundred beautiful meals in the course of an evening. She carefully deliberates the unexpected ingredients (caulifl ower, rye bread, tahini) in her desserts as well as in their presentation.
THE RIGHT PLACE: With her cat-eye glasses, slip-on Vans, and optimistic prints, sartorially the 35-year-old reflects Brooklyn, which is where the Argentine native met her culinary partner, Rene Ortiz. The restaurant where they worked together caught fire, and while running away, Sawicki shattered her arm. During her convalescence, Ortiz moved to Austin to be the executive chef at La Condesa. After months of physical therapy, Sawicki went to Austin to help train the staff, and she decided to stay. “There was the fire, the economy, and the New York winter; then I got to Austin, and it was 75 degrees in February. There were literally sunshine and rainbows.”
NEW CHALLENGES: In July 2014, Sawicki made ice cream for President Obama at a fundraiser hosted by filmmaker Robert Rodriguez. Her schedule is now so frenetic; she says, “It’s been a challenging and compelling year for me; being a restaurateur changes the game a bit.” Launderette will eventually feature a Chinese take-out restaurant called Angry Bear and a small grocery offering Sawicki’s pastries and her ice cream by the scoop.
POWER POINT: “I approach every day knowing that I am influencing people. A lot of my disciples are moving on to do really incredible things, and I take pride in that. I didn’t make great people; I helped them find the greatness in themselves.” 2115 Holly St., 512-382-1599
PLUS: Tell us who your woman of influence is on Instagram by uploading a photo using #ShesMyInfluence. On May 11, you're invited to VOTE for your favorite woman.
PhotograPhy assistance by casey Vange; hair and MakeuP by bailey stike for ron king salon; hair, MakeuP, and styling for kendra scott by alyssa garcia