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How they did it! 6 women who are being their own kind of successful

By Elaine Stevens//

It’s been said that little girls with big dreams become women with vision who achieve success. Gulf Coast Woman will introduce you to six such South Mississippi successful women who have some tips for young professionals. They are a diverse group in age and ethnicity, however they have the commonality of their dreams combined with perseverance.


Work hard—then work harder. An impressive resumé or a good first impression may get you in the door, but hard work is the only thing that will keep you there.

—Julie J. Gresham, Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc. (HII)

Senior Counsel and Director of Compliance/President Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce

    To the legal layperson Julie Gresham’s job description sounds complicated, intricate, and demanding. Her role as senior counsel and director of compliance supports the Ingalls Shipbuilding division of HII, the largest manufacturing employer in Mississippi and a major contributor to the economic growth of the state. Among her many responsibilities are compliance reviews which focus on making sure HII and Ingalls have the proper internal controls to prevent and detect illegal, unethical and/or improper conduct by anyone employed or associated with the company.

     Always wanting to be a lawyer, Julie says she did have a close call during her senior year when she pursued a PhD in speech communication, but her parents talked her out of it. “They were concerned that if I didn’t go to law school then, I would never go and would regret it one day. They were right.”

    While in private practice Julie was able to incorporate her passion for communication into her professional life, working as a communication consultant. “I prepared witnesses for Congressional hearings and worked with companies to develop crisis communications plans.”

    Approached two years ago to become in-house attorney for Ingalls, Julie admittedly struggled with the decision, having to reprogram her plan, thus learning a major life lesson. “You can get so focused on your goals that you may miss opportunities along the way.”

    Having mentors and trusted friends helps Julie when it comes to advice. “They share two traits: They want what is best for me, and they will tell me the truth regardless of what I want to hear,” Julie says which has helped her grow and learn in all aspects of her life.

    That said, the task of balancing her personal and professional life remain front and center, especially now that Julie is president of the Gulf Coast Chamber of Commerce. “My family always comes first,” she says as a mother of son, Will, age 4, and wife to husband, Alex, for 14 years. “I start with that premise and make my decisions accordingly,” Julie explains.  

    Because she believes actions speak louder than words, especially with Will, she turns her work phone on silent in the afternoons when she picks up her son.  “While it sounds simple,” Julie admits, “it can prove to be very difficult for someone who is always trying to multitask.”

       Julie admits it can all be overwhelming, but she has found a way to focus on what is really important in life.  “I count my blessings daily,” Julie says. At the end of an arduous day, Julie says asking Will to list his top three blessings has given her valuable insight.  “Captain America or the Hulk are often included among the answers,” she says, adding, “Life is much simpler when you are viewing the world through a child’s eyes.”



Evaluate if this is something you really want to do. Think hard and long about the commitment.

Rebeca Fairley, owner of Panache, Gulfport, MS

    Panache defined as a “colorful confidence of style or manner” also defines the owner of the boutique by that name.  Rebeca Fairley, a vibrant millennial wife, mother, and goal-oriented retailer, will celebrate 10 years of fashion success at Panache in November 2016 with a fabulous open house reception. Rebeca said as long as she can remember, she always wanted to open a women’s clothing store. Panache is that and more.

    “We have something for every woman, regardless of age, shape, or size,” Rebeca says in describing her business which features clothing for every ethnicity, lifestyle, or career whether you are 18 or 70. “We cater to a broad band of women from the college girl to the newly married; from the stay at home mom to the busy working one.”

    Rebeca certainly is the latter. As a mother of extremely active and curious 4-year old son, Jude, she says balancing business and family has been a challenge. In fact, Jude can be seen helping mom during the busy holiday season at Panache.  “The love of her life and business partner,” husband Clayton, and her family have been there since the beginning.

     “It was hard to get the business started, but God helped me get back home,” says Rebeca. By that she means her fashion career had taken her to Birmingham, Alabama, where she had just purchased a home 8 months before Katrina struck the coast. “I sold my home and that money helped me open my store,” Rebeca says as she explains her desire to return to the coast to help rebuild her community. “I had to rely on credit cards and live with my parents for a couple of years until we turned a profit.” All the while Rebeca poured her money back into Panache, building an extraordinary inventory.

    Rebeca also credits her success to solid mentorship from two very important people in her life: Former employer Susan Oustalet, past owner of the Gift Gallery and her own father, Terry Strickland of Strickland motors. “I learned so much working for Susan and watching her build wonderful relationships,” Rebeca says. “And, my father, who is a very good businessman, came from a poor family and instilled a work ethic in me. He always said, ‘Some times [in business] are hard, so appreciate the good ones.’”



