Ellen Robinson Rolfes


for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Ellen Robinson Rolfes

In the Mississippi Delta in the 1950s, a sickly girl, bed-ridden by serious asthma, made up stories about her dolls, a little woman and man and their little table and tiny cooking pots.

Years later, now a Junior League of Memphis leader working on the charity’s cookbook in the 1980s, she hears potential in not only the recipe ingredients but the richness of stories shared around the meal. From those domestic voices Ellen Robinson Rolfes launched a national consultancy in cookbook publishing and a career that has carried her into prominence as an entrepreneur, philanthropy strategist and innovator.

Ellen’s national seminar business in the late 1980’s taught more than 3,000 women how to publish a community cookbook, generating millions of dollars for their hometowns. Dr. Dorothy Height, the legendary activist and leader of the National Council of Negro Women, became her mentor after they met around cookbook projects in the 1990’s including The Black Family Reunion and Mother Africa’s Table. Deeply inspired by Dr. Height, Ellen’s philanthropic projects would be characterized by intentional inclusion of women from diverse geographic, economic and racial backgrounds who come together to embrace a shared vision.

As the Internet provided instant access to any recipe, Ellen pivoted her fundraising talents toward women and “the feminine face of philanthropy.” Ellen reinvented herself as a philanthropy strategist who has worked with academic and healthcare institutions, nonprofits in social service and the arts.

In 2000, she brought the idea of a women’s council to the female vice chancellor of the University of Mississippi in Oxford where, Ellen said, “the culture was male dominated and its philanthropy silently patriarchal. There was no awareness that 54% of the wealth in the country had quietly shifted to women. . . They were losing half their money.”

Ellen contacted Ole Miss alumnae Edith Kelly-Green (who happens to be the 1993 Woman of Achievement for Initiative) to chair the new council. And so it began.

At first some of the folks at the university called the 25 women “the Council of Ole Misses.”

Not anymore. The Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy is responsible for 187 scholarships and an endowment of $23 million so far. On its 20th anniversary the Council established the Ellen Rolfes Rose Garden Endowment to support their leadership-mentorship program. Kelly-Green said, “(I)t was Ellen who had the vision…It was her enthusiasm and energy that made the other 23 inaugural board members commit to an idea that has made such an impact on this university.”

In 2010 the Memphis Symphony was greeting its first female music director Mei Ann Chen. As a consultant to the Symphony, Ellen could see that the orchestra needed new faces and new money. She contacted three well-known philanthropic women and asked each for $1,000. With that $3,000 she founded the Mei Ann Circle of Friends, a women’s philanthropy initiative that fosters intentional inclusion as well as a Musician Fellowship Program for Latinx and African American graduate students.

The Circle of Friends continued after Mei Ann Chen departed Memphis and today has 100 active members, 45% of them women of color. The Circle has brought more than $1 million to the operations budget as well as first time subscribers and patrons who had never been to a classical concert. Just last year Ellen pushed the Circle to establish the annual Eddy Award to salute a community member who has made a transformative contribution to enhancing cultural awareness in the arts through music.

Ellen is a founding member and past president of the Society of Entrepreneurs and former executive director of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis and Memphis’s ACE Awareness Foundation. As a book packager she produced 17 titles in trade publishing identified as “An Ellen Rolfes Book.” As a consultant with Baptist Women’s Hospital, she led a partnership with the Women’s Foundation in creating the Hall of Legends, a permanent exhibition of the Foundation’s Legends Awards art collection celebrating extraordinary local women.

Women of Achievement has rarely had an honoree as deserving of our plate as Ellen Rolfes whose early work unearthed the power of the plate, the dinner table, the meal and the ways those have historically given voice to women’s creativity and contributions to community life. Ellen’s initiative has made her life endlessly interesting and her community forever better.

Melanie Smith Taylor


for a woman who seized the opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Melanie Smith Taylor

Olympic Gold medalist, equestrian Grand Prix triple crown winner, Show Jumping Hall of Fame member and sports commentator are just a few of Melanie Smith Taylor’s claims to fame.

