Meet the Gulf South judges

The success of the program relies on the efforts of our independent panel of judges. The panel comprises past Entrepreneur Of The Year® Award recipients and civic and community leaders who devote significant effort to review and deliberate the merits of each nominee. The 2024 judges will be announced by early March.

Blake Brannon
President
Brannon Industrial Group

2022 regional award winner

Juliet Breeze, MD
CEO 
Next Level Medical

2022 regional award winner

Daryl Dudum
Co-CEO
Specialty1 Partners

2023 regional award winner
2023 national finalist

Joyce Durst
CEO and Co-Founder
Growth Acceleration Partners

2023 regional award winner

Matthew Haddad
Co-CEO 
Specialty1 Partners

2023 regional award winner
2023 national finalist

Joel Kocher
CEO and Founder
HumanN

2022 regional award winner

Ryan Pape
CEO
XPEL, Inc.

2021 regional award winner

Mellie Price
CEO and Founder
Purposeful Capital

Sam Thigpen
CEO
Sapphire Gas Solutions

2021 regional award winner

 
Blake Brannon

President Blake Brannon, of Brannon Industrial Group and Kingdom Pipe & Steel, has a diverse background that spans from his roots in Brenham to his achievements on the national stage. Born and raised in Brenham, Texas, he graduated from Brenham High School and later pursued his higher education at the University of Texas at San Antonio. After a successful stint in the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball organization, Blake returned to his hometown and embarked on an entrepreneurial journey that would define his career. He founded Premier Metal Buyers, an organization that initially focused on metal recycling but rapidly expanded its services to include waste, portable sanitation and demolition services. Under Blake's visionary leadership, Brannon Industrial Group, the parent company of Premier Metal Buyers, BVR Waste and Recycling, and Stop and Go Potties, has grown exponentially over the past decade, with operations now spanning Brenham and College Station and employing more than 200 people. In 2022, he was honored with the prestigious Entrepreneur Of The Year® Central South Award. Additionally, he was acknowledged as part of Waste360's "40 Under 40," a testament to his remarkable contributions to the business world at a young age. Blake's commitment to growth and innovation continued with the launch of Kingdom Pipe & Steel, LLC in the fall of 2023. This venture, a spin-off from Brannon Industrial Group, focuses on serving the steel needs of various organizations and industries. With a family-owned legacy in the metal recycling and waste industry, the Brannon Industrial Group, operating under Premier Metal Buyers and BVR Waste and Recycling, has seen revenues surpassing $100 million. Back to top

 


 

Juliet Breeze

Dr. Juliet Breeze graduated from Northwestern University and earned her medical degree from Baylor College of Medicine. After working in family practice for several years, she moved her focus to the business of medicine. As a serial entrepreneur, she developed several large group medical practices, two private hospitals and two surgery centers. Juliet has also served on the boards of directors of several health care tech startup companies. Currently, she is vice president of Vantage Hospice and the founder and CEO of Next Level Medical. Through Next Level, Juliet's commitment to cost-effective, accessible medical care has led her to launch Next Level PRIME, an innovative model of direct primary and urgent care throughout Texas. She has been honored to be a 2022 recipient of the Entrepreneur Of The Year® Award. She has also been named a "Most Admired CEO" by the Houston Business Journal and one of Houston's Top 30 Influential Women by D-Mars.com. Supporting women's initiatives and a commitment to developing future leaders are issues that are important to Juliet. She is a longtime supporter of Junior Achievement, having served as the Board Chair in 2021–23. Additionally, she is a past board chair of Fort Bend Women's Center and has held an active role in the Greater Houston Women's Chamber of Commerce, serving on the board as well as other subcommittees. Back to top

 

  
 
Daryl Dudum

Daryl Dudum was born and raised in San Francisco, California. After attending UCLA for a BA in Economics, he completed his Dental degree at the University of the Pacific Dental School. Upon graduation, he received his certificate in Endodontics at the Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine. Daryl moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area in 2011 where he started his family with his wife, Katherine. They have three beautiful children: Dylan, Kennedy and Brooklyn. After practicing for 10 years, he cofounded Specialty1 Partners in 2019. He has served as Co-CEO since inception and helped guide it from eight locations to more than 225 locations in 28 states in just four years. Specialty1 is the clear leader in the dental specialty space and has been recognized numerous times by Inc. as one of the fastest-growing companies in the US. In 2022 and 2023, it was the fastest-growing dental company in the country and the 15th fastest-growing company in the US in 2023. Daryl has been recognized as a winner of the Entrepreneur Of The Year® in the Gulf South region as well as being a national finalist. He and his family left their California roots to move to Houston in 2022 to be near Specialty1's headquarters to continue to guide its success into the future. Back to top

 

 

 

Joyce Durst

Joyce Durst, co-founder and CEO of Growth Acceleration Partners (GAP), brings a 30-year track record to her leadership role. Since GAP's inception in 2007 in Austin, Texas, the company has achieved notable growth without external funding. Joyce's emphasis on client partnerships has established a presence for GAP in the US, Costa Rica and Colombia, with a workforce of more than 650 employees. GAP operates on values centered around greatness, agility and a commitment to investing in people. GAP has now thrived for 17 years, with a focus on creating opportunities for underrepresented communities in the tech industry. As a certified woman-owned business, GAP attributes its successes to Joyce's dedication to prioritizing people. Joyce's professional journey began with a degree in Computer Engineering from Texas A&M University, leading to executive roles in public software companies. Adding to the empowerment of women, Joyce is a member of the Women Presidents Organization, playing a key role in the professional growth of other women. Locally, her community involvement includes the Austin Chamber of Commerce, where she serves as a Board and Executive Committee member, influencing economic policy and regional development. Internationally, Joyce champions women in STEM through diverse initiatives, including educational bootcamps, university sponsorships and Pioneeras in Colombian initiative aimed at encouraging women to pursue careers in technology. Joyce's achievements have garnered recognition, notably an Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2023 Gulf South Award. This accolade joins her impressive list of honors, including the Top CEO award from the 2022 Greater Austin Business Awards, the Profiles in Power award, the WPO award for Leadership and the Stevie Award for promoting women in business. Characterized by a profound commitment to diversity, innovation and community engagement, Joyce stands as a notable and influential figure in the technology and business sectors. Back to top

