Focus on Michigan’s Women Leaders

By J.D. Booth
March 1, 2008

Yes, it’s a cliché. But like many before it, this one has a bit of a twist to it -“ if you want something done, ask a busy woman. The fact is, Michigan has quite a few women who have what it takes to get it done, as Corp! found out when we began researching our story about the state’s top women leaders being honored this month by two organizations -“ the Michigan Business and Professional Association and the National Association of Women Business Owners Greater Detroit Chapter. In the process, we discovered just how rich we are from the contributions of women. Regardless of background or vocation, their leadership skills, experience and commitment to the betterment of those around them, make Michigan an even greater place in which to live and work. Corp! is proud to be a media sponsor of events honoring those being recognized. As such we offer our congratulations. Corp! has also partnered as a media sponsor with Inforum, which has created the Inner Circle mentoring and recognition program. You can read the highlights of this program -“ an example of women leaders helping others on the journey to the top -“ elsewhere in this issue. And in our popular “10 Minutes With” feature, we interviewed yet another Michigan woman (some might call her a pioneer): Gladys Beckwith of the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. Celebrate with us as we recognize these outstanding women leaders.

Ester Burns

Purchasing Services Manager,
Coordinator of Supplier Diversity
Grand Valley State University

Ester Burns has helped distinguish her employer of 30 years (23 of which have been in her current position) by advocating an atmosphere where “doors are open and all voices are heard.” Burns says that’s been done by introducing initiatives where suppliers interested in doing business with the Grand Rapids-area university are actively recruited. “Rather than having vendors call on the various departments in the university or waiting for a referral from an office, we initiate and host networking meetings, where we bring all the interested parties to the table,” says Burns. “It gives the vendors the opportunity to network with people in one setting and it gives the department users the opportunity to ask questions and to better establish their own relationships.” Another initiative for which Burns has been recognized is the establishment of a broader supply base and one that gives departments the freedom to order on their own. She’s also making headway in the university’s diversity spending initiatives, increasing participation by 3 to 5 percent annually, although the passage of Proposition 2, which prohibits public institutions from considering race or sex in public education, employment or contracting, has made that more of a challenge. “It lends credence to our effort to become more diverse,” says Burns. One example: convincing a department to try a local landscaper on a partial project basis. “The vendor did a stellar performance and as a result of awarding that one contract was able to go out and bid on others. Today they’re our prime contractor.”

Dottie Deremo

President and CEO
Hospice of Michigan

Dottie Deremo’s leadership style? “Eclectic,” she quips, laughing even as she answers. “I believe in ‘and’; that you can be tough and caring, mission focused and have the financial stability and sustainability that can run any good company. And you can have high standards and still be approachable and open.” Deremo, who has spent her entire career in health care, starting as a registered nurse, has led Hospice of Michigan for the last 10 years; for 11 years prior to that she was Henry Ford Hospital’s vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer. A key lesson learned? The need to engage everyone in the organization. “You need not only their head and their hands but their heart as well.” Deremo also acknowledges the “sacred space” between patients and family and clinicians and how important the transactions in that space are. “It’s shaped my leadership,” she says. “As a leader in the clinical business, my first job is to assure that sacred space is kept whole.” Deremo also sees the importance of mentoring, something she embraces wholeheartedly, specifically referencing three members of her executive team who are being mentored. “Mentoring, grooming and succession planning are all key parts of my role in the organization. As fewer young people enter the workforce and leaders retire, there’s a need to have current leaders being groomed for the vacancies that are going to exist in companies going forward. It’s something that I spend a lot of time doing right now.”

