Ten years ago, the world watched as New Orleans nearly drowned. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf Coast, levees failed, and 80% of this unique city was left underwater, devastated. It’s been a tough decade for the Big Easy, but helping lead its rebirth has been a vibrant, growing, and enthusiastic community of entrepreneurs. Indeed, the New Orleans entrepreneurial ecosystem may be one of the strongest in the entire country.
“The day after Katrina, everyone became an entrepreneur,” said Tim Williamson, the head of The Idea Village, an organization dedicated to building and supporting an entrepreneurial ecosystem in New Orleans. “Between August and October, the city was deserted. We all had to start over. It was the first time in 150 years that the city had to reinvent itself.”
Prior to Katrina, New Orleans, like many cities, had long-entrenched leadership, whether elected officials, bankers, real estate owners, lawyers. Change was difficult. It was tough for young entrepreneurs to be taken seriously.
“After Katrina, the insular networks were fractured; the power structure shifted,” Williamson explained. “It was all about could you do the job? Katrina reframed our thinking. Maybe we, New Orleans, could become a laboratory for change, for innovation.”
The city came together and came to life. Helping lead that rebirth was Williamson’s organization – The Idea Village. Although The Idea Village was founded in 2000, after Katrina, New Orleans was far more welcoming – and desperately in need of – The Idea Village’s energy and innovation.
Williamson’s vision was to convert New Orleans into the most entrepreneurial city in the US. The Idea Village provided an incubator for startups; to date, they’ve helped launch 4,653 new companies. As importantly, they brought entrepreneurship to the heart of the city, in a very New Orleans fashion, by creating and running New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW).
For one week every March, NOEW literally takes over the streets of the French Quarter. Banners fly from lamp posts announcing events and celebrating entrepreneurship. Dozens of events are held all over the city, run by more than 40 organizations.
NOEW is actually the culmination of an entire entrepreneurial season, with a week of activities, including individual competitions for startups in fields such as energy, healthcare, water management. One highlight is the “Coulter Idea Pitch” – in which promising startups present to funders and Silicon Valley big-wigs.
NOEW concludes with “The Big Idea,” a startup competition, which Williamson calls “The Mardi Gras of Entrepreneurship.” Hundreds of New Orleanians pack the streets to vote for their favorite startups to receive cash, products and services. Of course, there’s lot of great food, drinks and jazz bands. It is, after all, New Orleans.
All this entrepreneurial activity has enabled New Orleans to spawn highly successful new companies and organizations, based in New Orleans but serving a national and international clientele, including:
* Lucid – an 80-person online survey and data company (formerly known as Federated Sample) which will complete more than $100 million of sample transactions this year.
* GoToInterview – an online employment service, enabling employers to interview a job candidate via video. Crystal McDonald, president and CEO recently won a $100,000 investment from AOL co-founder Steve Case.
* Solomon Group – with more than 100 employees, Solomon Group designs and produces spectacular live events for national corporations and entertainment and sports clients.
* Kickboard – an instructional improvement platform for K-12 schools, that has raised over $2 million in venture funding and whose founder, Jen Medberry, was named one of Forbes’ “Top 30 under 30.”
* Welcome to College – a web software and services company, helping colleges enhance how they connect with prospective students before, during, and after college visits.
* PowerMoves.NOLA – a New Orleans-born national organization helping minority-founded companies raise venture capital. PowerMovesNOLA has sourced 100 companies from 26 major cities, and was invited to participate in the first-ever White House Demo Day.
“Without a vibrant, sustainable entrepreneurial community, a city will be in decline,” said Williamson. “But it has to be driven locally – authentically. We’re not going to be the next San Francisco or New York City. You have to be who you are. New Orleans likes to connect. We have seasons, such as Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest. Now New Orleans Entrepreneur Week is part of our culture.”
Copyright, Rhonda Abrams, 2015
This article originally ran in USA Today on August 21, 2015