Did New Orleans Just Create a Season For Business and Entrepreneurship?
Tim Williamson, CEO of The Idea Village in New Orleans, can make anything – even the most unbelievable of things – sound exciting. He’s quite convincing, turning the most cynical into believers. If you’ve met him, you’ve drank the Kool-Aid. It tastes like whisky and entrepreneurship in New Orleans, and he has spent the past 15 years perfecting his elevator pitch.
Here is the craziest part: no matter how insane his pitches have sounded over the past 15 years, his ideas have had a way of being actualized. When they do, the next pitch becomes even more unbelievable.
The story has been told before, but here is the Cliffs Notes version. A decade and a half ago, New Orleans was dried up of any possible new businesses and there was a mass exodus of college graduates leaving the city. A group of men, Williamson included, dreamed up a city that was known for entrepreneurship and innovation.
It started with a doodle on a napkin in a hotel bar. That doodle became a nonprofit organization that now helps entrepreneurs in New Orleans. Just last month, that nonprofit, The Idea Village, brought together 55 organizations, 185 regional startups and over 13,000 people over one week in mid-March to celebrate the region’s businesses during New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (or NOEW, as the loyalists call it), which was bookended by two other business conferences.
“I think a lot of what is happening in New Orleans is a result of an effort built on entrepreneurship,” said Williamson. “It was an effort to elevate our brand for more than just music and food.”
Last year, Williamson’s pitch became more insane: to celebrate entrepreneurship as a season, sandwiched between New Orleans’ long celebrated carnival and festival seasons. He added that “entrepreneur season” would be part of the city’s “rhythms and rituals.” His goal is to make New Orleans globally relevant and the recognized “tech hub of the south” by 2018, the city’s tricentennial. By the end of April, New Orleans will have hosted three business conferences in the month between Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest with the addition of Collision, the country’s fastest-growing tech conference. Did New Orleans build it and it came?
“What New Orleans has done best is connect and convene people,” added Williamson. “We’ve always done it around people – the growth of NOEW has been a manifestation of the ability to connect around business and now the globe will connect around New Orleans.”
During March, New Orleans got down to business withRES/CON, a conference created by The Ernest N. Morial Convention Center of New Orleans as an effort to generate hotel room sales after Katrina. Formerly known as the International Disaster Conference and Expo, the conference was rebranded by GNO Inc., focusing on an idea of a resilience industry, disaster recovery and engaging both the private and public sectors to get prepared for any kind of disaster. Although smaller in size, the conference covers a wide range of issues across multiple sectors. Business leaders from around the world attended to discuss how their businesses prepare and overcome any kind of disaster. It seemed only appropriate that it was hosted in New Orleans.
“RES/CON focuses on the ability for communities to bounce back, but we are also bringing business into it,” said Jeff Hebert, Chief Resiliency Officer in New Orleans. “New Orleans is uniquely positioned to bring people together to discuss those issues. “
New Orleans has had a huge interest in resiliency since bouncing back after Katrina. One of the largest sectors to come out of New Orleans during its recovery is water management, with companies like Tierra Resources.
But, that’s one of thing that has helped New Orleans actualize a new city – interest. Interest in new sectors like water management and disaster recovery, but also entrepreneurship and technology.
“I think that, as a business/entrepreneur/startup/tech city, things are growing right in lockstep with the resurgence of tourism and all the things New Orleans does so well – hospitality, culture, culinary and music,” said Chris Schultz, who is also a co-host of Collision and producer of the Launch Pad Pitch competition during the three-day event. “If we weren’t able to attract these conferences or events around sectors that are important to New Orleans, then we’d be doing something wrong. We are definitely taking advantage of why people care about New Orleans.”
“Collision is all about networking and meeting people, and New Orleans has been extremely welcoming and helpful to our team,” said Paddy Cosgrave, founder of Web Summit and Collision. “The strong community that New Orleans encompasses was a huge draw for us moving there. We are also huge fans of music and are hosting our Music Summit for the first time at Collision, which takes place in the middle of Jazz Fest.”
In a game of word association, business conference might be the last word you think of to describe New Orleans. Music, unique culinary experiences and hangovers come to mind, but it seems that business leaders are now using those qualities to attract more than just bachelor parties. More than hotel room and convention center sales for a few days, these conferences are drawing in new businesses into New Orleans permanently.
One example is Smashing Boxes, a digital product agency based in Durham, North Carolina that set up roots in New Orleans earlier this year. The company’s CEO, Nick Jordan, started considering New Orleans for a second office after a trip to New Orleans last March to attend NOEW as a speaker. It was his first trip to the city in 17 years, and he admits that prior to that trip, he would never have considered New Orleans as another market for an office. Jordan emphasizes on the fact that his first trip to The Big Easy 13 months ago was a “big moment in time” for him and Smashing Boxes. It gave him a look into the city’s culture, mentality and a vision from business leaders that resonated so well with his own.
“Our employees want a life outside of work that is enriched with social activities, music, art, food and history. New Orleans has that in spades,” said Jordan. “Much like Durham, New Orleans has an underdog mentality – we work together, we have a chip on our shoulder and we want to prove to the world that we are going to be an incredible hub of innovation and entrepreneurship and a force to be reckoned with.”
He added that the city’s business leaders were a large part of what drew him to New Orleans.
“From the people at GNO Inc. like Michael Hecht to Tim Williamson at the Idea Village, there is a great amount of people that have an incredible vision for the city,” Jordan continued. “I hope we can not only ride the coat tails of awesome leaders like this, but eventually become a leader and a visionary in our own right one day.”
Michael Hecht is the CEO of the region’s economic development organization, GNO Inc., he understands more than anyone that New Orleans’ brand has long been somewhat of a double edge sword for the city. The very qualities that have attracted people have equally scared them away.
“We have one of the strongest municipal brands in the world, but people understand it in a limited fashion,” said Hecht. “At least in our experience, the only way you get people to understand the true breadth of economic and lifestyle opportunities in New Orleans is to have them on the ground.”
The three conferences are all very different from each other – all founded at different times, by different people and for different reasons. However, they all speak to how the city has diversified over the years. And whether it was serendipity, voodoo or just strategic planning, it looks like New Orleanians need to prepare to celebrate yet another season.
See original article here.