HER: Honoring, Empowering and Raising Up Six Extraordinary Women - 405 Magazine

HER: Honoring, Empowering and Raising Up Six Extraordinary Women

In plain clothes, the 2022 HER honorees could easily blend into a crowd.

Photo by Shevaun Williams

In plain clothes, the 2022 HER honorees could easily blend into a crowd. You might see them in a grocery checkout line or walking down a city sidewalk or shopping inside your favorite boutique without noticing anything unusual about them. However, put them in a ballgown and ask them a few personal questions and you’ll soon see that these everyday women are anything but ordinary. They are transforming lives. They are shaping our community. They are breaking down barriers and inspiring others to follow.

With the HER award, we honor six local leaders, encouraging their work and thanking them for boldly standing out. Read their stories, and we think you’ll agree: These extraordinary women make living in the 405 even better.

Woman of the Year, Dr. Mautra Staley Jones

Dr. Mautra Staley Jones. Photo by Shevaun Williams.

She’s having a moment, exuding excellence and gaining national attention for our state — and she’s doing it all her way. The last few years have been a whirlwind for Dr. Mautra Stanley Jones. Earlier this year she was appointed president of Oklahoma City Community College (OCCC), making her the first woman and first woman of color to lead the institution. She joins just 5% of women of color at the helm of higher education institutions in the U.S.

This comes fresh off the heels of being named the 86th National Mother of the Year by American Mothers, Inc. Jones has three school-aged children: two sons and a daughter.

This lifelong education advocate and civic leader proudly boasts that she is “Sooner born and Sooner bred,” and will continue to elevate Oklahoma along her life’s journey.

Under her leadership as president, OCCC has forgiven nearly $4 million in student debt for its Fresh Start Initiative (which impacts more than 4,500 OCCC students) and awarded $1.8 million to help first generation college students, and was named one of MovieMaker’s 40 Best Film Schools of 2022 — the only Oklahoma school to make the list.

When discussing her life and recent accolades, Jones credits education and a giving mindset, something she learned from her grandmother while growing up in Ardmore. “She taught me so many principles [and] values and morals and set the stage for what my life’s work would be — because despite the things I went through as a child, not really understanding why some of the challenges existed, she always taught me hold my head up high and be someone full of pride and joy and confidence and optimism,” said Jones, “and how to work hard and dream big dreams. Everyone is the same and I shouldn’t be intimidated or scared. I saw her give service to our community; I remember us always being in some sort of a space where we are giving of ourselves.”

She believes she is “just walking in my purpose. In my current role at OCCC, it really feels like it has come full circle.” Jones started her job as president on March 1 — her late mother’s birthday. “It was really a way to honor her legacy and the dreams deferred and the things she didn’t get to accomplish. A lot of the students that I serve, their backgrounds and experiences mirror mine. I’m able to give of myself and my talents and everything that I have worked hard for, and fully invest in the students that we serve at OCCC. We are building resources, removing barriers and making educational opportunities accessible. We get to serve people from all journeys and all walks of life.”

This year she will be one of 11 named into the Oklahoma African American Educators Hall of Fame. “Education has been the great equalizer. It has opened so many doors and opportunities for me, and I don’t take it for granted,” said Jones, and her life’s work backs up that belief as she passes the gift on to as many others as possible.

Industry Leader, Cathy O’Connor

Cathy O’Connor. Photo by Shevaun Williams.

She’s the kind of person you want on your team. Whether it’s raising and competing champion Arabian horses alongside her daughter, preserving historic buildings or shaping the future of a great American city — Cathy O’Connor is going to win.

With or without knowing it, most OKC residents reap the benefits of O’Connor’s life’s work on a daily basis. For the past four decades, she has been front and center in leading the charge to transform the 405. From 10 years as assistant city manager to 10 years as president of The Alliance for Economic Development, she has had one mission. “My biggest motivation is trying to make Oklahoma City the best place it can be for the people who live here and want to come visit,” O’Connor said.

