These three women are positioned to shape the future of hospitality, space exploration, recreation and environmental stewardship in the region.
The New Park Protector
In February, following an extensive national search, Cara Lambright became the new CEO of New Orleans City Park, one of the oldest and largest urban parks in the country, following a year that threatened its survival. Now, she’s eager to make moves to secure its future.
Throughout her career as a consultant to parks across the United States, Cara Lambright heard a common refrain from constituents about their beloved spaces: “Fix it, but don’t change it.”
In her new role as CEO of New Orleans City Park, Lambright takes that sentiment to heart, seeking to preserve elements that have endeared the park to generations of New Orleanians while planning improvements needed to strengthen its future.
Lambright has resided in some of the world’s great cities, from Bangkok to Brussels to London. She completed a certification in Urban Park Executive Leadership and most recently served as the executive director and COO of Houston’s Memorial Park Conservancy.
“When I finally entered public space about 10 years ago, it was such a fit for me personally,” said Lambright. “I love the arts, I love safety net services, I love nature. And suddenly all these things intersected in a park.”
Growing up, the Dallas native and self-described “parkie” spent summers visiting family in New Iberia and was always drawn to New Orleans. She sees vast opportunity in City Park’s 1,300 acres and emphasizes the benefits of its central location, an advantage not found in most cities. Lambright believes City Park can be as iconic and instantly recognizable as New York’s Central Park, London’s Hyde Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
In Lambright’s mind, this post-Katrina, post-pandemic period is the ideal moment to reflect upon the 170-year-old park’s mission. Though the pandemic brought a surge of visitors, it also pummeled the park’s finances as many income-generating activities (like amusements and the roughly 800 weddings held each year) were halted. Park leaders reduced the number of staff by nearly half.
According to Lambright, “We were really running into reserves, even the endowment, that are kind of the no-go zones.” She credits successful fundraisers like Celebration in the Oaks and Floats in the Oaks, as well as state funding, with helping carry the park through a rough time but says it is not enough to sustain the park for the future.
“It’s just keeping us steady,” said Lambright. “We don’t have the type of operating reserves to allow us to make visionary and bold choices… When you’re looking at a 170-year-old park, having a small endowment and limited reserves aren’t options.”
Lambright plans to open a new dialogue with the public about its role in supporting City Park through unrestricted giving (separate from the efforts of Friends of City Park, a 501(c)(3) organization that raises money for targeted projects). “We’ve found it acceptable to support cultural institutions for hundreds of years… and somehow the parks are still suffering from this idea that they are fully supported with taxpayer dollars,” she said. “That’s just not the case.”
Lambright said public support will be critical for the park to provide its three core responsibilities: safety, clean restrooms and litter-free grounds. “Parks need maintenance,” she said. “It’s not a pretty word, but it’s true. We can’t keep building things if we’re not able to maintain them.”
If City Park can mobilize philanthropic giving on a larger scale, she believes smaller local parks will benefit as public funds will be freed up to support neighborhood and pocket parks. She also hopes to convince city and state government of the park’s role as a catalyst for economic development — attracting film shoots, sporting events and increasingly, tourism. That was particularly true during the pandemic, as bar and restaurant closures routed tourists to the park who might not have visited otherwise.
Lambright’s growing list of priorities includes repairing and restoring infrastructure, like the park’s WPA-era bridges and buildings. She is also committed to improving transit and accessibility within the park to make it easier for visitors without cars to reach spread-out attractions.
Other goals involve habitat and environmental design, from mapping tree assets and creating a forestry plan to improving water management and planting meadowlands that absorb more water during rain events. Lambright is exploring ways to improve the layout on the park’s less developed north side by consolidating scattered ball fields, a move that would optimize recreation space while also creating a contiguous habitat and improving water flow.
Though she is a tenured park operator, Lambright says she learns something new every day — from roller coaster certification requirements to details about the park’s 150 staff members, many of whom are 20-year employees. But her most important role is helping understand and strengthen the relationship between park and community.
