By Catherine Lyons
For Chris Schultz, the beauty of New Orleans’ entrepreneurial community lies in its collaborative spirit — a spirit that the New Orleans transplant has worked hard to foster.
“When I first moved to New Orleans [in 2001], it was very difficult to meet people and break into the business community,” said Schultz, who has become a leader in the entrepreneurial community and runs several software companies from New Orleans. “Since the storm, the community has become more embracing of those who are are not from New Orleans. Who cares where you went to high school? While [that frequent question] speaks to New Orleans’ heritage, your ability to succeed is not based on that.”
Two years ago, Chris and his two co-founders, Barre Tanguis and Will Donaldson, opened Launchpad, a collaborative co-working space for entrepreneurs and startups in “The IP” builiding on Magazine Street in the CBD. In that short time, the space has grown to include 65 companies, ranging from one-man consulting businesses to Federated Sample, a company that employs 15 people.
The idea for the venture started soon after the storm, when Chris said he was propelled to get more engaged in the community and seek out other “halfway successful” entrepreneurs like himself in New Orleans. The result was “Startup School,” where these entrepreneurs provided valuable advice to new startups coming into the city.
“We connected up with the 504ward business plan competition. All the participants came over [to my office] and we helped with their business plan. It was cool for everyone involved,” Schultz said. “After that, we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this and collaborate like this every day?’ It is so much better working and going through this with other people.”
A self-proclaimed software nerd, Chris has become a mentor to startups and leading figures in the community, heading up innovative programs that seek to fund and support entrepreneurs who are interested in making New Orleans their hub.
His passion and strong belief in the fact that New Orleans is a great city in which to run a business — but can be better — drives his work. He explained that while New Orleans was a good place for business before the storm (think all the mom-and-pop businesses along Magazine Street), it has become a great place, especially for internet-based companies that can work from anywhere.
“People love New Orleans, and that’s the best attribute we have as a city and growing startup ecosystem,” Schultz said. “People and companies who can choose to be in New Orleans do because of the lifestyle and quality of life, cultural richness and heritage.”
Still, Chris believes that New Orleans has the capacity to become even better. While the city is starting to be recognized as a good place to do business, New Orleans is still “figuring out its brand,” and what we will be known for.
“We have some social entrepreneurship, education and education technology (which is something we’ll be good at because of all the Teach For America people who have come down), food brands, because food is such a part of our heritage, and digital media, like Dear New Orleans. They are doing some very innovative and artistic things with digital media; the challenge is capturing the commerce around them,” he said.
Chris and others in his community have also seen how cities benefit from having one or several high-growth companies around, that provide jobs for mid-level career paths, and want New Orleans to have the same. As a way to help make this happen, Chris, his Launchpad co-founders and others will launch Launchpad Ignition this week at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week.
With capital raised from local and national investors, as well as personal investments, Chris and his team have offered several high-growth startups initial funding of up to $25,000 and the opportunity to join Launchpad Ignition, a startup accelerator that will help these companies do in seven weeks what might normally take up to three years of work. The culmination of the program is LaunchFest in May, where these companies will be able to pitch their businesses to a roomful of investors.
The program is part of Startup America, an initiative announced by President Obama earlier this year as a way to map and support ideas that will help propel entrepreneurship around the country to greater heights.
But at the heart of this entrepreneurial buzz in New Orleans – and what makes New Orleans unique – is a group of people who came to here to help, Chris said. As a son of Peace Corps volunteers in Africa (and who lived in Africa himself through childhood), it’s something he can appreciate.
“A big part of what’s driving the entrepreneurial movement here is a newfound collaborative spirit and community support for good things that people are doing in New Orleans,” he said.
The companies that will be joining Launchpad Ignition will be announced on Wednesday at NOEW, and we will be covering it – check back here to see who Chris and his team believe will help make New Orleans an even bigger hub for entrepreneurship.