Shawne Duperon


Shawne Duperon, a lifelong Detroiter who’s earned degrees in mass media and journalism (and who is now working on a doctorate at Wayne State University -” on the topic of gossip), is passionate about the power of giving. “It’s about the basic laws of attraction,” says Duperon. “Giving and receiving is reciprocal. When your heart is open, there’s a cycle that occurs, an exchange of wealth.” Her writing includes an upcoming book (“Changing Your Channels”) that deals with media beliefs. A TV producer for more than 20 years, Duperon has worked at ABC and NBC and has traveled the globe working for others, including World Business Review. She’s interviewed hundreds of celebrities (among them Colin Powell and Morgan Freeman) and has now made a business out of showing people how to maximize their positive exposure in the world of broadcast. Sounds simple? Not necessarily, especially if you haven’t spent a career working in the profession. Some of the “fun stuff” she’s also doing: a series of half-day self-esteem workshops designed to help women, many of whom have lost access to their children. Duperon brings in volunteers who help her make a real difference. “We go in and love them.” And what’s next? One project in the works is a documentary on forgiveness. Duperon regularly speaks to large groups, often helping her audience develop and improve their relationships with the media. “Once you start helping the media -” courting the media -” miraculous coverage will unfold for you and your business,” Duperon writes on her Web site.

Angerine Jacqueline Gant

Executive Director
Native American Business Alliance

More commonly known as Jackie, Gant is a
member of the Oneida Nation of the Thames, where she grew up just outside London, Ontario, Canada. As head of the Native American Business Alliance, she has numerous opportunities “to guide women, listen to women, give suggestions and share any life experiences I may have had working in the corporate world.” The mentoring role is one she relishes. “I enjoy mentoring others, both men and women, in their business fields.” Gant, who has a degree in alcohol and substance abuse counseling, previously worked in the insurance field, but it’s knowing how to work with people that has helped in her current role (at four years on the job, she’s the longest serving executive director in the organization’s history). Gant is also quick to look around and appreciate how those she serves in the Native American Business Alliance have progressed. “People like Andra Rush [head of Warren-based Rush Trucking] and Sharon Cannarsa [of Systrand Manufacturing] are just two who have pulled it together. I admire these women and I listen to what they have to say. I truly believe the secret to working with someone is when you’re secure within your own self, you’re able to share your life experiences and guide other women unselfishly, truly wanting them to succeed.” Gant says she continues to rely on the strength, motivation and perseverance of her mother (for whom she is named). “She always said ‘don’t give 100 percent, give 150 percent. And always sit in the front row.'”

Linda Girard

CEO and Co-founder,
Pure Visibility

Imagine you’re trying to explain a new idea. And getting nothing but blank stares. For Linda Girard, that idea was Internet marketing; her vision: how she could improve the sales of just about any company that had or wanted to have an online presence. Instead of discouraging her, the blank looks energized Girard and partner, Catherine Juon (president of Pure Visibility) to launch the firm in the spring of 2005. A graduate of Eastern Michigan University (with a double major in telecommunications and psychology), Girard is self-taught, having worked in finance and technology firms before catching the entrepreneurial bug and joining up with Juon. Pure Visibility is Google Adwords Cer-tified as well as being a certified Google Analytics consultant. Starting with just three employees, it’s now 15 strong with growth last year of 250 percent. “We start out by looking at the client, where they stand in the marketplace. Once we know their business goals and their online value proposition, we map their goals to their Internet marketing, closing the loop with their sales cycle.” Still sound complicated? As Girard explains, companies with zero presence online can still get going on the Internet, with Pure Visibility managing their Google Adwords strategy, testing different “landing” pages (where a click-through ad would send a visitor), and finding those that best generate sales. “You only have a few seconds to make an impression, helping people find what they want. If they don’t find what they need, they won’t recommend or come back ever again.”

Lydia Gutiérrez

President, Hacienda Mexican Foods

When Lydia Gutiérrez and her husband Richard took over an existing food manufacturing business in 1994, merging Vernor Foods with Hacienda Mexican Foods, they began a journey that’s helped transform the Mexicantown area of Detroit. Starting with just five employees, the couple worked out of a 13,500-square-foot facility, Richard handling the “back end” of the business, including repair of machinery and layout of the operation, Lydia the administrative support. While that division of labor changed with the 2005 death of Richard, it wasn’t before Hacienda Mexican Foods had grown significantly. In 2000 it was with the purchase of land to expand as well as an 18,000-square-foot building that serves as a distribution point for Mexican food products and warehousing of raw materials. In the early years, when space was at a premium, much of the product was stored on site in trailers. “We kept asking customers, ‘is there anything else that we could carry?’ when we would deliver tortilla chips to them,” recalls Lydia Gutiérrez today. Hacienda continued to expand its offerings, in the process developing private label products. “We’re also developing that to include other branding opportunities,” says Gutiérrez. Hacienda continues to fuel the growth, bringing products in from Texas and Mexico. And while she mourns the loss of her husband, it clearly wasn’t the end of the business. “His family was entrepreneurial,” says Lydia. “I was more 9 to 5. But it wasn’t until after he had gone that I knew what he had left -” the importance of continuing with the dream.”