 


 

Matthew Haddad

Matthew Haddad currently resides in Houston, Texas, where he founded Gulf Coast Endodontics (GCE) in 2010 and Jamboree Pediatric Dentistry (JPD) in 2011. After overseeing the growth of GCE and JPD over the next nine years, he founded Endo1 Partners, which evolved into Specialty1 Partners. Matthew had a successful exit of JPD in 2021 after growing it to five locations and more than $10 million in revenue. Currently, he serves as the co-CEO and a member of the board for Specialty1 Partners, which has seen tremendous growth and success since its inception. Since launching in 2019, Specialty1 Partners has emerged as the market-leading solution to help dental surgical practices optimize their operations and elevate patient care. Within its rapidly growing network, Specialty1 Partners is on pace to have more than 350 surgeons at more than 225 locations in 27 states by the end of 2022 with annual revenue of more than $500 million. Specialty1 Partners has achieved an overall ranking of No. 15 in the 2023 Inc. 5000 and No. 1 in the dental sector. Matthew was acknowledged for his achievements in the Houston Business Journal "40 Under 40" and was named Entrepreneur Of The Year® in the Gulf South region and a national finalist. He is also an active member of the YPO (Young Presidents' Organization) Houston chapter. Back to top

 

 

 

Joel Kocher  

Joel Kocher spent 25 years in the technology industry in senior leadership positions, including as the No. 2 executive behind Michael Dell during its meteoric ascent from a small growth company to the Fortune 500. He is credited with defining much of the core strategy that drove the business to many years of sustained success. He has also served as CEO of two public companies in the technology sector prior to changing industries to become an entrepreneur and founder of HumanN, which has now made the Inc. 5000 Fastest-Growing Companies in America list for eight consecutive years. HumanN, through deep investment in science, has won its industry Science Award and has recently added a Nobel Prize Laureate to its Science Team. Back to top

 

 

 

Ryan Pape  

Ryan Pape serves as XPEL's Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer and previously served in a variety of positions within XPEL until his appointment as Chief Executive Officer in 2009. Prior to joining XPEL in 2004, Ryan was in technology consulting. He has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Ryan has served on XPEL's Board of Directors since 2010 and currently serves as the Chairman of the Board. Back to top

 

 

 

Mellie Price  

Mellie Price is a widely respected educator, thought leader, consultant, and public speaker on innovation and entrepreneurship. She is the co-founder of Front Gate Tickets, Major League Pickleball and Capital Factory. Mellie recently launched Purposeful Capital to educate, inspire and support a movement of small business owners, regardless of size, who are focused on sustainable, organic, and profitable growth and who need access to capital and community to expedite their success. Mellie is the Executive Director for Texas Venture Labs and the M.S. Technology Commercialization program at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business. She is also a senior advisor at Ecliptic Capital and a current member of the Board of Directors for Medical Informatics Corporation and the National LGBTQ+ Victory Fund. Mellie was honored with the McCombs Amplify Award in 2021 for her efforts to foster inclusive classrooms. She was recognized with the prestigious Profiles in Power Award in 2015 and the Tech Titan Award in 2014. Mellie has served on the Board of Directors for Austin PBS, Leadership Austin, BEAM Women's Angel Network and the SAFE Alliance, as well as the Technology Advisory Committee for former Austin Mayor Adler. She is a pickleball enthusiast and proud co-founder of Major League Pickleball and co-owner of the Austin PickleBallers. Mellie holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology from the College of Natural Sciences and a Master of Science in Technology Commercialization from the McCombs School of Business, both at The University of Texas at Austin. Back to top

 

  
 
Sam Thigpen

Sam Thigpen, the Founder and CEO of Sapphire Gas Solutions, is a recognized entrepreneurial leader and avid outdoorsman. He is an Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2021 Gulf Coast Award winner and attributes his entrepreneurial success to the field and operations experience gained early in his career. Having been in the natural gas industry for 26 years, Sam has spent two-thirds of that time as an entrepreneur. Since founding what is now Sapphire Gas Solutions in 2005, the company has been recognized as an Inc. 5000 Fastest-Growing Company twice. Sam's background is one of vast natural gas industry experience. It spans working in natural gas processing; SCADA system installation and maintenance; offshore production service; upstream oil and gas operations; international petrochemical and LNG plant service; natural gas pipeline operations; pipeline and facility construction; gas pipeline auditing; CNG/LNG/RNG fueling station construction; CNG/LNG/RNG virtual pipeline operations; and, finally, executive management and strategic leadership. Outside of business, Sam is an avid offshore fisherman and outdoorsman. Intellectually, he is a member of Mensa and the International Society for Philosophical Enquiry. Finally, Sam is also a proud Texas Freemason and a member of the Woodlands Church, in The Woodlands, Texas. Back to top