03.25.11

New Orleans' Mardi Gras for Entrepreneurs

With its third annual Entrepreneur Week, New Orleans is ready to establish itself as the nation’s model of entrepreneurship and innovation. Catherine Lyons on the post-Katrina startup culture in the Big Easy.

New Orleans, long a magnet for those in search of a good time, is drawing the world in once again this week, but for a much different purpose: attracting, fostering, and retaining local entrepreneurs and innovators. New Orleans Entrepreneur Week is offering $1 million in total capital to promising entrepreneurs, including technological support and business consulting from some of the world’s leading companies.

In three years, the event has grown from six MBA teams helping six local entrepreneurs to hundreds of entrepreneurs and local residents attending sessions taught by representatives from Google, Salesforce, and Cisco, as well as some of the city’s business leaders. The week culminates on Friday with pitches by participants to panels of investors including Jim Coulter of TPG Capital and executives from IBM and Bain Capital. In an American Idol-like setting, the judges and audience decide which company will fly out to California to meet with top investors in hopes of receiving the funding necessary to take their idea to the next level.

 “Trust your crazy ideas” is the mantra New Orleans’ entrepreneurship evangelist, Tim Williamson, preaches to the flock of enterprising and innovative minds taking over the city.

Williamson, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit Idea Village, calls New Orleans Entrepreneur Week “Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest for entrepreneurs.” NOEW is a brainchild of The Idea Village, which is dedicated to attracting and retaining business in New Orleans, in partnership with business and community leaders across the city.

Taylor Galyean, founder and CEO of Spa Workshop, is one of the “contestants.” A native of West Virginia, Galyean moved to New Orleans from Chicago in 2003 and started his business more than two years ago. The vast and supportive network of knowledgeable and multigenerational innovators has convinced him to stay in the city, he says.

“When you’re starting a business, the most valuable capital that you have is relationships and the ability to talk to people and listen to other people’s experiences, and have people who are willing to tell you about their experiences,” Galyean says. “New Orleans is unique in this manner. People share and talk. It’s an open community where people are looking to do that, and it’s the essence of that that really helps you at the beginning.”

Much has been made of the city’s innovative energy post-Hurricane Katrina, but Williamson says the roots of his “web” of networks date back well before the storm activated a supportive ecosystem for entrepreneurs.

“The venture-capital community flies between the East Coast and West Coast and hasn’t recognized the emerging market economy of New Orleans’ resurgence,” says Calvert's Daryn Dodson.

“On that day in 2005, everyone became an entrepreneur because we all lost everything,” he says. “The experience also made New Orleans a resilient environment for innovative ideas to rebuild an American city. Entrepreneur Week resulted from Hurricane Katrina because people wanted to come down here to help us rebuild…. We’re not asking for help anymore. We are here to engage and build relationships with a global network of talent.”

Since the storm, the number of New Orleanians starting businesses has skyrocketed, propelling the city from below the “weak cities average” pre-Katrina to well beyond the national average of entrepreneurs, helping it weather the economic crisis that crippled cities across the United States. The Big Easy’s focus on creating new companies comes as President Obama launches his “Startup America” initiative, an effort to inspire entrepreneurship.

Venture capitalists from the around the country are recognizing the opportunity New Orleans offers to entrepreneurs with crazy ideas. Daryn Dodson came down to New Orleans right after Katrina with a team of fellow MBA students from Stanford University. Three years later, he has returned to NOEW with Calvert Funds as a potential investor in some of New Orleans’ companies.

“The venture-capital community flies between the East Coast and West Coast and hasn’t recognized the emerging market economy of New Orleans’ resurgence,” says Dodson, venture consultant to the board at Calvert. “I work in impact investing, which is finding entrepreneurs that are impacting society with substantial return. If you’re looking for a perfect place to do that, New Orleans is it.”

Williamson credits this growth to a strong commitment from government, business, and community leaders to make New Orleans the premier laboratory and model city for innovation.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has made social innovation one of the top priorities for his administration and serves as co-chairman of NOEW. His sister, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), is chairing a panel on small-business growth at the end of the week.

“In New Orleans, we have to build our economy on a brain economy rather than a brawn economy,” says Mary Beth Romig, director of public relations and special projects for Mayor Landrieu. “Part of that rests on entrepreneurship. We want to build a city where a person who has an idea can come and be inspired by New Orleans. This place fosters creativity, whatever form that creativity may take.”

At the heart of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, and the entrepreneurial community as a whole, is a deep love for New Orleans and a passion to see it reach its full potential as a restored and revitalized American city.

“We want all these people who are coming here for Entrepreneur Week, all these MBA students and businesses, to create roots here in New Orleans, and fall in love with us,” says Mark Mayer, president of one of the largest advertising firms in New Orleans, Peter Mayer. “We’re a welcoming city.”

While New Orleans has come a long way, Chris Schultz, a local business leader and founder of several software and co-working companies, says the city is still trying to create and solidify its brand as one of the county’s top innovation hubs. He is optimistic about the path New Orleans is following to reach that point.

“We have social entrepreneurship, education, and education technology from Teach for America members who have come here, food brands, because food is such a part of our heritage, and digital media,” Schultz says. “Our brand is emerging, but we’re not all the way there yet.”

While Williamson agrees that this may be a long process, he also encourages the rest of the country to look at New Orleans from the bottom up rather than the top down.

“It’s my popcorn theory,” he says. “When you look at popcorn from the top, it looks like nothing’s happening. But from the bottom, there is a lot of heat and activity. Things are starting to pop here.”

Catherine Lyons is a native Californian living in New Orleans and working as an AmeriCorps member for a nonprofit rebuilding organization. She covers the entrepreneurial community for NolaVie, a subsection of Nola.com. She has previously written for The Huffington Post and the Los Angeles Times.