by Elaine Stevens//
She can shoot a stick bow and hit a squirrel running along a power line. She also has flown and copiloted a hot air balloon. Donna Brown is as diverse as her heritage. Hailing from an Irish Catholic mother and Mohawk Indian father, Donna was born in Waltham, Mass. As a “proud” Air Force brat, the award-winning hotelier and tourism industry professional got the travel bug early on. Donna’s family lived throughout the United States and the Philippines before settling at Biloxi’s Keesler Air Force Base in 1964.
“My mom ran the travel agency in downtown Biloxi and I started working there after school and summers when I was 14,” Donna recalls. “I knew I wanted to be in the travel industry.”
Working for the city of Biloxi under two prestigious leaders, mayors Danny Guice and Jerry O’Keefe, Donna traveled extensively representing the city at regional and national travel and tourism trade shows. She also has the honor of being the first non-family hostess at Mary Mahoney’s Old French House, working evenings and weekends.
“I learned everything I know about the true meaning of the hospitality industry from Ms. Mary,” Donna explains. “She taught me to look people in the eyes, learn their names, and remember them whether they came back weekly or only once a year.” The words of wisdom expressed at the bottom of this article are “Ms. Mary’s” also, which Donna says she lives by to this day.
Her love affair with the hotel industry began serendipitously at a trade show where she met the owner of the original Howard Johnson Hotel on the Biloxi Beach. Months later she was offered a position as director of Sales and Marketing for “HoJo.” “I knew absolutely nothing about the hotel industry, but they offered me a salary that made my head spin,” Donna says. “I couldn’t give my two-week notice to the city fast enough!”
Immersing herself in her new career, Donna eventually became the first president of the Mississippi Hotel Sales and Marketing Association. She was instrumental in organizing the newly chartered group at that time by breaking away from the Deep South Hotel Sales and Marketing Association. Community service honors began pouring in and so did a transfer that took Donna to Baton Rouge, La. From there, her management skills took her to Atlanta, Houston, Denver and New Orleans, where she says, “I had a corporate apartment in the French Quarter and skated to and from work some days with Ruthie, the Duck Lady! Had a ball, but yearned to return to Colorado and my friends.”
That dream came true when Donna became the regional director of operations and then vice president of the Rocky Mountain Region for the Residence Inn Hotel Co. Twenty-one years later, divorced, and tired of shoveling snow, Donna came home to South Mississippi in 1999 for “new beginnings.”
Diving into her coastal community with board service, a variety of leadership positions, and accolades too numerous to list, Donna says she is most proud of leading the Ocean Springs Chamber of Commerce as president during and after Hurricane Katrina, and orchestrating the comeback of Gulf Hills Hotel to its respected position as a premier property since beginning her employment there in 2001.
“There is no such thing as an obstacle in my mind. Every day is a new adventure and if I don’t know where I’m going, I can never get lost.”
“Pitch in and do whatever it takes to make sure the guests are happy and the work gets done. Don’t ever stop smiling. Take extra good care of the people who work with you.”
— Donna Brown, general manager of Gulf Hills Hotel & Conference Center, Ocean Springs
DR. VIVIAN MCLEAN-ROBINSON
Growing up the seventh among eight siblings, Vivian Robinson says daily chores and nightly reading are among the core values that paved her journey to success. “My mother was a beacon of light down a dimly lit educational path in the early 1970s,” Vivian says. “I was inspired by loving parents, a sister within the administrator ranks, and numerous elementary teachers and college professors.”
Born in Germany and educated within the Gulfport school system, the young and energetic student developed a scholar’s academic hunger. She says, “My thirst for knowledge and continuous learning became the gasoline that ignited the fire of going on to obtain my National Board Teaching Certification, master’s degree in counseling, followed by a specialist and doctorate in educational leadership.”
Hundreds of students and faculty are, no doubt, delighted Vivian chose education over a once-considered medical career. “My mother attended Tuskegee Institute and majored in nursing,” Vivian explains. “I set out to follow in her footsteps and become a registered nurse.” However, she quickly discovered that rather than dissect a real cat reeking of formaldehyde, she would much rather read Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat ensconced in symbolism.
As the daughter of a United Methodist minister, Vivian says she had no option in life other than to stay in school and “find my place in this world.”
“His advice was always know who you are and own it.
I credit being raised by Christian parents, acknowledging the power of prayer, and surrounding myself with knowledgeable educators who share in my vision and mission of student growth and achievement as the secret to my success.”
Vivian’s mission and vision have obviously been successfully implemented at Long Beach High School. The school is a nationally recognized high school, a bronze medal award-winner with an 88 percent graduation rate, and is No. 1 in Mississippi for graduating students with disabilities. “I make it a point to spread positivity throughout the school and directly assist students and staff in identifying and reaching their potential,” Vivian says proudly.
“I like to think that I inspire and encourage students to strive for greatness. It is within our school hallways and classrooms that individual dreams take flight.”
— Dr. Vivian McLean-Robinson, principal of Long Beach High School
With her winning record behind her when she eventually retires as principal of Long Beach High School, Vivian says she plans to continue pursuing her passion for education by someday becoming a school superintendent. “The idea of undertaking a struggling district and guiding them to academic achievement and success awakens the urgency within me,” Vivian says. “I still possess the sense of urgency in education, especially when it is evident quality education for students is being compromised.”
JESSICA RYAN PETERS
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 11 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.”
“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
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.