While she wasn’t born on a horse, Melanie Smith might as well have been. Raised on the Hugh Frank Smith Horse & Pony Farm in Shelby County, Melanie was given her first pony by her grandfather at age three and got her first horse at 12.

With her mother, Rachael Smith, as her inspiration, Melanie started dreaming big when she was young. Rachael taught riding classes and early on it was Melanie’s job to ride the lead pony for other students to follow. She never used a saddle before age 12 because bareback gave her a closer connection with her horse. 

When Melanie’s family moved to Germantown in the 1950s, she became part of a horse community. Kids rode horses to school on the last day to pick up their report cards. The local candy store had a hitching post outside.

As she got older, Melanie began competing and winning, first at the Pony Club and then at the Germantown Charity Horse Show.

In the early 1970s Melanie took the initiative to move “back East,” the epicenter of equestrian sports. She began managing a horse farm in Connecticut and soon was managing several. The jobs gave her access to good horses and to all-important sponsors.

 Soon Melanie was competing at the highest level of show jumping — the Grand Prix category. In 1978, Melanie was named the American Grand Prix Association’s Lady Rider of the Year as well as the overall Rider of the Year. Melanie Smith had proven that women could perform on even terms with men, so the separate Lady Rider category was abolished.

Next, Melanie became one of only two riders ever to win the “Triple Crown of Show Jumping,” winning the American Invitational, the International Jumping Derby and the American Gold Cup, all on the same horse, Calypso. She was a member of the U. S. Equestrian team that won the gold medal  at the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico.

Melanie’s mother always urged her daughter to have the highest goals while enjoying the ride. One goal was to compete in the Olympics. She qualified for the American team in the 1980 games, however, the US boycotted that year. At the Alternate Olympics in Rotterdam, Melanie won an individual bronze medal. The U.S. Olympic committee named her Sportswoman of the Year.

In 1982 she won the Federation Equestrian International World Cup Show Jumping Championship in Sweden. Then in 1984 her long-held dream came true. She was a member of the U.S. team which won the gold for show jumping at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. She still remembers the pride of being on the podium and hearing our national anthem. 

In 1987 Melanie retired from show jumping and returned to Tennessee. In 1989 she married Lee Taylor, an avid polo player and fellow horse lover, and moved to his family’s Wildwood Farm, breeding horses and running clinics. Lee brought her beloved horse Calypso to Wildwood where he lived peacefully until his death.

Though retired from competition, Melanie’s knowledge and her skill have kept her in demand. She has been a commentator on equestrian events including the Olympics for NBC, ESPN and other media ever since. She says the adrenaline rush of broadcasting live to a world-wide audience is a lot like making the winning jump. 

She has also served the horse world as a certified show judge, course designer and trainer of young riders.

And Melanie continues to take initiative to enhance the lives of others. Before his death in 2005,  Lee and Melanie gave a lot of thought to what should happen to Wildwood Farm. She worked to  add Wildwood to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017 and recently bequeathed the 350-acre property to the University of Tennessee, Martin, to be used for research, education, and service. Plans include vet-tech and agriculture programs and partnerships with local high schools. The farm will remain an oasis, intact in a part of the county that is rapidly becoming suburban.

How did one woman create such a life? Melanie says through focus and hard work, one step, or in this case, one jump, at a time.

Ayile Arnett


for a woman who seized the opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Ayile Arnett

Ayile says that if she sees a problem and she thinks of a solution, then it’s time to start a business. And that’s exactly what she does.

Problems: People need free rides to medical appointments. Millions of dollars’ worth of unopened medications are thrown out when a patient dies. There are people who cannot afford their medications. There are people who cannot pick up their medications and need them delivered to their homes.

Imagine a kind of Uber that solves each of these problems and you will understand what Ayile has accomplished.