“I hope as we continue our dialogue with the public that we can all remember how critical City Park is to making New Orleans livable,” Lambright said. “The pandemic really shed a light on that in a way that will serve us in the future, as hard as it was. I think people understand that it matters more than ever, and that’s half the battle when you’re managing a park — to have people not take it for granted.”
Reaching New Heights in the Space Industry
In late December, Mary Byrd went where no woman has gone before when she was named associate director of Stennis Space Center.
After more than two decades working in one of NASA’s most exciting centers, Mary Byrd thought her next career move might be retirement. Instead, she was offered the position of associate director of Stennis Space Center, the highest leadership role ever held by a woman in the organization.
Though Byrd says she was content in her previous role as director of the Stennis Center Operations Directorate, the choice was clear: “That was where I was going to be called to serve until retirement.”
Byrd is excited to have a seat at the leadership table. After 26 years with NASA, the sudden spotlight has taken a bit of getting used to, but Byrd appreciates the attention her glass-ceiling breakthrough has garnered — from friends on Facebook to more official media recognition.
“I have always taught my daughters that there is no limit to what you can do as long as you set your goals and work hard toward them,” said Byrd. “It has been really special for me to be the first woman in one of the top leadership positions at Stennis.”
Though Stennis Space Center may be best known for its rocket-testing capabilities, the federal city is home to more than 50 federal, state, educational and private organizations and produces a direct economic impact of $650 million to communities within a 50-mile radius. Stennis’s employee population tops 5,000 workers, 30 percent of whom live in Louisiana.
Byrd’s tenure at Stennis has included plenty of historic moments, many of them centered around the space shuttle program. Currently, Stennis is home to flight and development testing for the RS-25 engine, which will power the core stage of NASA’s new Space Launch System and Artemis program, scheduled to carry the first woman to the lunar surface in 2024.
Stennis recently experienced a milestone in that project with a successful “hot fire test” of the core stage. That experience exemplified the excitement Byrd finds in her work. “It’s about 8 minutes and a few seconds, and when it lights off — I have to be honest — I get teary eyed,” she said. “If you didn’t hear [the roar of engines], you could have heard a pin drop because people were on the edge of their seats, waiting and anticipating it to go through that full duration. When it stopped, you could hear everybody yelling and screaming — there were a lot of virtual high fives.”
Byrd feels grateful to be part of the biggest test project at Stennis in more than 40 years: “I was just a child during the Apollo program, and I will now have stories to share with my grandchildren, telling them their ‘Mimi’ was a part of history.”
When reflecting on the early days of her own professional history, Byrd recalls some instances of gender bias but says they only served as motivation to excel.
“There were some who thought I got a job along the way because I was a woman,” she said. “While they were hurtful, they also energized me to work harder to prove them wrong.”
Since those early days, Byrd believes the STEM fields have become very welcoming to women, particularly at Stennis, where she says staff members are recognized for their hard work, skills and knowledge. She is committed to mentoring young people interested in STEM, a tribute to the high school teachers who supported her own interests in math and science.
Byrd also credits role models closer to home including her father and two brothers — all engineers and fellow LSU graduates — as well as her mother, a former educator.
“It was easy for me to say I’m going to go into engineering,” said Byrd. “I had a lot of encouragement along the way.”
Much of the encouragement today comes from Byrd’s partner, a senior Stennis engineer, her two daughters and their husbands, one of whom also works at Stennis, as well as her grandchildren and two “fur babies.”
Byrd is pleased to see the resurgence of enthusiasm for space exploration, with NASA efforts like the Artemis program as well as interest in companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin (which have also used Stennis for component testing). “I hope to see the type of excitement across the country that we had back in those Apollo days,” she said, citing the millions of social media hits the coverage of NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover has received as a positive sign.
Now that she has settled into her own groundbreaking role, Byrd is thinking ahead to another milestone: watching the first woman walk on the surface of the moon. “I really look forward to that,” she said.
