Women of Interest

By Kaila Lancaster

Pictured: Photos by Cecy Ayala, photographybycecy.com
Styling by Ellie Cantor

Waco is filled with talented women paving their own way in their professional lives. We spoke with five women with diverse careers — you’ll meet a dancer, a director of an art museum, a tailor and dressmaker who owns her own business, a creative director of a whisky distillery and a member of local government. They work day in and day out to bring the arts to our community, to bring confidence to customers, to market an award-winning delicacy across America and to improve the lives of the citizens of Waco, instilling leadership skills in local “diamonds in the rough.” Each has found what they love and has turned their passion into careers.

While the daily grind can be a challenge, these women find success and fulfillment with their work. They strive to not only invest time and effort into their careers and their families but to also touch the lives of those in our community. Meet these women of interest and become inspired to “work hard at work worth doing” (Theodore Roosevelt).

The Sterling Steward
Esmeralda Hudson

Q: What is your current job?

A: I am the city secretary for the city of Waco.

Q: What is your mantra for work and life?

A: One is ‘You work hard, you play hard.’ I’m also a steward of whatever is entrusted to me, so I try to leave things better than I found it.

Q: How do you describe your professional wardrobe?

A: Easy. I like simplicity. I wear the same type of thing every day: a structured dress suit. I never have to think about it.

Q: Tell me about your responsibilities as the city secretary.

A: The city secretary is hired by the council. I’m entrusted to keep transparency with the public. I support the council in all that they do administratively. They are volunteer citizens, and we want to make sure that they can do their job. We also provide open records. We handle every contract, every agreement and every record that goes through the city. We are also responsible for council meetings, and I coordinate elections.

Q: How do you balance your professional and personal life?

A: I focus on what needs to get done, and I really rely on my calendar. I surround myself with really smart people. I have an office of seven employees, and they are my team. There’s no way I could do everything without them. In the evenings I like a good run and focusing on my faith. Also, raising our daughters and serving the public couldn’t be possible without the support of my amazing husband.

Q: What is your favorite part about your job?

A: The people. Our office can touch every person in the community, and we know the people need to be heard and just want to know where to go. We want to provide that to our community. I get to help the community, and so that’s the best part of what I get to do.

Q: Why did you choose to go into local government?

A: I went to Baylor University, and I have a degree in management and information systems. I thought I would be jet-setting across the country, working for big firms. Then I got married and had kids, and I wanted roots. Fortunately my degree opened up some doors at the [Waco-McLennan County Public] Health District, and I worked as a planner there. That was my first introduction to local government. I saw that a position opened up for assistant city secretary, and I thought I could do that.

Q: You are on the steering committee of Waco Foundation’s Today’s Actions Tomorrow’s Leaders. Tell me more about that.

A: That committee was brought together by former mayor Mae Jackson. She implemented committees that focused on where we wanted to go as a city, and one part of that was leadership. She believed that there was a group with untapped potential and leadership in the community. Today’s Actions and Tomorrow’s Leaders is about creating that momentum. We believe we have community leaders that are diamonds in the rough that have yet to step into leadership roles. One aspect of the group is the course The LeadershipPlenty Institute. It’s a nine-session course that walks people through everything they would need in becoming a leader.


The Daring Dancer
Brooke Schlecte

Q: What is your current job?

A: I am mostly a stay-at-home mom, but I run a nonprofit dance company, Out on a Limb Dance Company. I am the artistic director for Out on a Limb.

Q: How do you describe your professional wardrobe as a dancer?

A: Things that dancers come up with can be a little bit different. They can be things you wouldn’t always think of putting together. I am very comfortable in those clothes and in my skin, so I wear anything that makes me comfortable or helps me be creative.

Q: What inspired you to start Out on a Limb Dance Company?

A: I always knew I wanted to move back to Waco after graduate school at Texas Woman’s University. I knew coming back to Waco as a dancer, choreographer and an artist and treating dance as an art form was kind of in no man’s land. I knew it would be risky. I decided to get all of my graduate school colleagues together, and we officially started doing work as a dance company. I named it Out on a Limb because it felt like a risk.

Q: Tell us about the choreographing process of a new dance.

