Three and a half years ago, not many would have suspected that New Orleans would ever recover, let alone demonstrate the promise of prosperity after Hurricane Katrina wiped out an already fragile economy. At the time the levee broke, New Orleans was already suffering from an exodus initiated in the late 80’s when the oil industry began its regional decline. But the very characteristics that have given New Orleans its unique disposition are those contributing to its stealth recovery.
Communities that support successful entrepreneurship exhibit a similar range of traits. Not surprisingly, many of them are emotional qualities bred by circumstance and history. New Orleans was a late addition to the United States, acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Literally separated by swamps and rivers, New Orleans benefited from both a distance and unique geographic location. In combination with its very European roots, quite literally the city enjoyed a more laissez-faire approach to development which lent itself to a certain type of creativity and openness.
This same bayou location plus southern gulf weather has also not been kind to it, which has bred another entrepreneurial quality, emotional fortitude. One could argue that this is an innate quality but New Orleans has an extra high concentration of this, born of survivor-ship. From this comes a kind of optimism and resiliency that drives entrepreneurs ever forward.
Not only did the Lt. Governor of Louisiana recognize this and create the first state Office of Social Entrepreneurship in 2006, but the founders of The Idea Village recognized these traits and formalized their non-profit in 2002. Housed in the IP (Intellectual Property) with seven other entrepreneurships, their goal is to identify, support and retain the entrepreneurial talent necessary to keep the city alive. Their mantra “Trust your crazy ideas” is just a sample of the attitude and indicator of the range of programs they have developed to identify and nurture innovators.
Most recently The Idea Village partnered with 504ward on a business competition that garnered 141 entries for the best plan to retain 23-35 year-olds in New Orleans. At the final review in April, PlayNOLA won the $200,000 in cash and support services for their plan to create a networking opportunity for young professionals through sports, recreation and specialized events. Launchpad won a second prize of $25,000 for their plan to create a place for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
And in March, the IDEAcorps Challenge, brought teams from another entrepreneurship center, the Northern California Bay area, to join forces with MBA students to help solve critical challenges for six New Orleans new businesses. Teams including members from Stanford University, UC Berkeley, Google and Salesforce.com worked on the issues facing companies focused on renewable energy, housing market analysis, a “green” production company, an all-natural pizza delivery place, recyclable and biodegradable flip-flops and alternative housing.
Whether they are “social” entrepreneurships or just plain entrepreneurships, it is clear that New Orleans is laying the right groundwork for a full-scale “and then some” recovery. If you are walking through New Orleans this Jazz Fest, you will notice there is a new spirit in the air. You can feel it and you can see it, and if you scratch beneath the surface, it is truly an exciting place to be – the charm of the Big Easy is just the icing on the cake.