Jean Huskey

CEO, Art Huskey and Sons Incorporated

St. Ignace may be a small town, but Jean Huskey is a giant in this Upper Peninsula stop-off for tourists heading to Mackinac Island. Now the owner of the excavation company she and her husband co-founded (she was widowed 22 years ago), Huskey at first faced the stark reality of paying off debt incurred when they’d bought the business. “There was no life insurance; when I saw what we owed, I had to keep it going.” Huskey has two sons and an older grandson who work with her in the business (a third son was killed in work outside the company). Those who know her will attest that she’s one of the stalwarts in the community, which named her its Citizen of the Year in 1994. “People have been very good to me,” says Huskey, who remembers in the early days of the business that times weren’t very good in St. Ignace. “Since then, it’s been built up and it’s been good for us. I’ve been able to keep our sons here, which is something in a town where people often graduate then leave.” Busy in the summer with clearing, excavating for homes and installing septic systems, Huskey’s winter business is typically plowing (“There’s not much else going on”). At 72, she remains optimistic and as persevering as ever. “There are challenges in everything you do,” she says. “You’re not going to get anything on your own.” For her part, she’s focused on helping an up and coming generation. “I try to pay back everyone that’s ever done something for us.”

Danialle Karmanos

Founder/Executive Director
Danialle Karmanos’ Work it Out
Danialle Karmanos’ Kids and Cancer

A video producer and self-described “news junkie,” Danialle Karmanos decided to do something about what she describes as a preventable epidemic -” childhood obesity. “I don’t think the community recognizes the consequences or the long term cost,” says Karmanos, whose “Work It Out” program also targets heart disease, diabetes and cancers (a second program, Danialle Karmanos’ Kids and Cancer, provides resources to help children come to terms with a cancer diagnosis-”either theirs or in their family-”on a kid’s level and in a kid’s language.) “This is the first generation that’s not going to outlive their parents. And that makes me furious.” Karmanos describes “Work It Out” as “a roll-up-the-sleeves, put-your-money-where-your-mouth is program that delivers valuable health, exercise and nutrition resources to kids and their families through fun, engaging and, most importantly, educational activities.” Before launching the program in 2005, Karmanos made sure she had the groundwork laid, including gathering information and data on what would resonate with the target community. “The response from children has been like fish to water,” she says. Besides being a member of various community organizations in the Metro Detroit area, Karmanos is on the board of directors for Communities in Schools of Wake County, N.C., where husband Peter Karmanos Jr. owns the NHL Carolina Hurricanes. She says being raised by a single mother (who put herself through school earning two master’s degrees and a doctorate) has given her the confidence to work hard while constantly thinking about how she can give back.

Mary Kramer

Vice President and Publisher
Crain’s Detroit Business

A graduate of Grand Valley State University, Mary Kramer had 16 years of reporting and management experience behind her before joining Crain’s Detroit Business nearly 20 years ago. Named associate publisher a year later, she became publisher in 2005. As one of the more influential figures in the region, she still doesn’t think of herself as a woman executive. “I think more often it’s people outside that perceive that as unusual,” she says. “It may be others who have singled people out like me, giving us more visibility than others might have. But I can’t separate that from my job.” She does, however, have some perspective on the issue of women in leadership. “When I came here in 1989, there were some key women in media, but very few women in business. There were few entrepreneurs. Now there are many more with visible positions. But in Chicago and New York, there are more female CEOs of prominent companies than in Detroit.” The goal of Crain’s, says Kramer, has been to identify leaders and potential leaders, “whether they be minority or female.” Kramer says there is evidence of women being vaulted to board leadership positions as a result of being singled out by Crain’s Detroit Business. She’s now seeing more and more women “dropping out of large cultures” to start their own business. And for those who stay, companies are incorporating
programs to make sure they have diversity, although Kramer says management teams are still not as diverse as they could (or should) be.

