New Orleans Social Entrepreneurs Make Both Social and Economic Impact

The concept of social entrepreneurs may be relatively new in New Orleans, but these innovators are making their presence known quickly with the impact they have made both socially and economically. These individuals recognize some of society’s most pressing problems, such as poverty and public education, and use entrepreneurial principles to develop and curate a venture to achieve social change. Contrary to popular belief, social entrepreneurs are not necessarily non-profit organizations. Many are for-profit ventures, however, the enterprise is built with a primary goal to achieve a solution to a societal problem.

One group at the forefront of social entrepreneurship is the Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans, an organization whose mission is to support individuals who want to start and grow financially sustainable innovative, results-focused ventures. In a matter of years, SENO has helped develop many social ventures that have solved problems in our community and, inadvertently, contributed to the continuing economic development.

SENO began shortly after Katrina, when many of the social problems in the city were only made more evident. At that time, more people felt compelled to start working towards finding solutions to those problems. One of those people was Andrea Chen, Executive Director and one of the founders of SENO.

Andrea moved to New Orleans from California seven years ago to teach at an Orleans Parish public school. After one of her students was shot within the first month of teaching, she realized that changes needed to be made, and dedicated herself to doing so.

“That incident is the reason I am still in New Orleans today,” said Chen on how losing one of her first students ultimately impacted her desire and drive to help make remarkable social changes. “It was a wakeup call. There were serious issues right in front of me, and I felt the need to do something.”

She began working as a consultant for non-profits and, during that time, developed programs to bring healthier lunches to schools and created a fund that generated one million dollars for charter schools to bridge the gap between federal funding and operations. Her experiences fostered a foundation that would eventually help her curate SENO along with other goal-oriented individuals who wanted to support the movement. Within a few years, this small movement has turned into an entrepreneurial hub in New Orleans.

SENO achieves its mission by giving innovators the opportunity to participate in a year-long fellowship program. The Accelerator Program connects the fellows with professionals in the community to help them gain access to networking power, achieve financial sustainability, and receive technical assistance to grow their business. Fellows are chosen through networking initiatives and PitchNOLA, a city-wide competition where candidates have the opportunity to pitch their idea to an audience and panel of judges.

PitchNOLA is an elevator-pitch competition for social entrepreneurs who have innovative solutions to some of society’s most pressing problems.

This year’s final pitch competition was held last Thursday night in a packed auditorium at Tulane University, where over 250 people watched the ten finalists pitch their ideas. Each entrepreneur provided innovative solutions to local issues that ranged from healthy food access, education, medical needs, and environmental awareness.

“SENO and PitchNOLA have lit a fire under us, and propelled us to move forward at a more rapid pace,” said Dr. Arwen Podesta, whose concept for The Well won first place at the competition.“The services provided through this grant will be extremely useful toward overcoming practical and legal hurdles.”

The concept of The Well is to develop a multi-modal clinic for patients who are in need of comprehensive outpatient mental and physical care focusing on health issues endemic to South Louisiana such as addiction, anxiety, cardiac dysfunction, chronic pain, depression, endocrine disorders, post-traumatic stress, and somatic disorder. Localizing and integrating the physical and mental needs of the patient diminishes any risk of miscommunication between different care-givers that can further put the patient’s well-being at risk.

The Well’s prize package included $3,500 in cash as well as marketing and legal consulting services, which will be used towards their research needs and creating a prototype of their service delivery model so that they can start meeting with interested investors in the near future.

The audience favorite award and $500 prize went to Douglas Jacobs for AMPS, a sustainable agricultural system that allows for food production in urban areas.

“I was frustrated watching the common practice of food aid, giving food to those who are in need, instead of a long-term solution like providing educational and technical support that would allow them to grow their own food,” added Jacobs on the need to create an urban-friendly food system. “There is no doubt a need for a flexible and efficient, mobile and space-saving organic food production system.”

Jacobs plans to install one of his soilless farming systems for demonstration at the Hollygrove Market and Farm by the end of the year. The system will be used to raise community support and capital for a larger, commercial farming project that can provide green jobs, access to locally grown produce, and further stimulate the local economy.

Although both concepts are geared towards establishing for-profit ventures, their business models are built on the principal of solving a major social issue and generating revenue for sustainability purposes. However, all social ventures, whether non-profit or for-profit, are still making a positive impact on economic development through sector development and financial stimulation.

Since June, the ten Accelerator Fellows, who all started the program either with their concept alone or as a sole unpaid employee, have collectively created 17 new jobs and secured over $1 million in financing and revenues combined. Besides the financial stimulation, these entrepreneurs are making an impact on sector development by turning blighted properties into housing for teachers who could not otherwise afford it.

WIth its increasing growth and success, SENO plans to make a few additions to next year’s programming by expanding their Accelerator Program and extending their 2012 class to 15 fellows rather than 10.

SENO will also open HUB NOLA along with Green Coast Enterprises early next year. Located at 4035 Washington Avenue, the collaborative workspace will be the epicenter of all social entrepreneurial activity, providing the innovators with services and programs, and offering affordable desk and office space that can minimize overhead costs and maximize productivity in a high energy environment.

“Without a doubt, I believe that New Orleans is quickly becoming the hub for social entrepreneurship in the United States, and I’m so excited every day to be a part of it,” says 2011 fellow and Takeashine founder Sarah Baird, who has already raised $1,000 within a week of being in operation for her non-profit. “The sense of support and truly collaborative effort towards solving major, pressing social problems is unlike anywhere else in the country.”

Judging by their evident success and support, SENO will continue to grow rapidly over the years, making New Orleans not only a better place to live, but also placing it on the map for yet another successful industry.

Adriana Lopez writes about the entrepreneurial community for NolaVie and Silicon Bayou News. She also showcases local start-ups such as the one profiled here through her non-profit organization GenNOLA. For more information on NolaVie, visit