Nine outstanding business women were recently honored for their contributions to business and the community in Los Angeles at the 22nd Annual Leadership and Legacy Awards luncheon given by the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).

The awardees were Mimi Song, president and CEO of Superior Grocers, who was given the Leadership Award, which recognizes an exemplary woman entrepreneur who demonstrates her leadership skills by example, is committed to entrepreneurial excellence, and has achieved success well beyond the standards of her industry and the business community.

Song came to the U.S. from South Korea in the late 1970s, and opened her first Superior in 1981 in Covina. Today it is the largest independently owned chain of grocery stores in Southern California with 28 locations.

Song attributes that to the way she conducts business and points to the 1992 civil unrest as proof. Then three of the four Superior locations were in the most badly affected areas. But not one of her stores was damaged, and Song said that was due to her business model: Treating customers as partners and employing those within the community as part of the Superior “family.”

The Legacy Award was given to Rene White Fraser, president and CEO of Fraser Communications. The Legacy Award recognizes an individual who has had a significant impact on the well-being of her community, and who has had the foresight and generosity to recognize that her success is best savored when she “pays it forward.” This award honors a woman who through her leadership and vision is changing lives today and simultaneously impacting future generations.

Fraser believes there is magic in giving back, and has acted on that belief by contributing $20,000 to the NAWBO-LA Enterprise Institute. This donation helped NAWBO-LA provide women entrepreneurs a place to go to access the resources needed to grow their businesses and effect change.

In addition, Fraser, who heads a $40 million advertising and marketing agency, co-founded the Minority Advertising Training Program, which has graduated 1,500 young people since its inception.

Southern California Edison was named Corporate Partner of the Year, and this honor recognizes a corporate member that has proven its commitment to NAWBO-LA and women business owners through its long-standing commitment to NAWBO-LA and its programs.

The Advocate Award, which recognizes a leader who demonstrates a strong commitment to propelling women into economic, social, and/or political spheres of power, and is dedicated to the creation of a greater society for all, was given to Maria Contreras-Sweet, founder and chairwoman of Promerica Bank.

“How can I become the change agent and begin a generation of empowered women who know how to access and master cash management?” Maria Contreras-Sweet answered her question by founding Promerica Bank, the first Latino-owned and woman-formed banking institution to open in California in more than three decades. The bank focuses on providing access to capital, particularly for women to generate jobs and expand opportunities.

Firsts are not new to Contreras-Sweet, who in 1999 was the first Latina Cabinet Secretary in California, when she ran the state’s Business, Transportation, and Housing Agency.

Gisselle Acevedo, president and CEO of Para Los Ninos, was given the Inspiration Award, which recognizes someone who has made a tremendous impact on those around her and serves as a role model.

Acevedo was once them–the clients her nonprofit Para Los Ninos services. An immigrant from Costa Rica, she lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and faced many of the challenges endemic to such environments. But with a desire for education instilled by her mother, she earned bachelors, masters, and law degrees and put her talents to work in careers with a common theme–helping support and inspire children, whom she calls “the economic, social, and political foundation for the city.”

Para Los Ninos serves 3,500 children daily through schools, a mental health center, a teen center, after-school programs, a family presevation/service unit, and youth workforce development and investment programs.

The Rising Star Award, which honors a woman entrepreneur who has established a critical milestone in her business and displayed high potential for enuring entrepreneurial success, was given to Natalie Cole, CEO and publisher of Our Weekly newspaper. (See Our Weekly March 6, 2008)

In addition to the awards, three women were inducted into the NAWBO-LA Hall of Fame.
These women represent the quintessential entrepreneur who strives for excellence in everything that she does and has given back extensively to her community. They were Marilyn Lewis, founder of Kate Mantilini; Mary Ann Mitchell, president and CEO of CC-OPS Inc.; and Valerie Red-Horse, president and founder of Red-Horse Native Productions.

Marilyn Lewis. In 1950, well before the Civil Rights Act passed, Lewis was breaking color barriers in Los Angeles. Along with her husband, she founded and built the Hamburger Hamlet chain, and staffed that first store (on the Sunset Strip) with African American women, who at the time could not work west of Western Avenue unless they were domestics.

These women were the sisters, wives, and daughters of the Pullman train waiters from the Santa Fe Super Chief line. She gave them training in diction, elocution, voice modulation, suggestive selling, grooming, and much more, and despite the fact that on opening day some people threw tomatoes at the windows, Lewis told her staff to stay focused and keep working–that their waitressing jobs would earn them money to buy homes and send their kids to college.

Today she, her husband, and two sons have gone back into the restaurant business as founders of Kate Mantilini eateries.

Valerie Red-Horse. See a need and fill it. That’s the simple business philosophy Red-Horse has followed, and it has led the actress/filmmaker to launch a variety of businesses. These include a production company because she did not see films and television shows that accurately portrayed Native Americans; and a securities firm, because she felt Native American tribes were not getting the financial advice and services needed.

Additionally, she created a nonprofit educational training organization Called Hollywood Access Program for Native Americans, and its purpose is to teach youth film industry skills.

Mary Ann Mitchell. (See the March 6, 2008 edition of Our Weekly).