This post by Blackstone Content Correspondent Summer Suleiman originally appeared on ideavillage.org.
There is something about New Orleans that gets overshadowed by the culture and lassiez fare lifestyle that the city is so well known for. Besides the fact that it has overcome its’ fair share of adversity, and proved to be resilient, there is something to be said about the people here who embody a certain, hustler spirit. It may not be apparent to visitors coming in and out of the city, but for those who are immersed in the entrepreneurial community in New Orleans, it is not something that has gone unnoticed.
Andrew Yang, author of Smart People Should Build Things and founder of Venture for America a non-profit organization that recruits top college graduates to work for two years at emerging startups and early-stage companies in lower-cost cities, sensed it during his time here. And proof can be found in the 19 Venture for America fellows that New Orleans welcomed over the summer, the most out of any other city participating in the program this year.
“The entrepreneurs in New Orleans strike me as really natural and determined builders, where it’s not always the case when I go to other cities,” Yang said.
Yang started Venture for America, a model similar to Teach for America, after working at several start-ups and early stage growth companies, most recently serving as president and CEO of Manhattan GMAT, a test preparation company that was later acquired by the Washington Post/Kaplan in 2009.
“I saw so many young, and ambitious enterprising people working in banks and consulting firms, and they were looking for an alternative, and at the same time, my company interviewed hundreds of Teach for America alums,” Yang said. “I realized if we could build an analogous program that connected talented young people to startup companies, we’d be creating a lot of value.”
Young Entrepreneurial Talent in New Orleans
Take Alex Rawitz for example—a Venture for America fellow who graduated from Cornell University in 2013 and moved to New Orleans over a year ago. In his current role, he oversees IDEAx, an accelerator program for startups at The Idea Village, a non-profit organization that identifies, supports, and retains entrepreneurial talent in New Orleans.
Rawitz says Venture for America fills a gap for college graduates who are looking for opportunities to work with startups who often don’t have the resources to recruit employees.
“If you’re someone who’s at one of those big schools, and you’re being recruited by the big companies, it’s really easy to end up in one of several big cities-New York, LA, DC, Boston, or Chicago—that happen to be big pools. So how do you help cities that don’t typically attract talent, attract graduates? VFA takes graduates and places them in startup organizations in cities across America but focuses specifically on mid-market cities that have traditionally had a tough time attracting talent.”
Rawitz said he could quickly sense a strong feeling of change permeating throughout the city. But there was something else too.
“I think there’s a little bit more of a spirit of individual entrepreneurship here. It amazes me how I meet so many people here who have just figured something out that they can do for money on their own,” Rawitz said.
Rawitz posed this question amidst the discussion of the future of entrepreneurship. “Can New Orleans learn to channel that hustler energy into new frontier markets and innovative markets? It’s about taking the same energy and spirit and helping it grow,” Rawitz said.
Catherine Gans, a Manhattan native who graduated from Vanderbilt in 2014 in Political Science and French, says she expected to return to New York after graduation. But she joined Venture for America and landed a job with Propeller , a social innovator incubator in New Orleans as a Marketing & Development Manager. She says she was drawn to New Orleans because of strong sense of community among entrepreneurs.
“I think that in entrepreneurship, there is a lot of competition, and one- upping that happens, but here, there’s a sense of New Orleans the city, as a startup where everybody in the entrepreneurial ecosystem is a stakeholder, and I think that’s really unusual, and there is this connectivity and collaboration that happens here between startups and incubators that’s really inspiring to be a part of and witness,” Gans said.
Fellows aren’t just coming in and out after they complete their terms, which has often been a point of criticism among Teach for America fellows. They are seeing opportunities for growth, and some are investing long-term and establishing their own companies in New Orleans.
Putting Down Roots in New Orleans
Mark Bernstein, a Chicago native, graduated from Northwestern in 2012 in Environmental Science and Economics, before finishing his Venture for America term this past May. He expected to return home to Chicago afterwards, but has since decided to start his own venture, Magnolia Land Company, in New Orleans. His company focuses on financing important habitat and wetland restoration projects through mitigation credits. Bernstein finds degraded, former wetlands, restores them to their historic state, receives restoration credit, and sells them to developers. He and his Venture for America peers (eight total) remained in the city after they completed their two year fellowship. He says here’s a higher retention rate in New Orleans than there is in other cities.
Bernstein says he chose to stay in New Orleans and establish his own company for four reasons: a strong community and network that he feels you don’t necessarily find in other cities, including his VFA peers among them, the environmental challenges and opportunities (Louisiana is home to 40% of wetlands in the continental US), and the affordable cost of living.
But while the community is strong in New Orleans, what does the future look like for entrepreneurship?
“I’m hoping that there will be more of an organic entrepreneurship community in the near future. It’s great that there’s sort of these training wheels for budding entrepreneurs, and I’m benefitting from that, and I hope we can form a robust entrepreneurial community where these new businesses are sprouting up organically rather than just within the confines of these designated entrepreneurial zones that exist in New Orleans.”
Yang shares a similar viewpoint.
“The big variable in the next five years is whether a company like Federated Sample, a technology company founded in New Orleans, gets to a point where it starts helping the entire ecosystem grow more rapidly,” Yang said. “I think that’s the challenge of the next five years, and I believe that will happen and we’ll see the entrepreneurial community will continue to grow.”
A brand new group of fellows have just embarked on their startup experience in New Orleans, and with a sense of eagerness and enthusiasm for creating an impact; they are excited about what the city has in store.
Christian Britto and Kelly Payne both recently joined ChapterSpot, a technology development company that helps organize information for fraternities, based in New Orleans.
Britto interned with several startups in San Francisco and says he’s found a significant difference among the startup scene in New Orleans.
I think it’s a tight-knit community, and it’s something that’s interesting and different from San Francisco. It’s small enough where you can know everyone, and everyone is willing to get together and help each other out,” Britto said. “It is really cool and different and exciting to be a part of.”
Payne joined Venture for America in New Orleans after graduating from Yale with a Global affairs and Political science degree. She says choosing New Orleans as her startup city was an easy decision.
“There’s never been a lack of demand for New Orleans, people have always been trying to come to here. But in the past, there’s been a limited amount of roles to fill, and so I think the more roles that open, the more fellows there will be here, because people really, really want to be in this city,” Payne said.