A: My inspiration usually comes from experiences I’m having in my life. I don’t particularly write down the dance and teach it to my dancers. I present them with an idea, and then we talk about it, we share experiences. I teach them work, and they improvise. We move forward with editing. You collaborate with a musician, a costume designer, a makeup designer, lighting and props. It’s a collaborative experience.

Q: When did you get your start in the dance world?

A: I started dancing at the age of 3 here in town. I always knew I would be a dancer.

Q: Why did you start the {254} Dance-Fest?

A: The Waco Cultural Arts Fest had been in existence for a while since I moved back to town, and I had noticed they had outside dance performances. At the time, Out on a Limb Dance Company was performing all over the country in different dance festivals. I thought this could be something we could bring to Waco, to really bring professional dance to Waco. The first year was very basic; I brought professional dancers from all over Texas and surrounding states. It grew from there — dancers of all levels are now involved.

Q: Tell us about Out on a Limb’s 10th anniversary concert, “STIMULI: An Evening To Indulge Your Senses.”

A: In September, we received our official nonprofit status, and we realized that it had been 10 years since we had been a company. We had to celebrate. I thought about what the people of Waco would enjoy. My first thought was dinner and wine. Then we decided to really highlight what we are — a bunch of collaborators. The whole concert features amazing artists working together. Every single dance is accompanied by live music. We have all sorts of local artists that are presenting their work, either in our costuming or our music, visual art and more. I really want to support Waco artists in the community. The concert is May 6.


The Talented Tailor
Roxana Robles

Q: What is your current job?

A: I am the owner of my own business, Couture Tailoring by Roxana Robles. I do all kinds of alterations and tailoring. I can do everything: wedding dresses, prom dresses, quinceañeras, formal dresses.

Q: What is your mantra for work and life?

A: There’s a Confucius phrase I love: ‘Love what you do, and you will never work a day in your life.’ This is my life — I could live at my shop, work 24 hours straight, but still love it.

Q: How do you describe your professional wardrobe?

A: When I work I like to wear nice dress pants, a nice shirt. If I know I am doing a lot of measuring, I always wear pants. I really like to dress professionally.

Q: Who inspires you in your professional and personal life?

A: My mother. She was a sewing teacher in Mexico. She had a school of about 150 students. I wanted to learn how to sew, and I started sewing when I was six years old. Now I am a certified sewing teacher. I went on to get my bachelor’s in fashion design and my master’s in tailoring. She was my inspiration.

Q: Why did you start your own business?

A: I was working at Jos. A. Bank as a tailor; I worked there for a little over seven years. I have kids, and I realized they needed more ‘mom time.’ [Jos. A. Bank] was very good to me and let me be flexible, but my kids got busier and busier. I decided to open my own business so I could have my own schedule and be my own boss.

Q: I know you previously made Cotton Palace gowns. Tell me about the process.

A: First, I would take measurements of the girls and sew the design. You have to make a dress out of muslin first before working with the real fabric. That dress becomes my pattern, and then there are four or five fittings. Once the fittings are done, you begin working with the crystals. Some are hand-sewn, and others are glued. It’s a misconception that gluing the crystals on the fabric is easiest — once you set the crystal into the glue, it’s not going anywhere. You must be precise, perfect.

Q: What has been your favorite dress to make or alter?

A: My wedding dress. I made my dress and my husband’s tuxedo for our wedding day. That’s my favorite because it was my own creation for my own special day.

Q: If you could make a dress for anyone, whom would you make it for?

A: I would love to — this is crazy, but it’s true — I would love to make a suit for President Donald Trump. He needs a good tailor. I wish I could help him look better! I would also like to make a gown for Salma Hayek because she has my style and my complexion.

Q: What is your favorite thing about your job?

A: When people are happy because they look good. This is funny, but some customers say, ‘Thank you! You saved me a trip to a surgeon.’ I love knowing people and implementing customer service. Some of my customers are more like family now.


The Dedicated Director
Allison Chew Syltie

Q: What is your current job?

A: I am the director of the Martin Museum of Art at Baylor University. I take care of day-to-day operations of the museum and oversee all of the functions.

Q: How do you describe your professional wardrobe?

