Venture for America’s City as a Startup Summit Presents New Orleans’ Inclusive Innovation

New Orleans has been called many things: “The Impossible City,” “The City that Care Forgot,” and “The Big Easy.” But in the city that may have been the original melting pot, how about calling it inclusive?

To kick-off this year’s New Orleans Entrepreneurship Week (NOEW), Venture for America fellows have organized the annual City as a Startup summit around the theme of inclusive entrepreneurship slated for Monday, March 20.

“We didn’t want this to be another self-congratulatory opportunity for a bunch of white guys to talk about their app,” Bits Nicholas, one of the lead organizers, wrote to Silicon Bayou News. “We were adamant about having a huge range of perspectives reflected not only in the summit as a whole, but within the individual sessions. I think that’s going to be such a great way to get everyone excited about the variety of content and conversations happening across the NOEW campus.”  

Venture for America (VFA) is a fellowship program that places recent graduates at startups, launching their careers as entrepreneurs in cities with emerging entrepreneurial ecosystems. Fellows launched City as a Startup in 2014 in downtown Las Vegas to showcase the innovative partnerships, organizations, and businesses happening in the region.

In 2015, the conference moved to Detroit. “When we were in Detroit, several fellows looked at each other, and said, ‘We have to bring this to New Orleans,” shared Jacob Robinson, another lead organizer.

From the beginning, lead organizers Nicholas and Robinson wanted the New Orleans summit to be different. “Progress here looks different. We’re not trying to be the next Silicon Valley, we’re trying to be a better New Orleans,” said Nicholas. “We wanted to be in a position tell that story and call upon the people who are making it happen.”

In that vein, this year’s summit is free and open to the public, a key component to the overall New Orleans Entrepreneurship Week. Moreover, out of seventeen speakers, over thirty percent are female and over sixty percent are African American, Asian-American, and Filipino-American. This is definitely not your average board meeting for Uber.

Though they may blush, Nicholas (VFA 2013) and Robinson (VFA 2014) have defined those entrepreneurial stock words of “hustle” and “grit” to younger generations of fellows. They have the charisma of Nick and Nora Charles with the banter of Abbott and Costello. Add in the bravado of Bonnie and Clyde without the extralegal actions and tragic ending, and you’ll understand why so many of the fellows have felt so dedicated to the endeavor.

It was an all-hands on deck affair for the VFA community. As Nicholas put it succinctly, “This thing is a big ole time suck.” A core group met weekly, emailed daily, and slacked hourly while juggling jobs everywhere from Zlien to Zeel. They developed the concept, coordinated speakers and visiting fellows, and fundraised for the summit. And yet, the core message of inclusive entrepreneurship kept the VFA fellows fueled and fired up. As Nicholas also pointed out, “I think if our team didn’t believe so strongly about the story we were telling, it would’ve been a lot harder to get through the difficult moments.”

This story is instrumental to the Venture for America program itself. The fellowship works both to launch entrepreneurs and to revitalize American cities. In New Orleans, this means hearing and connecting the community first.  “A primary goal of this entire venture was increasing awareness of VFA and improving existing relationships with partners  and supporters that had maybe gone cold since VFA’s initial New Orleans arrival,” Nicholas explained. From Propeller to the New Orleans BioInnovation Center to the New Orleans Business Alliance (NOLABA), the summit spurred conversations to get VFA more integrated into the community.

As the summit draws closer, Nicholas and Robinson feel the typical range of emotions as months of work come to a close: frenzy, fear, the propensity for a strong cocktail. And yet, excitement may be the most tangible. Nicholas said, “This conference is packed with so many juicy bits that I think the real fun is going to be seeing what resonated most powerfully with attendees after the fact.” This is something you won’t want to miss.


The summit is comprised of three panels and a keynote speaker. Kicking off the morning of March 20, the first panel explores the role of data in urban development. “Quantifying Urban Transformation: Data and the New Orleans Renaissance” will feature panelists from the Data Center, the City of New Orleans, and the NOLABA. Has the ‘renaissance’ of New Orleans been felt by all, and how can you measure ‘inclusive growth’? How can we understand urban development through data?

Following this, “Food Entrepreneurs: Tradition, Access, and Innovation” will delve into the many angles of food entrepreneurship. From James Beard executive chef Alon Shaya of the eponymous uptown Shaya to innovative food entrepreneur Burnell Cotlon of Galvez Grocery in the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans rides a new wave of food ventures. Food is in the lifeblood of New Orleans. In a city that talks about dinner at lunch, how do we sustain its innovative approach while addressing food disparities in the city?

Rounding out the panels, “Pipelines for a Diverse Economy,” will convene several of the major players in the entrepreneur community. The conversation surrounds navigating the significant growth in the number of services available to entrepreneurs. How do they all fit together? How do ensure access to all communities? The panel will feature Aaron Walker of Camelback, Haley Burns of Fund 17, Mike Ricks of US Small Business Administration, Ting-ting Rivers of trepwise, and Rob Lalka of Tulane’s Lepage Center for Entrepreneurship.  

The conference will welcome Keynote speaker Leslie Miley, former Director of Engineering at Slack and President of Venture for America’s Executive in Residence program on the West Coast. He will speak on how playing to strengths found in diversity not only empowers employees but also revitalizes businesses.

About the author: Ben Romero is a current Venture for America fellow working as an Advisory Services Associate at the impact-focused consulting firm trepwise in New Orleans.