Using a technology called blockchain she set up businesses to meet just these needs. The process providing free transportation to take patients to doctor’s appointments served 200 people per month across four states. That service stopped during the pandemic, but Ayile’s other solutions continue.

She is responsible along with Phil Baker for creating RemediChain, which reclaims unused medications and makes them available to vulnerable patients in need. Shortly after start up, RemediChain had collected over $2.2 million worth of unused oral chemotherapy drugs.

This was followed by Scriptride, which provides home delivery of prescription medications for those who cannot get to the pharmacy.

How did this happen?

Ayile worked in healthcare for over 18 years. Part of her work included tracking patient information to ensure that patients were going home with what they needed to get well and avoid being readmitted. Through this work it became apparent to her that treatment results differed based on patient income levels.

Less money, worse outcomes, more hospital returns. Those with higher incomes experienced fewer hospital returns, better health outcomes.

She also saw a huge amount of waste of unopened prescriptions which were being thrown out after patients died. She realized that if these drugs could be salvaged, they could be used by other patients who struggled to pay for their meds. She met Phil Baker, founder of the nonprofit Good Shepherd Pharmacy. He wanted to address this problem. And so together they established Remedichain.

This was shortly followed by Scriptride which delivers medications to those who cannot get to the pharmacy. These solutions all require secure data collection and that’s where blockchain comes in. What kind of data is collected for these businesses? Who needs a ride to the doctor? Who can donate unused medication? Who needs these medications? Where do they live? Picture blockchain as a safe, immutable ledger that can be trusted by medical professionals.

During Covid, Ayile and her husband transformed their business Communiride into a transport business concentrating on serving small businesses. Ayile is the CEO. Her husband, whose background is in logistics, works with the drivers.

She continues working with Phil Baker, now serving on the non-profit’s board and being the point person for Scriptride, the medication delivery system. Drivers do not know what meds are being delivered or anything about the client’s health condition, so confidentiality is maintained. How did Ayile become an entrepreneur? She started young, “pushing” candy sales in elementary school.

Ayile was born in Madison, Wisconsin. There she was surrounded and inspired by determined people who were always involved in community projects. Her mother was an attorney with her own business and her father an entrepreneur. In the sixth grade she met her BFF Amy. Amy is from a Nigerian family who moved to Wisconsin before Amy was born. Amy’s mother was constantly learning, eventually earning a Ph.D. and always keeping the kids informed about school and about community work. From this Ayile learned that if one solution doesn’t work, she “finds the solution tomorrow.”

She followed a favorite cousin to Nashville where she enrolled at Tennessee State University. There she met her husband and in 2011 they moved to Memphis to be near his family. The mother of four children, ages 2 ½ to 12, Ayile’s passions are community building and mentorship. Ayile is a huge Whitehaven booster.

Communiride is located there and 81 percent of the workers are Whitehaven residents.

Shortly after joining the Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Ayile was invited to be a mentor through Epicenter. She is paired with a new entrepreneur with whom she meets weekly. Mentees are paired with an experienced entrepreneur to develop new skills. Pairs normally meet for an hour, but Ayile and her partner regularly meet for several. Ayile says she is sure she learns just as much as her mentee.

Ayile and Phil Baker received a Memphis Business Journal CEO of the Year Innovation Award in Ayile also chosen as one of the 2019 Forty Under Forty, influential urban elite professionals.

We can’t wait to see where her initiative takes her next!

Maxine Starling Strawder


for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Maxine Starling Strawder

Maxine was always told by her mother “Remember who you are. You are loved, you are valued and you are enriched by the people in your life.” She knew the history of her family and its struggles and understood early that she was defined by family, not situations outside of herself.

In Beckley, West Virginia, Maxine was born with very poor vision. The family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where, at age 10, Maxine saw legendary African-American dancer and choreographer Katherine Dunham dance. That performance led Maxine to a life-long passion for dance.

At her request, her parents enrolled at Cleveland, Ohio’s Karamu House, one of the oldest African-American theaters in America. She exhibited great talent, always dancing without her usual Coke-bottle glasses, barely able to see the stage and other performers.