Denise J. Lewis

Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP

Denise Lewis knows full well the field she chose is one in which there aren’t a huge number of women. Or more particularly, not at the pinnacle of their field, which she most certainly has reached. One of the country’s top real estate lawyers (honored as such by Chambers USA, America’s Leading Lawyers for Business, 2005, 2006 and 2007), this is actually a second career; she once served as personnel director for the city of Detroit. A mother of a young child when she went to law school (at University of Michigan), Lewis chose to specialize in real estate law partly for the ability to make an impact -” “to be transformative for the community” -” an example being a current project to develop retail space at Woodward and 8 Mile Road. “Frankly, real estate has a positive impact beyond the business world; it helps everybody.” Lewis admits it took a while for her to earn her reputation as a lawyer in what can be a male dominated environment. Now, she says, after being in practice 25 years and being recognized as one of the leading lawyers in the state, it’s a little easier. Her work includes representing and counseling clients in the acquisition and sale of real estate, development agreements, construction, infrastructure, development, leasing, environmental assessment, zoning matters and property management. Lewis says she was able to balance business and personal life, knowing “there were times when you didn’t get that much sleep.” But, she says, candidly: “Women tend to be well organized.”

Barbara Mieras

Senior Vice President, Major Gifts
Davenport University

A former president of Davenport College, which merged with Detroit College of Business and Great Lakes College in 2000, Barbara Mieras is busy building relationships with donors who clearly see the vision of the nonprofit private institution. Part of that is the delivery of Davenport’s mission of providing a high quality educational experience in just three areas: business, technology and the health profession. Some 13,000 students attend classes at Davenport, at campuses in Grand Rapids and throughout Michigan and northern Indiana. While most are working adults, the school plans to increase the number of traditional age students with the building of residential units on the main campus (and a new student center, for which Mieras is working to raise $5 million). Since she took the job in 2001, she’s been involved in an annual campaign that raises $2 million for student scholarships. She’s also “most often” in capital campaign mode, seeking to raise funds for various facilities projects (like the student center). Faced with a challenging economy (and stiff competition for funds), Mieras has taken a page from the books on continuous improvement: responding to feedback and making sure programs and curriculums are constantly upgraded to better meet the needs of students (and donors who generate that feedback). She’s also taking the experience she gained from her time as president of the former Davenport College, a time when she’d often meet with donors (although not leading the fundraising effort). “That experience translated very well into the role I have today.”

Faye Nelson

President and CEO
Detroit Riverfront Conservancy, Inc.

Arguably one of the more visible proponents and social architects behind the Motor City’s revitalization of the Detroit riverfront, Faye Nelson goes out of her way to make sure others share in whatever credit is extended to her. “There are many, many others who have come together to make this amazing accomplishment take place,” says Nelson, who was appointed to her position in September 2003. A former vice president of governmental affairs at Wayne State University, Nelson earlier served as director of government affairs at Kmart. Acknowledging she has had “an extremely blessed life,” Nelson says having a wonderful support system at home and in the workplace has underscored her desire not only to receive, but to give. “I’ve tried throughout my life to give a part of me to make a difference,” she says. “This project, working to revitalize our riverfront, connecting our community to such a beautiful jewel, the Detroit River, is a commitment I’ve made. I have and will continue to work very hard to ensure our public has the opportunity to come and enjoy it, to benefit from all the tremendous gifts it has to offer. I’ll always be dedicated to trying to make a difference.” Nelson serves on the board of directors for Compuware Corporation, the Michigan Economic Growth Authority, the University of Detroit Mercy and TechTown. She is also a member of the American Bar Association, State Bar of Michigan, life member of the Sixth Circuit Judicial Conference, Leadership Detroit XIII, Detroit Athletic Club and Economic Club of Detroit.