Revitalizing the Riverfront
Proclaimed among the most anticipated hotel openings in the world in 2021 by Forbes, Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences New Orleans will open May 15 under the guidance of General Manager Mali Carow.
Mali Carow has lived and worked in Four Seasons properties around the globe, including stints in Washington, D.C., Jordan, the Maldives and London, but it took an interview for the biggest job of her career to bring her to New Orleans. “Literally from the first moments I stepped into the city, I knew it was home,” said Carow.
The 26-year veteran of the Four Seasons organization started her career as a server in the Chicago property and worked her way up to hotel manager in London. When she considered applying for the general manager position in New Orleans, however, Carow hesitated: “I almost discredited it because it was such a large opening.”
The 341-room hotel and luxury residences, scheduled to open in June, occupies the site of the former World Trade Center at the foot of Canal Street, overlooking Spanish Plaza and the Mississippi River. Construction began in 2018 after a contentious process among developers who had submitted proposals for the property. Then came COVID-19, casting a long shadow over the travel industry. Through it all, Carow said the teams involved in the project have remained committed and optimistic, excited to be part of a new era for the riverfront and welcoming the city’s post-pandemic chapter.
Carow was especially drawn to the property’s strong culinary focus, which dovetails with her background in food and beverage.
“As you’re looking for your first general manager position, you want to make sure there’s a comfort zone,” says Carow. “For me, knowing it was so food-and-beverage-centric was comforting because that was not just my experience, it was my passion.”
The lobby bar, as well as a separate restaurant, Miss River, will be overseen by local chef partner Alon Shaya. The restaurant will feature celebration-oriented service, with touches like a sommelier table and a “food stage” for plating elaborate dishes. The second restaurant (still unnamed) will be a collaboration with chef partner Donald Link.
“You can never leave the doors and still hit two of the best chefs in New Orleans,” said Carow.
The hotel will offer nearly 30,000 square feet of meeting-and-celebration-friendly event space, including two ballrooms with river views and an outdoor event lawn and garden. Visitors can enjoy the observation decks on the 33rd and 34th floors, a cultural attraction that will not be run by the Four Seasons but accessible through the building.
New Orleans marks Carow’s seventh Four Seasons property, and she says it offers a little bit of everything.
“I think that’s unique because as hoteliers we’re always saying, ‘Oh, I wish we had just one more restaurant or I wish we had 50 more guest rooms,’ and here, it’s like it’s been delivered,” she said. “Now we have to worry about filling it!”
There is reason to believe filling it will not be a problem. Carow predicts that leisure travel will rebound soon — an advantage for New Orleans. On the business side, meeting planners are signaling demand from clients seeking a unique experience without international travel.
“I’m hearing that from other general managers in the city,” said Carow. “If you can’t go overseas, then make it New Orleans.” She is also hopeful about the return of international direct flights and the support of Four Seasons brand loyalists: “We know that they follow us where our properties go.”
The Four Seasons has tried to create a true sense of place with its New Orleans location, from locally made or inspired artwork to locally hired staff. According to Carow, the property plans to hire as many as 500 employees by year-end, and their commitment is to hire from the city.
“We knew we weren’t going to enter this market and try to give our brand’s take on New Orleans — it had to be authentic,” she said.
At the organizational level, Carow believes the company has gotten better at fostering and developing its women leaders, as evidenced by the growing number of women general managers. According to Carow, there are many paths to general manager today, a departure from a more rigid career progression that she says was not always kind to women.
“Now we’ve got general managers from the marketing realm, finance, human resources — I think you’re going to see more women achieve that role because the avenues to get there are more bountiful than they were 10 years ago.”
The new role and city have made some adjustments necessary for Carow. In the strategy-focused role of general manager, she has been flexing her “delegation muscle”: “It’s not easy because for a project I feel so passionate about, I want to be involved in everything but know that I just can’t.”
As for their new home, Carow, her husband and young son are enjoying life in the Bywater neighborhood and looking forward to post-pandemic celebrations like festivals and Mardi Gras.
“We bought our wagon and cooler,” said Carow. “We’re ready for next year.”