In recognition of her talent, at age 16, she was chosen to study and travel to Haiti in a program sponsored by her inspiration, Katherine Dunham.

Her parents wanted her to attend Fisk University, which had no dance program. Exhibiting further initiative, while at Fisk, Maxine worked for two years cleaning houses and then, using her savings, went to Europe, studying in Denmark and Germany. Back in the states, she worked with dancer/choreographer Bob Johnson’s Pittsburgh Black Theatre Dance Ensemble.

Maxine then returned to Cleveland and Karamu House, where she danced with several modern dance troupes while obtaining a Bachelor’s degree at Case Western Reserve. She married and had a daughter, Dawn Rebecca, at age 23, but the marriage was short-lived.

With a Master’s in Library and Information Science from the University of Indiana at Bloomington, in 1974 she took a job with the Memphis and Shelby County Public Library and Information Center, one of the first African-American librarians in Memphis. She later became manager of the Gaston Park Branch.

But Maxine never gave up her passion. In 1973, she was one of the organizers of the First National Congress of Blacks in Dance. Maxine continued to dance, to teach dancers, and be actively involved in the Memphis arts community for the next several decades through groups such as the Harry Bryce Dance Theatre, the Memphis Black Arts Alliance, and Project: Motion. All of this in spite of her poor vision and later-diagnosed hearing problems.

While dancing with Harry Bryce, she came to be called Silverbird, a name that has graced many dance programs.
The year Maxine turned 75 she asked Project Motion if she could choreograph a piece in an annual show. Not only did they agree, they asked her to produce the entire show. 75 Rotations: Celebrating Maxine Strawder’s Passion for Dance had three sold-out performances. All profits went to the Project: Motion Maxine Strawder Dance Enrichment Scholarship at the University of Memphis.

A lifelong learner, Maxine earned a second Master’s degree in Liberal Arts, and received professional certification in diversity training and tai chi.

While in Cleveland she fought blatant housing discrimination and participated in marches and sit-ins for civil rights. In Memphis she continues to participate in social justice activities.
At the age of 80, Maxine keeps limber with dance classes and by teaching tai chi. She continues her studies at the University of Memphis as a perpetual scholar of the arts, languages, history, and world cultures.

“Dance is a universe unto itself,” she says, “It’s not only taking care of your body. It’s taking care of your mind. It’s a worldview.” Reflecting on her life, she said, “Both my mother and grandmother lived to be 96 years old, both faced many obstacles in life, and both possessed a loving fierceness. They instilled that in me.”

Women of Achievement salutes Maxine Starling Strawder who continues to take initiative to overcome obstacles and inspire others with her talent and passion.

Wanda Taylor

Women of Achievement

for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Wanda Taylor

Born to parents who battled long-term alcohol and drug addiction, and raised in LeMoyne Garden and Claiborne Home housing projects, no one who knew her as a child and teenager would have expected Wanda Taylor to succeed.

“At 11, I was introduced to cocaine, alcohol and sex,” she told blogger Wiley Henry in 2014. “I started experiencing domestic violence at 15, dropped out of school in the 11th-grade, and became a teen mom. I had no morals and values.

“I was so confused. I was selling drugs, stealing, in and out of the court. I’m the face in incest, homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration – everything. I lived at the Salvation Army twice, in a vacant apartment with my children, and out of my mom’s car. . .I was shot at, stabbed, almost burned alive, and tied up. Guns were pulled on me countless times,” said Taylor. She also survived an abusive marriage lasting almost three years.

In 1992, at the age of 21, she found the strength to turn her life around so that her two children would have better lives. She found Jesus Christ and took the initiative to transform her life. She couldn’t read or write or analyze a sentence well, but she was determined. While working both a full-time and a part-time job, as well as taking care of her family, she returned to school at age 26 and two years later earned her high school diploma. She then went to Southwest Tennessee Community College, receiving a Technical Certificate in Substance Abuse Counseling and an Associate of Science degree in Human Services. She later enrolled in the University of Phoenix and earned a B.S. degree in Business Management.

