Editor's note: Over the next few months, we'll be taking a virtual tour of U.S. cities to see how the 2008 financial crisis has changed the entrepreneurial landscape, for better or worse.
It's impossible to talk about the startup scene in Louisiana (please see related article, "Baton Rouge Turns Up the Heat With New Startups") without mentioning the state's most famous city: New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz, the epicenter of good times and food, and – in recent years – a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity.
On Saturday, the Big Easy kicks off its fifth annual New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, a festival-like gathering with seminars, panels and workshops – all free for entrepreneurs – held throughout the city. This year, "NOEW" is expected to draw some 3,000 attendees, ten times the size of its inaugural year.
The nonprofit The Idea Village created the weeklong event, which is the culmination of the organization's "Entrepreneur Season" that runs nine months and starts afresh each year. “People in New Orleans are very in tune with seasons,” says Tim Williamson, The Idea Village's co-founder and CEO. “We have a Mardi Gras season, Saints football season, hurricane season.”
So far, roughly 500 entrepreneurs have participated in this year’s season. It begins in July with Williamson and his 10 staffers and an army of volunteers assessing the prospects and needs of entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs. “Some companies just need a two-hour strategy session or a tune up,” says Williamson. Others are funneled into various accelerator programs, including one run by The Idea Village. In January, the group and its partners identify the companies with best prospects for raising capital at NOEW.
This year 43 companies will pitch at NOEW events held throughout the city, including crowd favorite The Big Idea. At the same time the five-year-old festival has caught on with locals, it’s now attracting folks from out of state, investors from Andreessen Horowitz, General Atlantic and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers among them.
The growth of NOEW is indicative of bigger changes happening in New Orleans. Undoubtedly, Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had a devastating impact on the city and its economy but it was also a catalyst for innovation, Williamson says. “The day after Katrina, the entrepreneurial ethos of New Orleans was reignited as everyone became an entrepreneur because we had to restart every business, school [and] home with uncertainty and limited capital.”
Cities around the country have seen a surge in entrepreneurial activity in the wake of the recession, but for New Orleans, which had been in a state of decline for decades, the metamorphosis has been particularly profound. For years, the city saw its talent leave in droves. “I was part of the brain drain of the 1990s,” says Williamson. Born and raised in New Orleans, he graduated from Tulane University and then did what many of his classmates did – left.
After working in investment banking and media in New York, Boston, Pittsburgh and Atlanta, he found himself back in New Orleans in 1998 to start an online city site owned Cox Enterprises. By day he and some of his media peers competed for limited ad dollars. By night they met at local watering hole, Loa Bar, to lament New Orleans’s relatively lackluster economy and, eventually, discuss what it would take to reverse decades of decline.
The solution, they agreed, was more entrepreneurial talent.
Williamson and his Loa Bar buddies each chipped in $2,000 to sponsor their own business plan and then went to working building a network of professionals, government, universities and investors to rally behind budding businesses. These days it’s known as an ecosystem. They called it a village.
Since its formation in 2000, The Idea Village says it has provided direct support to more than 2,200 New Orleans entrepreneurs, and helped create 2,000 new jobs and generate $100 million in annual revenue in the process. Meanwhile, the state of Louisiana has been aggressively courting new businesses with a quiver of tax incentives and young people are sticking around or moving back.
That New Orleans would blossom into an entrepreneurial destination is no surprise to Williamson. “New Orleans is one of the most creative cities in the world,” he says. “It just needed to find its rhythm.”