A: I tend to look at comfort and functionality before anything else. I have a very strange job in the fact that one day I could be climbing a ladder to change light bulbs and the next day I might be giving a tour, and another day I might be installing an exhibition. I dress simply and comfortably.

Q: How did you become the director of the Martin Museum of Art?

A: I got into the museum field by accident. I was working on my Master of Fine Arts in studio art, and I did an internship at a community museum. I fell in love with the work. I became the curator and the director. I wasn’t looking for a new job, but [Baylor University assistant professor in museum studies] Julie Holcomb clued me in that they had an opening here. I researched and discovered that the collection was so amazing, and I couldn’t say no.

Q: You have a master’s degree in studio art. Tell me about yourself as an artist.

A: I don’t do a lot of making anymore, now that I’ve gone into the realm of museums. I’m very interested in photography, especially alternative processes. Using chemicals and sunlight to expose imagery, so it’s similar to darkroom photography.

Q: As the director of the museum, what are your specific duties?

A: Usually directors are in charge of all the paperwork, so the fun part. (Laughs.) I make budgets every year. We don’t have a curator on the staff, so I get involved in curating exhibitions. I work with our faculty to bring in visiting artists. We have a great permanent collection, so we showcase that at different times of the year. I work with our education coordinator to bring in school groups. Here at the Martin, whatever needs to get done we pitch in to do it. I wear many, many hats here.
Q: What is your favorite part of your job?

A: I love my job. I’m one of the fortunate people who get to do what they love. One of my favorite parts is doing K-12 school groups, getting to work with the kids who are experiencing art in a museum setting, often for the first time.

Q: What is your favorite piece of artwork?

A: It would be very difficult to narrow down my single favorite work of art. We have over 1,300 works in the collection. We do have an Ansel Adams photograph that I love. It’s a gelatin silver print. It is beautiful, and it’s a new acquisition for us.

Q: If you could have lunch with any famous artist, dead or alive, who would it be?

A: Personally, I would say photographer Cindy Sherman. She’s most famous for her film stills in the ’70s and ’80s, turning herself into all sorts of kinds of women in different situations. I just find her work really fascinating — I’d probably have lunch with her.


The Marketing Maven
Casey Hooper

Q: What is your current job?

A: I am the creative and merchandising director of Balcones Distilling.

Q: How do you describe your professional wardrobe?

A: It is really relaxed, but it also varies day to day. If I’m just going to be at the distillery walking back and forth, it can get really dirty. A cute T-shirt with a vest and jeans is normal for a couple of days a week. When the store is open, it’s a little more professional but still casual and comfortable. Maybe jeans and booties, a top from Target. Nothing too fancy. Comfort is No. 1 for me.

Q: Who inspires you in your professional and personal life?

A: New York City. I know it’s not a person, but I lived there for five years and every time I go back, I am so inspired by the people that pass me on the street or the new restaurants that have opened or the people I meet. I just get so much energy and so much life from New York City.

Q: Tell us more about your responsibilities at Balcones Distilling.

A: When I first started back in October, the main goal was to host the debut party. Then it was to get the retail store up and running, the tasting room and tour program started and to train new front-of-house employees and get my team together. I’m now shifting my focus toward the marketing and communications side as well as events. I do a little bit of branding. I figure out new opportunities in terms of our key audience and target audience.

Q: What is your favorite part of your job?

A: The people I work with. We are a small staff, and I love learning from them.

Q: Tell us about a typical workday.

A: Get to work, and I’ve for sure already had one or two cups of coffee by then. Check my email. I have to have a clean inbox. The first hour is spent responding, following up and getting my to-do list organized. I’ll talk to the distillers to see if there is something cool going on that day or that week that we could capture for social media. We are always working on getting new items for the gift shop, so I’ll work with the store manager and see how those projects are going. I work with our president and figure out our marketing strategy for that month. It changes constantly.

Q: Balcones is nine years old and has reached national and global recognition. Where do you see the distillery in ten more years?

A: That’s what I’m figuring out, honestly. As far as production goes, we would like to be distributed in every state. As of now, we are only distributed in 13 states across the U.S. While we want to be recognized as a national brand, we still want to stay true to who we are as makers of craft whisky. I’m working on our five-year plan with our president and our head distillers. I’m finding out what their vision looks like for them.

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