New Orleans Entrepreneur Week succeeds with local engagement and more

As New Orleans Entrepreneur Week drew to a close, I feared that I would wake up Monday morning with post-NOEW depression. Similar to post-Mardi Gras depression, post-NOEW depression would include anxiety, deep sadness and some life-reassessment. Only this time it would not be due to a seven-day bender, but an intense week filled with pitch challenges and events to celebrate the entrepreneurial movement in New Orleans. Although my return to reality would not come with a holy day of obligation or even promise to give up drinking for 40 days this time around, but just an inbox full of unanswered emails, catch-up work, and the search for my next fulfilling task.

However, I woke up this morning with none of the anticipated symptoms, but rather a lingering high from the incredible week. I felt unnaturally excited to report about all the news from NOEW and feature all of the entrepreneurs I had met throughout the week. Even more impressive than the scheduled festivities was the overall accomplishment of one main goal.

This year’s theme was local engagement, and the event dared to ask the community: What if it (entrepreneurship) works? When more than 1,500 people showed up to The Big Idea on Friday evening, it proved that what is happening in New Orleans is in fact real, and the rest of our community is finally catching on.

The entrepreneurial movement has given New Orleans a significant amount of national press and recognition, as evidenced by recent decisions by both The White House and Google to use New Orleans as a model city for their future entrepreneurship programs and efforts.   However, the local engagement was still lagging in some aspects.  It was a bit of a perplexing phenomena, in which those who were engaged were extremely engaged and those who were not knew nothing about all the activity that was happening.  But when 1,500 people show up to watch 19 small businesses vie for $100,000, as they did this year, it is clear that an impact had been made.

Throughout the week, more than $300,000 in investment money was allocated, networking opportunities with both local and national investors were made, and hundreds of people attended some 40 events that included panels, keynote speakers, and industry-specific information sessions conducted by several experts. In addition, several pitch competitions throughout the week gave the participating entrepreneurs the opportunity to perfect their elevator speeches, as well as compete for investment money and trips to New York City and San Francisco to meet with venture capitalists.

On Wednesday morning, entrepreneurs competed in a speed-dating style competition, where each entrepreneur toured the room in five-minute intervals to pitch his or her business to several judges.  It was a high-energy competition of traveling entrepreneurs equipped with their ideas, flyers, samples, and passion.  The $5,000 investment prize was awarded to Be Well Nutrition, who entered The Idea Village IDEAxcelerator program with merely a concept and was able to turn around a completed product, Iconic, within six months.

Hosted by the Collaborative for Enterprise Development (CED), a partnership of Newcorp, Inc., Goodwork Network, Capital Access Project, and The Idea Village, Flex Fund Pitch supported 15 small lifestyle-based businesses in New Orleans with their $100,000 pitch.  Checks were given to four entrepreneurs including Life City and Wooden Spoon, who won $5,000 each; Senica received $20,000, and herbal tea concentrate Bissap Breeze won the grand prize of $70,000.

Wednesday’s pitches culminated with the Education Challenge for entrepreneurs who have created viable tools and businesses in an effort to look for new approaches to the systemic problems of the achievement gap in the education system. The $10,000 prize was awarded to Classroom Blueprint, an online platform in which Pinterest meets Amazon as a way for teachers to share their classrooms, along with narratives of how they set up these rooms to maximize student achievement. The business was originally developed in early February at Startup Weekend EDU in New York City, where some of New Orleans’ delegates represented our city well by winning top ranking in the competition.

At Thursday’s Tulane Challenge, seven entrepreneurs competed in the inaugural competition for $50,000 and proved that entrepreneurship is supported in Louisiana’s higher education.  The entrepreneurial cohort was comprised of Tulane alumni, students, and faculty to a panel of judges who were also from the Tulane community.  The investment prize was awarded to NanoFex, who developed a patented carbon product that remediates harmful waste products from groundwater.

Friday’s events included several challenges that led up to the main competition of the evening. Winning teams included adverCar, who won a trip to New York City to tour Silicon Alley and meet with VCs, IDEAcorps winners from Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business representing ChapterSpot, and Kickboard for winning the Jim Coulter IDEApitch Challenge and a trip to San Francisco to network with several venture capitalists.

At The Big Idea, 19 entrepreneurs showcased their businesses in a science fair setup, and pitched their ideas, gave away samples, branded sunglasses, and even a “bribe” to vie for the attendee’s votes, each of which was worth $50 in seed money for the entrepreneur. The top three entrepreneurs then pitched to the audience and a panel that included Wendell Pierce, Irvin Mayfield, and James Carville for the chance to win the $50,000. In a tight competition between ChapterSpotSolArchitects, and Be Well Nutrition, the investment check was awarded to SolArchitects.

While not every business ended the week with a newly deposited check in its bank account, connections were made between the entrepreneurs and the community, investors, and one another. And a bigger milestone was made for New Orleans as well — visitors from NOEW, NOLAbound, and IDEAcorps left with a deeper understanding and love for New Orleans, and more people in the city now know that the movement is real. What’s happening is forming new businesses and jobs, strengthening economic development, and creating new industries for the city.

With the overwhelming amount of emails and feedback received over the weekend, I knew that an impression had been made in the city. I have read testimonials from local supporters who were beyond impressed with the week, IDEAcorps MBA participants who extended their trips or vowed to continue their relationships with their entrepreneur, and even investors who have been to startup conferences around the world and were already looking forward to next year’s trip to NOEW.

Of all the genuine emails, feedback, and articles affirming what I already knew, one line stuck the most.

In the opening line from Idea Village CEO Tim Williamson to his staff, he wrote, “I think this week’s impact will last the rest of our lives.”

I find this to be significantly true. And, with that, I ask the rest of the city the question that Tim has been asking those of use who believed in this movement: What do we do when it works?