She knew she wanted to help other women. She used her own experiences to educate and motivate others for over 25 years, teaching through the Salvation Army, Serenity Recovery Center, Shelby County Rape Crisis Center, Department of Human Services and Shelby County Child Support Office.

She also volunteered to share her life experiences through various organizations in Memphis — to women in prison, to women in homeless situations through Project for the Homeless Connect, to teenagers through Juvenile Court and other programs.

In 2004 she self-published her life story as a book, A Woman of God: An Inspirational Book for Women.

Many treatment programs last an average of 28-30 days and the relapse rate averages 70%. To cycle in and out of rehab several times is common. Knowing the limits of the average substance abuse treatment programs, Wanda wanted to create a program that would have a better chance of breaking the cycle and preventing substance abuse relapse. She began LINCS, Ladies in Need Can Survive, in 2013, out of her own home and with her own money and serves as the CEO and Executive Director. LINCS today provides a one-year residential program with structured, training. Participants go through an intensive drug and alcohol outpatient program, counseling, anger management, domestic violence education, parenting & life skills coaching, job readiness, career and financial planning, and a health and wellness program, along with First Aid/CPR and SIDS Training, and housing assistance.

Because it is demanding and holistic, the program is small. “Every woman who comes through the door, I mentor them and provide services to get them back on track,” Wanda said. She holds their hands and walks them through the process, provides transportation to school, and prepares them for structure and stability when they leave the program.

For taking the initiative to turn her own life around and using her experiences to help other women; for her initiative in realizing the weaknesses of traditional rehabilitation and creating LINCS as a holistic rehabilitation alternative, Wanda Taylor has earned the Women of Achievement Initiative Award.

As she sums it up, “Other programs deal with the addiction. I deal with the core issue, the root cause.”

Gayle Rose


for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Gayle Rose

Philanthropist, business founder, civic innovator – Gayle Rose defines “initiative.” This native of Iowa came to Memphis with her degree in music and business to work in arts administration. Arriving in August 1979 to work as assistant director/development director for the Memphis Arts Council, she performed clarinet on the side in a quintet and in orchestra for local theater and opera productions. In 1984, she enrolled in Harvard’s masters of public administration program and in 1985 returned to Memphis to marry Holiday Inn Corporation CEO and chairman Mike Rose. The couple had three sons together.

Gayle became chair of the Rose Family Foundation and was a co-founder of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis in 1995. After the marriage ended, Gayle continued her role as a prominent philanthropist. And she expanded her community involvement to encompass areas as diverse as historical preservation, professional sports, and entrepreneurship.
She worked tirelessly in the effort to save the Hunt Phelan home, a Memphis landmark.

In 2000 and 2001, she was part of the seven-person Pursuit Team of local leaders that wooed and won the relocation from Vancouver of an NBA team – now the Memphis Grizzlies. With attorney Marty Regan, her partner in numerous community projects, Gayle had charge full-time of confidential day-to-day communications between the Memphis investors, the league and other team owners. Gayle says, “It was so confidential that my office staff and children didn’t know what I was working on.”

Her commitment to the NBA project was driven by her long passion for efforts to improve economic opportunities and community harmony.

That same passion moved her to lead the Women’s Foundation board into the Memphis HOPE VI project that replaced crumbling public housing with new buildings and supportive social services. Since nearly 100 percent of leaseholders in the properties are women, Gayle asked the foundation board to be the private nonprofit to raise and receive $7.5 million in private funds for the comprehensive case management portion of the city’s application for federal grants. Gayle committed to lead the fundraising and considers it one of her most important projects. The Women’s Foundation raised $7.7 million over five years for Memphis HOPE.

In business, Gayle is currently founder and CEO of a technology and business continuity company, EVS Corporation. EVS has 18 employees and in 2012, Gayle was named CEO of the Year by MBQ magazine.

