New Orleans, the historic Louisiana city at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi River, is commonly known for its French and Spanish Creole heritage, good food, jazz and, of course, Mardi Gras. But, increasingly, the Crescent City is becoming home to a growing community of startups and entrepreneurs -- especially in the rebuilding years after Hurricane Katrina.
You might not know it, but New Orleans has been called the "most improved city for business" as well as the No. 3 metropolitan area for IT job growth. Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution, a private nonprofit organization for research and policy solutions, recently said entrepreneurial activity in New Orleans is 56 percent above the national average.
We caught up with Tim Williamson, co-founder and chief executive of The Idea Village, the organization that produces the annual New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW), which is now underway. But more than just a week of events and networking, NOEW is the culmination of Idea Village’s "Entrepreneur Season," a nine-month period between July and March each year during which the organization offers startups education, consulting and capital access programs in order to help launch more businesses in the area.
Here, Williamson talks about the state of entrepreneurship in New Orleans and his vision for the feature of business in the city. His responses have been edited only for length and clarity.
Entrepreneur: How do you describe the state of entrepreneurialism in New Orleans right now?
Williamson: When we started The Idea Village back in 2000 and discussed a vision of New Orleans as a vibrant entrepreneurial community, people thought we were crazy. And they were right. New Orleans had one of the worst education systems in the country, political corruption, limited quality jobs and a deep sense of complacency. There were no venture capital investors, no entrepreneurial community, and a brain drain of talent.
But here we are in 2014, ranked among the top entrepreneurial communities in the world. How did we reach this level of achievement without the resources found in places like Silicon Valley? What is our competitive advantage? The answer can be found in our annual cultural seasons: Mardi Gras Season, Festival Season, Saints Season, and even Hurricane Season.
New Orleans is simply better at connecting. We organize ourselves around Seasons and rituals. There’s a rhythm to the way we come together as a community, and our Seasons are the platform for the rituals. Entrepreneurship is no different.
Entrepreneur: What New Orleans startups might we not know of but should be talking about?
Williamson: There are certain sectors where our startups have a competitive advantage and good opportunities for success. They include culinary arts, technology, water management and education technology.
Some of our most notable startups work in these areas, such as Kickboard, which offers tech tools to help create smarter schools, Federated Sample, which manages a global survey respondent exchange platform, and Tierra Resources, which creates innovative solutions that support investment into wetlands restoration projects to offset their greenhouse gas emissions.
Since 2009, The Idea Village has engaged a global network to support more than 2,500 entrepreneurs. Of these, 131 were selected into high-growth consulting programs where we allocated $2.3 million in seed capital. As of August 2013, 81 percent of these companies are still in business and have created more than 1,034 jobs, secured over $78 million in capital, and generate over $76 million in revenue each year. Most importantly, 86 percent of these companies are still based in New Orleans.
Entrepreneur: New Orleans has come a long way in rebuilding. What changes do you think still need to be made in the overall small-business scene and culture?
Williamson: We will need to rely less on the goodwill of others and more on ourselves, the NOLA community, by engaging a broader group at all levels to participate in the Entrepreneur Season, including critical industries where New Orleans has a competitive advantage, such as food, arts, education, and energy.
A secret weapon to sustaining the momentum: ex-pats. These New Orleanians who left when the city began declining in the 1980s. They have tremendous resources, networks, experience, and passion for New Orleans. With our city’s renaissance, they are coming home -- either physically or emotionally -- and The Idea Village is a great platform to connect this talent to the local entrepreneurial movement.
Entrepreneur: When it comes to startups, how do you see New Orleans over the next five years or so? What are your predictions?
Williamson: As much progress and success as we’ve achieved, this is still a young ecosystem and there is still much work to be done. The Atlantic posed an appropriate question in an article that was published following last year’s NOEW: “The Big Comeback: Is New Orleans America’s Next Great Innovation Hub?” We believe the answer is yes, but in order to sustain the movement, we need the entire community to be engaged; everyone has a role.
I envision that New Orleans will be recognized globally as a model city for building an authentic, self-sustaining entrepreneurial ecosystem by 2018, the city’s tricentennial. Cities with limited resources and citizens with a deep commitment to their community will seek to learn from our journey. And New Orleans will pay it forward.