Juliette Thorpe Okotie-Eboh

Senior Vice President,
Community Affairs/Administration,
MGM Grand Detroit

For most of her career, Juliette Thorpe Okotie-Eboh has been a self-described consensus builder, a role she continues to embrace at MGM Grand Detroit, where she has worked for five years. Prior to that, she was senior vice president and ombudsman at the Detroit Medical Center. “I’ve always been tasked with building stronger relationships with the larger civic community,” she says. “That’s involved interacting with nonprofit groups that help glue this world together, helping with funding and serving with boards.” Her role includes managing issues “that affect the business that I work in and have an impact on the community.” Okotie-Eboh earned her doctorate (in urban and regional planning) from the University of Michigan by the time she was 28. For nearly 20 years she worked at the city of Detroit, where she was chief of research in the planning department. Later she was vice president of policy at New Detroit, Inc. and served as a vice president and civic affairs manager at Comerica. Her resume includes a two-year stint in Nigeria, directing the preparation of master plans for some 11 cities and towns. Okotie-Eboh, who serves on numerous boards, believes in mentoring and predicts an increase in the number of women who will gain positions of influence. “Women are becoming more highly educated and are entering more non-traditional fields,” she says. “There’s a lot yet to be done, but a lot of changes have been made and there are a lot of women ready to step up and lead.”

Francine Parker

CEO, Health Alliance Plan

Oddly enough, some 30 years after starting at Health Alliance Plan, Francine Parker sees change as being the common denominator. “Being in an organization like this for a long period has taught me that you have to be willing to change, to adapt and grow and constantly reevaluate your position in the organization. For me, it’s not a question of whether the organization is relevant but whether what you’re doing is relevant.” But can someone continue to be fresh after three decades with one organization? “They think it means complacent, but it’s harder to stay and reinvent yourself, which is something I’ve been able to do, starting on the ground floor of what has become a great organization.” Parker describes her leadership style with words like honesty, transparency, visibility, approachability. “I really need to be visible, to see the faces, know the people that I’m leading and be able to encourage them.” She’s also embraced mentoring, even before she became HAP’s CEO in March 2004. “I’ve been able to mentor a number of people, inside and outside of health care. It helps to recharge me as a leader.” As far as her being a leader and a woman, the distinction hasn’t escaped her. “I’m keenly aware that few women hold operational leadership positions,” says Parker. “There are still many times that I’m the only woman leader in the room. I have an obligation to hold high standards, not only in my own performance but to serve as a role model and mentor.”

Maria Elena Rodriguez

Mexicantown Community Development Corporation

With her first career as a TV producer for Channel 4, Maria Elena Rodriguez learned the power of communication and how to recognize an opportunity, something she saw in the revitalization of Mexicantown. Ten years ago, she took on the challenge of running the Mexicantown Community Development Corporation, a key opportunity being the creation of the Mexicantown International Welcome Center and Mercado, a marketplace. Rodriguez says one of the motivations in her work has been being able to recreate the essence of what she saw growing up in the area, particularly the hustle and bustle of a thriving Mexicantown area. She is also passionate about the culture, even while acknowledging that she is “a Detroiter, born and bred.” While her parents were born in Mexico, Rodriguez says she grew up in a culture that was highly diverse. “The Southwest Detroit area is a diverse community to begin with and we need to relish that,” she says. An accomplishment she is particularly proud of is the organization’s entrepreneurial training program, which is positioned as being of benefit beyond the Mexicantown area. “This is for everyone, not just for the community,” she notes. “We’re all part of the fabric of Detroit and we should all benefit.” Indeed, the mix of participants in the program is highly diverse, typically consisting of one-third Latino, one-third African American and one-third Anglo, the remaining being “a nice mix of Chinese and African” participants. Rodriguez serves on the Michigan Commission on Spanish Speaking Affairs as well as several other boards.

Elizabeth Schmidt

CEO, Atlas Tool, Inc.

Forty-two years after she and her husband Markus founded Atlas Tools, Elizabeth Schmidt found herself a widow -” and sole owner of Atlas, a tool and die and prototype parts shop that serves mainly automotive customers (although it did at one time supply parts for NASA’s Space Shuttle program). While a son, Mark, works at the Roseville-based company as a senior vice president, Elizabeth Schmidt has extended her sense of family to the entire workforce of approximately 200. “We’ve always been very much concerned about the welfare of our employees,” says Schmidt, who had been able to resist any form of downsizing until last year. Atlas has positioned itself as a technological leader in the fields of Computer Aided Drafting/Manufacturing/Engin-eering and is a leader in the application of computers and solid model technology to die design. The company also boasts no long-term debt, a decidedly important factor in tough economic times. “The main concern is to deal with the economic challenges right now,” says Schmidt, who was born in what is now Serbia and lived in Austria before immigrating to the U.S. in 1952. Her husband, an engineer by training, worked as a plant manager for 10 years before the couple founded Atlas. “I was a housewife before that but I took courses in bookkeeping and kept myself interested.” When Markus was alive, the duties were split evenly -” he taking the entrepreneurial path and dealing with manufacturing issues; her forte being financial, which continues today.