She continues as chair of the Rose Family Foundation private charity as well as her newest venture, Team Max, named after her late son, Max Rose, who died in a car crash. Team Max is a social media based volunteer activator for youth, which mobilizes support for causes across the globe.

Gayle became chair of the board of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra last year. She is presently leading the effort to reorganize and fund the symphony as it copes with a financial crisis that threatens its very existence.

Gayle has written powerfully about her dedication to strengthening our community by improving the lives of women through philanthropy, community redevelopment and political action: “Women need to understand that in Memphis, and throughout the world, poverty has the face of a woman. We need leaders in government who understand that ignoring the empowerment of women results in social costs, which keeps our community lagging behind. And we need leaders in the community who can advocate economic and social parity for women, as well as job training, child care, healthcare, reproductive rights and education. We all pay the price for the suffering of our women and children through our tax dollars, schools, property values, healthcare costs and crime rates. . . As a community and a nation, we all lose if women lose.”

Gayle Rose invents ways to make change, to build new opportunities for herself and for others. She invests, she initiates, she inspires, she innovates – she uses her talents to create her own future despite personal tragedy or long odds – and we and our children benefit.

Jodie Vance

Women of Achievement

for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Jodie Vance

Jodie Vance, publisher of the Memphis Downtowner magazine, must have been imbued with the enterprising spirit early in life. For what else could have led her to see the possibilities of a publication devoted to downtown living and working in a recessionary time when just about everything downtown was depressed and only the most optimistic dreamers and developers could see a bright future for the core of the city?

Jodie is a product of the Delta. She was born in Webb, Mississippi where her parents were small business owners who demonstrated daily the values of hard work. She attended the University of Mississippi, earning a degree in sociology, with studies concentrated in social work, psychology and English. As she once said, “I have a degree in nothing and in everything.” Which is another way of saying Jodie was an entrepreneur in waiting.

After moving to Memphis in the 1980s, Jodie soon discovered downtown, where she found a few — but very friendly — downtown residents and merchants. She joined the Downtown Neighborhood Association and slowly, inevitably, the idea grew that led to the launch of a magazine on the strength of her $10,000 in savings, and the advice and help of a few friends.

While Jodie freely admits that she had no journalism experience – and really had no idea what she was getting into in late 1990 when she started putting together the first pages of the first edition – when did ignorance ever stop someone with her kind of initiative?

In the 18 years since that first 12-page mini magazine was published, the Memphis Downtowner has grown in size and content and has evolved into a sophisticated organ that is the voice of the central district with readership that extends well beyond downtown. It is perhaps not entirely a coincidence that downtown Memphis itself has grown and evolved at the same pace.

Along the way, Jodie has won many awards that reflect her accomplishments.
All the accolades come down to a simple philosophy.

“I’ll always remember my father telling me, ‘Whatever you do, leave a place better than you found it,’” she has said. “And when I came Downtown, I thought, ‘My God, this is what I’m supposed to do! I’m supposed to leave this place better than I found it.’

“I felt my purpose when I moved Downtown, and I knew I had to publish a magazine about Downtown to do my part in bringing it back to life.”

Jodie Vance did her part, and more. Using her talents, she created her own future, and helped create a better future for Downtown Memphis and all of us.

Karla O. Davis


for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Karla O. Davis

Karla’s initiative has taken her down a path that leads from Chicago to Memphis and from Memphis to Nashville, from the Environmental Protection Agency to Memphis Hope, and from there to the Tennessee Commission for Labor and Work Force Development. Each move has resulted in improved lives for people touched by her work.

Born and raised by a loving family (her parents have been married for 58 years!), Karla lived in Chicago until leaving for Atlanta to attend Spelman College. Knowing that she wanted to become an engineer, she returned home to continue her studies. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in bio-engineering from the University of Illinois, Chicago.