In a public post praising her, Mayor David Holt said, “Economic achievements like the lowest unemployment in city history are the product of a unified effort that includes some of the most talented people any American city has ever seen. And across multiple decades, Cathy O’Connor has been THE MVP of OKC economic development.”

Just a few of the notable projects O’Connor has had a hand in include the Convention Center and Omni Hotel, Boeing facility, renovation of the Skirvin Hilton, 21c Museum Hotel and West Village and the Innovation and Boathouse Districts. “The projects that I have worked on are really important for quality of life. They make Oklahoma City a more interesting place; a place that people want to come visit, which helps our local economy — and they create good jobs for people,” said O’Connor. But the one she’s most proud of? Ending the food desert in north-east Oklahoma City, a process she began working on in 1998 and refused to abandon. “It took a lot of effort, perseverance, teamwork and things coming together at the same time to get that deal done.” What was once a vision is now the bustling and vibrant Homeland grocery store at NE 36th and Lincoln.

Upon the triumphant completion of several of her largest projects, O’Connor was considering going into business with a private firm when COVID-19 hit, and an opportunity arose to help small businesses survive. O’Connor and her team created an emergency response small business assistance program in less than a month after the start of the pandemic and successfully distributed nearly $60 million to OKC businesses. “It took somebody like me to make sure it was going to happen, so I’m glad I stayed.”

Recently O’Connor finally did move on to the next phase of her remarkable career. She founded COalign Group, a company that will help cities develop or redevelop economic development strategies and policies. O’Connor explained, “I have been able to complete some projects that I had a lifelong desire to finish. And when I had finished them, I decided it was time to give somebody else a chance to lead economic development in Oklahoma City and see what they would like to do with it.”

Because that is what champions like Cathy O’Connor do. They barrel through glass ceilings and empower others to do the same.

Community Visionary, Alisa Trang Green

Alisa Trang Green. Photo by Shevaun Williams.

Her life is a story so inspiring it feels fresh out of the pages of a novel. A tale of grit and caring with a happy ending in progress — and Alisa Trang Green as its heroine.

Born in a Vietnamese refugee camp, Green was one of five siblings. Her family moved to Oklahoma City, where they raised her. “I went to public school here, college here (UCO), married someone from here, my kids (two daughters) now go to school here,” Green said “So I’m an Oklahoman.” Despite hard work and multiple jobs, her parents and family often depended upon nonprofit organizations and programs to help them get by.

When deciding on a career, Green ultimately knew she wanted to learn from and help others. “Why make other people rich when you could be enriching other people, you know?” she said casually. Green is quick-witted and approachable; seamlessly accompanying her beauty and poise is an unexpectedly goofy side.

In 2013, Green founded Dress for Success. “It came about because I did research into what the community was lacking,” she said. At the time of its founding, Oklahoma was the number one incarcerator of women in the entire world. “What kind of programs do we have here to help with reintegration?” she wondered.

Services provided by OKC Dress for Success include upscale outfits for job interviews, as well as professional and personal training programs that teach job skills, healthy relationships and balancing home life and work life. Green’s favorite services the organization provides are its retention programs, which allow her to connect with the women and follow their journey.

A tragedy in June 2020 could have been the end of OKC’s chapter of Dress for Success. In the middle of the night after the Black Lives Matter march had concluded in downtown OKC, the building and all its contents were lost in a fire.

“My first instinct was: This is a time we can take a stand,” Green remembered through tears. “Because I know that people are going to try and divide us right now. And that is completely opposite of what we stand for. We built this organization on unity and we needed the community to get to where we are. We lost everything. We literally had to start completely over. I wasn’t mad; I think I was sad. I knew people were hurting. But I knew the community was going to rally around us. When I tell you I love Oklahoma City so much, it’s because they understood the assignment.”

With the help of volunteers including Taber Homes, and thousands who donated and shared the story, Dress for Success was able to completely rebuild in five months with a brand-new location in downtown. “We came back bigger and better,” Green recalled. “We had to practice what we preach. How can we tell the women that they can start over if we’re not going to be able to start over?”

