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4 Women Standing Tall


Joanne Bullard O’Keefe, 57, has owned Nezaty’s Cafe, a popular and successful brunch and lunch stop on Courthouse Road in Gulfport, for 12 years. Many of her customers know her by name and pause to share with her as she works right alongside that day’s crew.

As a matter of fact, she sees her staff as very integral to the success of the business.

“I credit the success to always trying to keep an amazing staff of employees; dedicated friends and customers; and my son, Jeff, who throughout the years has been my rock, heart, and voice of reason,” she says.

She’s very proud of Jeff Jr. and is quick to mention Jeff’s wife Linsdey and her first grandbaby, Layla Elaine, who was born this year.

Joanne seems to always be on the go at the restaurant, but she took a few minutes to answer some questions for Gulf Coast Woman about her career path, mentors and dreams.


After receiving an MBA in 1982 from USM, I began my first career in waste management on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Upon transferring to Atlanta, my area of expertise became more focused and I became a hazardous material specialist and market development manager for environmental emergency response companies. In 2002, I returned to the Coast to live closer to my aging parents whom at the time needed help. In the summer of 2005, the opportunity to buy Nezaty’s Cafe became available. The location was great with unique menu items; so, my second career as a cafe owner started July 2005.


Balancing work and family life at my age means having a great manager and staff that I can rely upon so that I have the time to devote to my 87-year-old Mom.


No one pivotal point has shaped who I am today. Each decision that I have made throughout my life and each turn that I have taken has shaped and made me the person that I am today.


My Dad, who passed away in 2004, was probably my greatest inspiration. He, along with my mother, taught me the value of a good education and work ethics.


Never thought about it! My Dad, who had an MBA and a specialist degree in finance and was an associate professor at USM, just told me that I would get a degree in business one day and go from there.


Strength, courage, strong morals and ethics.


Yoga and anything around the water.


LuAnn Pappas has stood at the helm of Scarlet Pearl Casino Resort since it opened in December 2015. The CEO has relocated for work many times in her career, but at times passed up opportunities for advancement to maintain stability in school for her son.

She shared recently about her struggle with balancing family and work, her aspirations and her inspiration.

“To be honest, I do not think I did (balance work and family),” she says. “Something always suffers due to balancing personal and professional demands.”

Sometimes though, a health crisis can help bring focus and clarity. “In September of 2014, I had a massive heart attack at work — I can honestly say this changed my life in many ways. I focused on a work-life balance and changed my career and the company I worked for after 30 years.”

She has drawn strength and inspiration over the years from her father. “I am who I am today because of my Dad,” she says. “My Dad taught us never quit was you start, be firm, fair and patient.”


I always wanted to be an attorney — public defender.


Their ability to have work-life balance, their candidness and their intelligence. Most importantly, I admire other women leaders who take time to develop other women.


Success is not easy — work-life balance should be given major consideration as you strive for the pursuit of excellence and upward mobility.


I am an avid cook — I love to create — and spending time with my two babies, Bella, my maltese puppy, and Bentley, my bischon frise.


Velma Johnson has been an educator for 18 years. She began her career as a teacher in the Gulfport School District, then rose to assistant principal and is now the federal programs coordinator for the district. As the coordinator, she writes and manages federal grants.

She shared recently about her family, aspirations and inspirations.


Balancing work and family life is still a work in progress. My job often requires me to travel, therefore we have a family calendar to help each other keep track of upcoming family events. I also stopped bringing work home. By doing this, I am able to cook more often for my family and it gives me the opportunity to help my daughter with after school needs. My husband and I have committed to making quality time a priority. Therefore, we plan family vacations and use the weekends to spend time as a family.


The pivotal point in my life that helped to shape who I am today is choosing to change my surroundings and letting go of things and people that were unhealthy.


Trying to become an administrator posed quite a challenge for me. I was young and did not have much leadership experience and my interviewing skills were subpar. Yet, I knew I had the willpower to do the job but needed someone to give me the opportunity. I began attending Toastmasters to help with my interviewing skills and public speaking. I took on additional duties and became a lead teacher and took it upon myself to shadow other administrators. I am forever grateful to my former supervisor Bryan Caldwell for believing in me and giving me the opportunity and tools to become an administrator. This opportunity opened doors to many other opportunities.


My mother inspires me. Nine years of my life she was a single parent. She never used that as an excuse to not be successful. She always instilled the importance of believing in God and the importance of education. I watched her overcome many hardships but her faith and work ethic have never wavered.


As a child, I wanted to become a teacher and a priest. I fondly remember playing school with my stuffed animals and leading mass where I would have my grandmother partake in my make-believe communion of white bread and water.


I admire other women leaders who are risk takers, those who have a strong sense of self, and those who are servant leaders.


My parents have always supported me with anything I’ve tried to accomplish. The women in my church kept me involved in service and were there to offer guidance as they watched me blossom into a young lady. Coaches and professors in college were there to offer guidance on many days when I struggled. Mentors, colleagues, and friends have supported many of my visions and endeavors that helped me grow as a professional. Last but most importantly, my husband is very supportive and one of my biggest cheerleaders.


In your pursuit of success, allow God to lead you. Never accept that you aren’t good enough or can’t do a certain job. There will be obstacles but don’t allow those things to stop you.


April Bullock, 35, opened her first retail store when she was 24. She has operated Eve Marie’s Boutique in Hattiesburg for 11 years and then opened Ivy Boutique five years ago in D’Iberville. She says she didn’t have a clue what she was doing but “I had passion, drive and dedication. I knew I couldn’t fail.”

“Each day in business, I aspire to give women confidence in themselves,” she says. “I accomplish this by dressing women in clothes that make them feel beautiful.”

She shared recently with Gulf Coast Woman about her life and business.


Honestly, there are so many things that have happened through my life that have shaped me. I try to take negative situations and spin them into positive messages.


There have been many challenges on my road to success. One of the main challenges is people who don’t want you to succeed. For some reason there are individuals out there that insist on tearing others down. It is heartbreaking to witness how many times this actually happens. Especially to small business owners.


I am inspired by all the women that surround me. They are mothers, wives, entrepreneurs, cancer survivors, friends, charity workers and so much more. I look at the women around me and am in awe of how much each one of them accomplishes in a 24 hour time frame.


My Mom is a seamstress and as a child, I would take her leftover fabric and turn it into beautiful Mardi Gras gowns for my Barbie dolls. So I wanted to be in the fashion industry as a designer. I also wanted to be a kindergarten teacher or a Spanish teacher. It wasn’t until later in high school that I decided I wanted to open my own boutique.


Genuineness, compassion, drive.


I credit my success to God. Without Him, I would have nothing. I also credit my success to the many people who have supported me through the years, my friends, family, customers and employees. They have remained loyal and dedicated to me throughout my career.


It’s hard and there will be many hurdles along the way. Take each of those as a learning experience and appreciate every moment that you get.


I love spending time with my fiancé, having cookouts and enjoying time with friends and family.

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