She went to work for the Environmental Protection Agency. Over the course of 16 years, she assumed a number of management level positions and earned numerous awards for service along the way. While working in Chicago, she met her future husband, Terry Davis, through salsa dancing. In 2006, after enduring years of brutal winters, the couple decided to move to his home town of Memphis. Lucky for us!

Using her excellent networking skills, Karla took the initiative to meet Ruby Bright, director of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis. Impressed by Ms. Bright, Karla offered to volunteer for the foundation. This connection led to a position as director of Urban Strategies for Memphis HOPE. She committed herself to creating opportunities for families of the former Dixie Homes and Lamar Terrace communities. This was a huge challenge as most families were headed by single mothers whose situations had been deemed hopeless by others.

Karla was responsible for establishing cooperative relationships with other organizations, identifying funding opportunities and leveraging resources to help move these families out of poverty. She says Memphis HOPE’s goal was to “serve the whole family, by connecting adult residents with employment preparation and job training programs, connecting youth with tutoring and enrichment programs, and connecting seniors and the disabled with service programs.” Karla accomplished this by supporting a range of intervention strategies designed to permanently lift these families out of poverty and into self-sufficiency. Over 400 families benefited.

In 2011, Tennessee Governor-elect Bill Halsam offered her the job of Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. She says, “I was shocked and incredibly excited and honored. This was bigger than I could have ever dreamed.” She accepted. She was one of six women to be appointed to his 24-member cabinet. She now commutes between Memphis and Nashville. Karla manages a staff of nearly 2000, with offices all over the state, and administers a $220 million annual budget. She has embraced the massive task of bringing an industrial and agricultural based workforce into the world of technology and advanced manufacturing.

People who use the services of her department are often in crisis. They may be unemployed, have lost their jobs unexpectedly, need job training. In our current economic climate, they often feel desperate. It is her goal to provide them with excellent customer service so that they know that they are respected and that their voices are heard.

She says: “My entire career has revolved around public administration of some sort. I wish I could say I always wanted to be a public servant, but really it found me. Memphis has been a place of tremendous opportunity for me. I count moving here as one of the best decisions I ever made.”

Karla Davis uses her initiative with compassion and kindness to improve the lives of those she serves.

For this, we salute her.

Mahaffey White


for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Mahaffey White

Throughout her 90 plus years, Mahaffey White has used her initiative to move through a variety of artistic careers. Dress designer, art teacher, jewelry maker, photographer – who knows what’s next? Her journey has taken her from Memphis to Chicago to New York City and back again.

Born in 1911 in Corinth, Mississippi, Mahaffey soon moved to Memphis with her family. She always knew that she wanted to be involved in art. Her mother made the family’s clothes. Following in her mother’s footsteps, Mahaffey was designing and making her own clothes before she was out of elementary school. “I intended to become a dress designer,” she says. Later she did just that.

After high school graduation, she was accepted by the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago and spent 1929 taking classes. The Great Depression ended her studies and she returned to Memphis where she remained four years.

But Mahaffey never intended to stay. On her 24th birthday, with $100 from her mother, she arrived in New York City to pursue her dreams. Living at the YWCA, she held a variety of temporary jobs. She finally ended up at Henri Bendel’s where she worked sewing clothes for Paris models. After several seasons she moved to Butterwick Patterns, where she became an assistant designer. After learning all she could, she went out on her own. Working from home she created one-of-a-kind garments for women. Her dream of being a dress designer had come true.

Meanwhile on the home front, Mahaffey meet another Memphis transplant, Richard White. They married in 1938 and went on to have two sons.

After 16 years in New York, Richard was offered a job in Memphis and the family returned home.

In her 50s, Mahaffey re-entered school. She completed her degree from Memphis College of Art in 1968, with a major in jewelry making and sculpture.

Mahaffey wanted to teach but needed a master’s degree. At the time, there was no local advanced art degree so she obtained a Master’s in Continuing Education from Memphis State. She was hired by Shelby State where she helped develop an arts curriculum. She retired in 1981 at the mandatory age of 70.