Never let anyone tell you what’s not possible. If you can give your boss 100% you can do the same for yourself!

Kenisha Mays, owner Luxe Beauty Supply & Salon Company, Gulfport, MS

    Kenisha and Alvin Mays lost their home and their jobs after Katrina’s deadly hit in 2005. They salvaged their car. Left with their four children and no income, they began a six month battle with their insurance company so they could rebuild.  Like many South Mississippians, the Mays family had no flood insurance. Forced to move in with Kenisha’s father for a month, they eventually got a FEMA trailer. “We lived in it for five months,” Kenisha says. “At that point we had no choice but to pull from our kids’ college funds to start working on our house.” That dark struggle along with her husband’s inspiring hope in her new business is what led to the opening of Luxe Beauty Supply & Salon Company about a year ago.

    An extraordinarily determined yet self-described shy entrepreneur, Kenisha says she knew she could offer in business what others were not: Superb customer service and satisfaction. As a customer of an existing Gulfport salon, Kenisha had personally experienced the blatant refusal of a store owner to correct a purchase error even before leaving the salon. “She handed me the wrong product. I felt there should be some reasoning with her, but she refused.”

    Today as a proud proprietor of a black-owned beauty supply store, hair salon, and nail spa under one roof, Kenisha explains her business mission like this: “My mission is to let people know that they have choices and we are here to provide the same products for less.  We offer great customer service and you can actually touch our products before purchasing!”

    Kenisha married Alvin Mays when she was twenty. That was 16 years ago. Together they have produced one college graduate, one college student, and two children in high school, so their work together continues. “My motivation is my family. I work ten hours a day, and once I get off I leave all work at work. At six o’clock in the evening, I’m mommy.”



I believe and tell my students to follow your dreams, work hard, try your best, and remember, with God all things are possible.

Jessica Ryan Peters, Jess Dance Studio, Gulfport, MS

    Because of her extensive 30 years of training and her professional performance experience from the West Coast to the Gulf Coast, one could say Jessica Ryan Peters has been dancing her way through life.  She certainly fits the adage: “A ballerina may look fragile, but she is much stronger than you think.”

    Not even Hurricane Katrina kept her from fulfilling her childhood dream of teaching dance. The plan of opening Jess Dance in September 2005 with 100 pre-registered students was deterred slightly. Instead the studio opened in mid-November with 40 students with a completely intact facility.  Today, nearly eleven years later, Jess Dance continues to grow — so much in fact, there is a new and bigger location which offers more classes and times.

    “I felt passionate about sharing my love of dance with children,” Jessica says. “Dance has always given me inner strength and an outlet for life’s obstacles.”

    Jessica has also managed to fulfill another lifelong dream, that of having children with her husband, Greg, who is her helpmate in business and soulmate in marriage. “I am so proud of my best productions, 11-year old Lexie and our 7-year old son, Cade.”

    Like so many other female entrepreneurs have encountered, the demanding challenge of balancing numerous family and business obligations exists in the Peters household. “It hasn’t always been easy, but thanks to our wonderful family’s support we have been able to find a balance.”

     Apparently all is well-balanced on the family and dance fronts as the awards continue to mount: For Jessica, the 2016 choreography award for her competition dance, “Cool Kids,” and for daughter, Lexie, Miss Dance Revolution 2016, dancing in her mother’s path. Offering classes to students from two years to adulthood, Jessica is proud of the results. “I believe in providing strong technique, combining traditional dance education in a Christian-based environment,” Jessica explains.  “My company dancers have received titles, overall high score awards, and scholarships. We also have an award-winning competitive dance team.”

     With that kind of motivation and a curriculum that includes, ballet, jazz, tap, hip-hop, pointe, lyrical, acrobatics, and Irish, it’s no wonder Jess Dance Studio performs at community events and holds a spectacular annual recital for all of South Mississippi to enjoy.



Never lose sight of your purpose because of the many obstacles women may face in different working environments.

Emily Smith, Smith Contracting Co., LLC, Gulfport

    Emily Smith and husband, Eddie, have been a married team for nearly 12 years. They are also the powerhouse team behind their nine-year old company, Smith Contracting, which is also a full-service woman-owned general contractor.

