Founder and CEO of Powerful Women International (PWI), Valeri Bocage, tells her story of losing everything in Katrina to inspire women not to worry about things, but enjoy life.
Weathering the Storm
From: The Bay Area Business Woman
By: Julia Dodge
Valeri Bocage was visiting a friend in Bay St. Louis, Miss. — 40 minutes away from her hometown of New Orleans — when the governor appeared on TV and warned sternly “This is very serious — get out.”
“They tell us that every year!” Bocage recalls saying to herself at that time, as hurricanes are all but uncommon in the South.
A day later she found herself sitting alone in her friend’s house — her friend having packed her bags and headed for Colorado with her fiancé — having stayed back with the hope of reconnecting with her family. She didn’t know anyone in town, and had only $30 cash. There was no way to get out, no way to get to her daughter and grandchildren in New Orleans, and now she was watching people boarding up their houses on TV, preparing for what would be one of the worst storms in recent U.S. history.
She started to pray.
Perhaps it was divine intervention, but her co-worker, Steve, whom she hardly knew, came and got her at 11am the day Hurricane Katrina hit. Two hours later, Bay St. Louis was nearly underwater, and Bocage was off to Florida in Steve’s truck, and all her possessions at home in New Orleans were lost.
This all would be a sad story, if she would just stop laughing.
“I’ve been through much in my life, however, I always find the silver lining in the darkest clouds and worst situations,” says Bocage, who cannot tell this tale with a straight face.
She recalls a few weeks after the storm arriving at a friend’s house in Austin, TX. Her friend had cleared out a room for her, even the closet for her things. Laughing hysterically, she reenacts hanging her only three items of clothing, which she had acquired from church donations, in the closet. “I just have this!” she exclaims.
It has been almost two years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, and Bocage has found herself thriving somewhere she had never thought she’d be: San Francisco. “I created the story that Katrina threw me into the Land of Oz, and I don’t want to go. I landed in the right place,” she says.
Originally arriving in San Francisco after accepting a position with her current employer, Landmark Education, Bocage is now the CEO of Powerful Women International (PWI), a networking and empowerment organization dedicated to empowering women into achieving their goals. “I just want to see people happy. Whatever I can give, whoever I can connect them to, I’ll do that,” she says.
And her positivism is contagious — since PWI began in October 2006, there have been numerous networking breakfasts and luncheons, creating a comfortable atmosphere for women, and some men, to share their feelings.
“What I find out from stories and testimonies of people is that [our events] start to open the eyes of people, through other people sharing,” she says. “And through the networking part where they pass their business cards — they start to get to know people personally. The atmosphere is for professional people to be comfortable, relax.”
And Bocage plans to take this feeling of acceptance and comfort all over the world, as similar PWI networking events pop up in Texas, New Orleans, New York, and beginning next year, Africa and Isreal.
PWI doesn’t offer financial aid or business plan classes, and its events aren’t limited to businesswomen — just women, according to Bocage, who are searching for something in their lives. She believes that by a woman getting support and becoming empowered, she will naturally proceed on a prosperous and business savvy road that will lead to her success — and the empowerment moves along like a domino effect.
“They bring that passion to their mates, and their family, and it brings more power to help the community, and then that spreads worldwide,” she says. “And with that we can change the world. That’s my vision. Everybody should live their dream.”
“I’m inspired what people take on and what they accomplish,” says Alison Laytham, PWI’s technical director, of the organization’s participants. “The journeys they have made are remarkable.”
And women are encouraged to pursue whatever it is they want, whether it be starting a business, writing a book, or becoming a public speaker. “I had a guest who said she would like to be a guest speaker, to share her positive experiences from the networking group, but was afraid to go up in front of people,” says Bocage. “And now I can’t keep her off the podium.”
Sandra Acevedo, the host of One World, One Voice, a talk show on Marin Public Access, says Bocage helped her set her goal. “I wanted to do a talk show in my life, but I had never took it on,” she says. “She made me set my date. Part of the training is you don’t leave your goals up in the air.”
Cheryl Fidelman, the Editor-in-Chief of PWI, says that Bocage’s love and support is truly authentic. “She won’t accept any less from women than the goddesses that they are,” she says. “She brings that out in all of them, and she has dedicated her life to that. It’s so contagious.”
Recently, PWI combined a networking breakfast with an afternoon of workshops, at the request of attendees, with topics such as “Working in Confidence” and “Living in Abundance.” Bocage is also looking to do a black tie gala.
However, with a team of seven committed women practically running the show, Bocage would like to eventually hand off PWI. “I want to travel around the world doing speaking engagements,” she says. A genie in a bottle can dream, too.