From the time she received her first degree from Memphis College of Art, through the first decade of “retirement,” Mahaffey made jewelry and sculptures. She had several shows, including one at the Memphis Craft Artist Association and at the Brooks Museum of Art.

In 1991, at the age of 80, she took a photography course. Taught by her friend Patricia Leachman, the class inspired Mahaffey to focus her artistic efforts on learning photography.

“Don’t ask me to take your picture,” she says. “I’m not a real photographer.” Be that as it may, her prints have been exhibited at Christian Brothers University, the Cooper-Young gallery, and the Abington Square show in New York. She is represented by the Durden gallery in Memphis and the Southside Gallery in Oxford, Mississippi.

Future plans include more work in color photography and perhaps a return to jewelry making.


Mahaffey died at age 104 in May 2012.

Nadia Matthews


for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Nadia Matthews

As a high school student Nadia Matthews saw many of her peers headed the wrong direction, hanging out in gangs, becoming involved with drugs, getting into fights. She was determined not to be one of those girls and took the initiative to make sure her life went in the right direction.

Nadia and some of the friends she’d had since middle school began discussing the many problems they were all facing. In 2007, Nadia was inspired to set up Lily Roze Foundation. Named after her two grandmothers, the foundation started as a means of bringing teens together to discuss and artistically explore the epidemics that surround them. But it has grown into so much more. The foundation’s motto is “We plant seeds so that the world can watch you bloom.” Nadia says, “I want to watch these children and teenagers bloom not just into successful parents, but into college-educated young adults. Blooming means branching out.”

Even as a child, Nadia was never one to shy away from a microphone, a stage, or a writing opportunity. Her youthful presentations included church holiday speaker, spelling bee commentator, high school news anchor, and school playwright.

As a teen, Nadia saw her first Tyler Perry production. It was the first time she’d seen an urban play catering to a black audience. It addressed issues that were real in her life. She was so inspired that she started writing her own play. The result, “A Ghetto Fairytale,” covered every situation a teen can possibly face, from drugs and alcohol to teen pregnancy.

She says, “We wanted to do a show-and-tell method. We were going into classrooms and talking. We really wanted to show them their life on stage and make it as realistic as possible. I wanted to help people and teach them because I knew they weren’t listening when we were talking to them.”

Due to a last-minute need for a change in venue, the show had a four night run of sold-out performances at LeMoyne-Owen College. She’d arranged to use the theatre for free by promising LeMoyne-Owen the proceeds.

Turned out to be a great deal for the college as it received $10,000, a large contribution from one of its youngest donors ever; a fact later recognized with an award from the college. Unfortunately, Tyler Perry forgot to tell her not to use real names so she ended up losing a few friends. She hasn’t made that mistake again!

Her success brought national attention to her work. Nominated by her sister to be a guest on the Tyra Banks Show, Nadia got the call while at Graceland, sitting in a Cadillac that once belonged to Elvis. Her appearance in March of 2009 helped her to promote the work of the foundation and gained her some international followers.

Never wanting to be the playwright who dropped out for art, after high school Nadia attended the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and completed her degree in journalism at the University of Memphis.

Nadia has continued to write and in 2013 wrote and produced “Bitter/Sweet 16”, which was presented at the Michael Rose Theatre on the University of Memphis campus.

The LilyRoze Foundation continues to thrive. Offering weekly Saturday workshops for summer, fall and spring, the program results in three performances per semester, allowing the young participants, ages 3-17, a chance to work through their stage fright and develop both their self-esteem and natural talents.

And Nadia Matthews thrives as well, having established a conglomerate enterprise, LilyRoze Inc. She is, of course, the CEO. She directs the Miss Prestige Pageant, is co-owner of BeDazzled Birthdays, and is the driving force behind her numerous efforts.

Entrepreneur, activist, motivational speaker, actor, writer, producer/director of films and stage plays, and founder and CEO of The LilyRoze Foundation, Nadia Matthews is indeed the epitome of Initiative.