     The University of Southern Mississippi graduate says she and her husband always knew they wanted to start a business, but weren’t sure initially where to begin. “Eddie was working for a landscape company and I was attending USM in their Bachelor of Arts and Letters undergraduate program,” Emily says. “We both decided to start a landscape company on the side since he gained experience in landscaping and installing irrigations.” Like many successful married business partners, they developed a plan: “…finish college and utilize my schooling and professional skills, needed to help manage a successful company.”

     Emily did just that with a few adjustments in between. She graduated in 2010 — three years after the business opened — and added a couple of new Smiths to the family in the midst of their business plan. “Our four kids, ranging in ages from two to 15, are our motivation to keep going,” Emily says. “We both believe that it’s important to teach them that you can do whatever you apply yourself to do.” She admits, like most working moms, that it’s difficult balancing home and office. “Eddie and I try our best to shut work down after a certain hour, and we always utilize weekends for family time.”     

    The Smiths purchased their first zero turn lawn mower with a small loan from Keesler Federal Credit Union and secured maintenance commercial contracts with Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and the National Park Service.

    Acknowledging the importance of inspirational mentors, Emily credits Fontello and Jackie Brown of Tropical World Landscape & Irrigations, LLC. “They both mentored my husband and me from the very start,” Emily says. “Fontello gave us our first commercial sub-contract with GSA’s (General Services Administration) Dan Russell Federal Courthouse providing landscape.” She is quick to add others to her mentor list including the Small Business Administration, South Mississippi Business Development Center, Artice Sumrall of Sumrall Construction, Inc., and Meredith Anderson of Can’t Be Beat Fence & Construction.

     Smith Contracting manages residential, commercial, and government clients regardless of the project size.  With services that include landscape, irrigation, concrete, drainage improvements, and civil construction, Emily says it’s important have a strong commitment to customer service. “Our mission is to meet our customers’ needs and exceed their expectations. We are committed to excellence and dedicated to our customers’ long-term satisfaction.”



I agree with Zig Ziglar: You can have anything in life you want, as long as you help others get what they want.

—Pam Thompson, owner Sports Shack, owner Medial Disposal Systems and AdvoCare distributor, D’Iberville

    Realizing a need in your community and discovering a way to solve it epitomizes Pam Thompson’s entrepreneurial spirit. She is best known in South Mississippi for Sports Shack, her popular specialty retail store which showcases collegiate merchandise. However, her other two endeavors are just as important to her. Medial Disposal Systems is a medical waste provider, providing services to medical, dental, and veterinary offices and AdvoCare is a company specializing in nutritional supplements including weight management and sports nutrition.

    “I am an avid sports fan and in 2007 decided to open Sports Shack even though I had no retail experience.” Fans were driving elsewhere to buy team gear, so she filled the need locally.

    “In 2013, after years of being in the solid waste industry, I saw medical offices paying exorbitant prices to dispose of their medical waste mainly due to the lack of competition.” As for the third business, AdvoCare, Pam says she fell in love with the health products and wanted to share the experience.

    After moving back to Mississippi in 1996 the recently divorced single mother of then two small children saw an opportunity.  “I was reading the newspaper and saw where the City of Gautier had bid their garbage service,” Pam explains. “They had decided to throw out all bids and try again.” With her ten years of experience in that industry, Pam set her keen eye on Gautier. “I knew I could provide the service the city was seeking. In short, I bid the contract and was successful.”

    Obviously taking a risk is testament of her success as well. Today Pam is the enthusiastic grandmother of seven, mother to Megan and Brittany, and happily married to David Thompson for nearly ten years.

     “When I opened DisposALL, I had no money, but I had a strong work ethic,” Pam says. “I sought help from a past employer who was in the garbage business. He mentored me financially and mentally.”

    Others have inspired and assisted Pam as well through her courageous enterprises. “My mother always believed in me, and I surrounded myself with people I wanted to be like.” And like so many other successful women in South Mississippi, Pam’s faith is her guiding light.

     Operating one business is exhausting enough, but three? “I work my medical waste business during the day and at night and on weekends, I am at Sports Shack,” explains Pam. “It is all fun, rewarding, challenging, and stressful—all at the same time!”

    Aside from loving what she does—“that’s why it’s not really work”—Pam urges that we in South Mississippi, both as business owners and consumers, “make a difference by seeking community first.”  

     Obviously taking a risk is testament to her personal success as well. Today Pam is happily married to David Thompson, mother to Megan and Brittany, and “Gigi” to a total of seven grandchildren between the combined families.