Along with her accomplishments at Dress for Success, Green serves as president of the Dragonfly Home board and sits on the City Rescue Mission board. While she flourishes as a prominent member of the philanthropic community in OKC, she remembers her family’s roots. “Without nonprofits and churches and people helping them, they wouldn’t have been able to raise five kids and put them through college,” she said. It is a full-circle narrative that brings out the best in our country and city and is represented in one woman’s beautiful life.

Humanitarian, Jayra Camarena

Photo by Shevaun Williams

To feel heard, valued and loved — these are just three of the many ways Latina women are being embraced at La Luz. Jayra Camarena founded the nonprofit in 2018 to light a path forward for Latina victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The child of an immigrant who grew up with a tumultuous home life, Camarena approaches each woman’s situation with deep compassion and understanding.

“I grew up in a domestic violence home, and for a long time I didn’t quite understand why I had some challenges growing up,” Camarena said. “It’s been a journey; [the healing] is still happening now.”

Camarena was able to identify and address her own trauma while volunteering at a domestic violence agency in California, her home state. After moving to Oklahoma in 2013, she became more engaged with victims as a domestic violence advocate. Then, a few years later, she felt an even greater calling.

“In 2015, I became a Christian and also turned 30. I started questioning, ‘Who am I? How do I live life? What is my purpose?’ I felt God was telling me to start the nonprofit. I honestly did feel that in my heart. It wouldn’t go away, but I didn’t feel like I was enough to start it,” she said.

It was at that time Camarena realized her own need to feel heard, loved and valued. In order to love others, she had to first learn how to love herself.

“The voice of my father telling me I was nothing would come to me,” Camarena said, fighting back tears. “I needed healing from the damage he had caused. Understanding that God is my father and having a father who left me was the hardest journey through this … After a year, the sensation that I needed to do this hadn’t gone away, so I had to act in faith. I just prayed, ‘Lord, this is what you want. Make it happen.’ Every step along the way, this has been my prayer.”

Every step, Camarena said, God has guided her way. Today La Luz is the only culturally specific, faith-based service provider in the state working exclusively with domestic violence and sexual assault victims. The nonprofit focuses on crisis intervention, court support, advocacy and support groups. In addition, La Luz addresses cultural issues — such as fear of deportation, mistrust of police, language barriers and pervading attitudes of machismo — that can complicate situations. That cultural connection makes La Luz a valuable resource for the Latino community statewide.

“In rural areas, victims are calling us, even though there is a service provider in their area,” Camarena said, adding that she often connects victims to local Spanish-speaking resources. “If it’s hard for us, and we speak the language, it’s 100 times harder for someone who doesn’t speak the language or understand the court process; it’s fearful.”

As Camarena and her small staff help others navigate life’s most challenging times, they do so with love. To feel heard, valued and loved — this is what Camarena strives to give women every day. This is where La Luz shines.

Rising Star, Emma Butler

Emma Butler. Photo by Shevaun Williams.

Emma Butler vividly recalls the photo that changed her life. It was of a young girl with cornrows. Her braids, once tight against her scalp, had grown out to create a thick layer of unkempt hair underneath. As a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer assigned to help this child, Butler began asking questions.

“I asked, ‘Where are we sending her to get her hair done?’ Someone responded, ‘Probably just a DHS worker who is Black,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, please tell me that’s not true,’” said Butler, who also works as a problem-solving paralegal. “It didn’t seem fair to me that Black DHS case workers were being charged with this. They’re already overworked and underpaid, and many were paying out of pocket. I started emailing around and found out there were no products, no tools, no solutions for these families.”

Butler saw that photo in January 2018. At the same time, as if by fate, Butler met DHS worker Christy Horn, who confirmed the lack of hair-related resources, especially in rural communities.

“Christy had been working with foster parents who didn’t know what to do. They were scared to ask people, afraid they would be canceled or ridiculed,” Butler said. “They had the means, they just didn’t know who to ask. So, on top of the stylists, products and tools, there was a need for judgment-free education — a safe space for parents to engage in this type of conversation.”

