Alexis Willis grew up in New Orleans in a neighborhood near Lake Pontchartrain riding bikes, making mud pies and eating Snowballs, a shaved-ice delicacy the originated in the Big Easy.
"We had the quintessential childhood," says Willis, 40, a Chattanooga commercial property broker.
But while N'awlins will always be her hometown, Chattanooga is now her home.
It's a place where she has been educated -- at Girls Preparatory School and later at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga -- learned to network, reared her children, nurtured entrepreneurs, and, most recently, turned to a real estate career to boost her earnings.
Willis, who is head of the commercial property division at The Group Real Estate Brokerage LLC, is the kind of high-energy, business-oriented personality who would have flourished anywhere, but chose Chattanooga because it offers a canvas where creative minds can identify a niche and fill it.
"What I love about Chattanooga is what you don' t see you have the opportunity to create," Willis said in an interview. "When you go to (Washington) D.C. you can't go into a restaurant and see the mayor or city attorney. That level of access is what makes Chattanooga a gem."
Willis is the daughter of a serial entrepreneur, Jeff Willis, who moved to North Georgia in the 1990s to establish his carpet-centered company closer to Dalton, Georgia. From there, Alexis commuted to attend GPS, where she developed a love for writing.
"My senior (year) teacher, Mr. Todd Wells, is the reason I became a writer," she recalled. "He gave me a writing assignment, and I came to class and it was not complete and he said, 'You are going to sit in this class and write this paper.' I wrote it and ... he got really quiet and he said 'This is fantastic.' It was about racing cars, which is what I wanted to do."
After high school, Willis started college in New Orleans but later moved to the Detroit area where her father had relocated. In 2003, she moved back to Chattanooga and spent time working at the Boat House restaurant, the Stone Cup coffee shop and Greenlife/Whole Foods grocery.
Little did she know at the time that those jobs were some of the best networking opportunities imaginable.
"Everybody's got to eat, and now I know everybody in town," she said.
After the birth of her first child, she went back to college and eventually earned a degree in English writing with a minor in business.
Her biggest mountain to climb came after the birth of her second child, Aziza, now age five, who was born prematurely and spent 80 days in a hospital neonatal intensive care unit. At the time, Willis was running the business incubator as Director of Small Business and Entrepreneurship for the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce.
It was a natural fit, and the nurturing -- and "nudging" as she calls it -- of fledgling entrepreneurs came naturally, to her.
She even sees her new job in commercial real estate as a way to continue to empower entrepreneurs and/or undeserved business owners.
"I look at my work the last decade as being in economic development," she said. "Commercial real estate is a part of that.
"I believe that's how cities change. I also believe in the economic empowerment of people. When you economically empower a single mom, then she is able to put her kid in private school. Or she is able to go buy a house."
While she has only been in her new post at The Group for a few months, it seems to be a good fit, Willis said.
"I do like it," she said. "It allows me the bandwidth to continue coaching entrepreneurs."
* Current Job: Head of commercial property division at The Group Real Estate Brokerage LLC
* Age: 40
* Hometown: New Orleans
* Education: Girls Preparatory School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, degree in English writing with minor in business
* Family: daughters, Riley, 15, and Aziza, 5