Nipa Shah

President, Jenesys Group

To call Nipa Shah a global powerhouse wouldn’t be too much of a stretch. A native of India who came to the U.S. in 1985, Shah first worked as a cancer researcher, then earned a Master’s in Information Systems from Lawrence Tech while working as a chemist in an automotive emissions testing lab. In 2004, she launched Jenesys Group, the platform for managing a variety of programming projects for companies around the world, including clients in Europe as well as North America. And while she taps into resources in India, her business is done very much on a global stage. “Cost is not our only criteria,” says Shah. “In most cases. it’s a matter of experience and relationship. One of the key factors in our success is knowing the technology and being able to translate business requirements into technical requirements. Unless you’re using a company with a high level of programming background, you can end up with a project that might work from a creative standpoint but the support won’t be there.” Shah’s company typically works with graphic design firms and Web development companies,
who then market Jenesys’ services to their clients. “We take away the hassle of project management,” she notes. Shah is the founder of the Michigan India Chamber of Commerce, a private business organization she uses to facilitate networking and to provide resources to businesses in Metro Detroit that are owned by those in the Indian community. She has a number of other projects on the go, including a blogging portal (

Lisa Webb Sharpe

Michigan Department of
Management and Budget

Being head of a large state department with a diverse set of responsibilities (and $18 billion a year to spend) doesn’t mean Lisa Webb Sharpe isn’t connected with what’s going on. Indeed, Webb Sharpe describes herself as a “hands on” leader. “I want to know what’s going in the organization, and that they understand the big picture, not just in their respective lines of business but in how we impact other state departments,” she says. “Once they understand what the expectations are, I trust them to do their job.” Another aspect of her leadership style is developing the monitoring and reporting structures that will ensure ongoing success. “We measure our performance in ways that industry would measure success, monitoring them on a regular basis, making sure the organization is on track. And if there’s a situation where we hit a bump in the road or encounter other challenges, hopefully your team members are there to help you figure it out.” As a woman in a significant leadership position, Webb Sharpe acknowledges there are times when the distinctions are obvious. “When I walk into a room and it’s all men.” “I try to make sure in our organization, when we are engaged in outreach to businesses or involved in discussions about what our organization will look like in the future, that we make sure we’re looking at the best people.” And they don’t always look alike. Her direction to the team: “Expand your horizons, look at what the rest of the world has to offer.”

Donna Zobel

Owner and President
Myron Zucker Inc.

When Donna Zobel’s father died in November 2003, it might have become a business case for how not to do succession planning. “There wasn’t a robust corporate succession plan in place,” notes Zobel, who was employed as a statistician scientist at Pfizer. Taking leave to help her mother sort out the firm’s finances, Zobel at first shared the concern that the business, contract manufacturing and supply of low-voltage power quality products, would simply cease to exist. But Donna Zobel began to see a different picture emerging. Applying some of the lessons she was learning in business school (she graduated from the executive MBA program at the University of Michigan in April 2004), Zobel thought she just might be able to turn things around. One step: folding W.D. Zobel Company into Myron Zucker, which her father had bought in 1987. Another was dramatically reducing the amount of space, from 35,000 square feet to just 8,000, at the same time outsourcing non-core work. In the midst of the turmoil, Zobel was diagnosed with breast cancer, but by June 2006 she was back -” “as feisty as ever.” New work from sources such as lumber mills, ski resorts, printing companies, food processing plants and shipping vessels has reduced the dependency on automotive work. The company also won back a core large account and is now profitable. Zobel continues to work to keep costs down and cultivate new business. “We now focus on growth, instead of survival,” she says. “Our business is smaller, faster, cleaner, leaner and happier.”

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Richard Blanchard
Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.