With equal drive to quickly provide a solution, the two women launched the Hair Initiative just two months later. They held workshops with stylists, barbers and braiders. They developed educational materials and collected must-have items for giveaway bags. They engaged legal advisers and asked Angels Foster Family Network to guide their way. Before 2018 was over, they had traveled 1,500 miles, crisscrossing the state to educate caregivers on proper cleaning and grooming practices.

“At the base level, it’s about hygiene. At the human level, it’s about dignity,” said Butler. “You should be able to run a brush through your hair. You should have a shampoo that works for you.”

Through the years since its founding, the Hair Initiative has helped more than foster families. To date, it has served populations within Palomar Family Justice Center, Hope for the Future, OU Children’s Hospital and the Boys and Girls Club, among others.

“It’s really great how community members come to us and say, ‘Hey, this is our problem with hair.’ We are just taking the same tools and redistributing them in a way that’s meaningful to the people we are dealing with,” Butler said, adding that everyone, everywhere, deserves the dignity of a good hair day.

“Society puts so much pressure on how we look. It’s unfair that some people have access to hair hygiene items for themselves while others don’t,” she said. “I think when you look in the mirror and you like what you see, you act differently and you carry yourself differently — and that changes how you interact with the world.”

Medical Hero, Dr. Elaine Hamm

Dr. Elaine Hamm. Photo by Shevaun Williams.

Dr. Elaine Hamm is inspired by the people who stare at her every day, “whether they know they are there or not,” she said. Select photos of family and friends surround her home office computer — each with their own story about a devastating diagnosis, each connected to a therapeutic drug Hamm is currently pushing forward in hopes of a cure.

With a Ph.D. in microbiology and previous work experience with universities, start-ups and pharma companies, Hamm excels at the intersection of science and business. In 2018, she founded Ascend Bioventures, a pharmaceutical accelerator company.

“I have pictures of a friend who has MS; my own father who died of Alzheimer’s; and a colleague of mine whose child can’t hear,” Hamm said. “Because there is so much failure and it is an industry driven by profit, you have to find your reason ‘why’ and keep that at the forefront. I need to work on things that I truly, deeply care about and can put a face to.”

Hamm has reviewed more than 400 diagnostics and therapeutics, and she says she is most drawn to developing the “big game-changers.” One project, currently on the cusp of human trials, could solve hearing loss by regrowing inner hair cells inside the cochlea. Another project is a revolutionary gene therapy for Alzheimer’s. In addition, she’s working on a better drug for multiple sclerosis, one that addresses the condition instead of just masking the symptoms.

“With Ascend, we are trying to find really interesting new drugs that have great potential and to find a home for them,” she said. “In the end, I’m just a nerd who likes solving problems. I have a new problem coming across my desk every day and I’m just like ‘All right, let’s dig in. Let’s do this.’”

Alongside her everyday work (and ongoing hobby of fostering dogs), Hamm enjoys speaking to students and mentoring rising entrepreneurial stars. She is especially passionate about encouraging more diversity and inclusion in science.

“It’s a male-dominated industry — I’m not going to pretend that it isn’t — but I want little girls to see me and think, ‘Yep, I could do that too,’” she said.

Hamm considers herself a realist, so being an example of a woman succeeding in science is important to her. Equally important is mitigating her expectations with each new project. While Hamm hopes for the best possible outcomes for all of the drugs she develops, she’s also continually bracing for curveballs.

“With drug development, the stage I focus on, only 10% go on to become a new drug. So there are a lot of failures,” Hamm said. “I don’t sit [comfortably] in the successes because I’m always looking forward to the next obstacle. We’ve helped a lot of guinea pigs hear, but getting from here [this stage] to humans is a substantial mountain to climb.”

As Hamm makes that ascent, she glances at the faces taped along her computer screen. Silently and perhaps unknowingly, they cheer her on. Whatever the challenges, they are worth it. Whatever the failures, Hamm will keep going.

Photo by Shevaun Williams.