This is a story about why New Orleans recently was named the top city in America for young entrepreneurs. It’s not, however, a story about entrepreneurs, at least in the usual sense.
You might subtitle it “The power of one.” Here’s some background.
When people ask me about Hurricane Katrina, I often tell them that the biggest lesson I took away from the disaster was that we can’t depend on government to remediate community ills. In my view, all levels of government — federal, state, local – failed to adequately respond to raw human need in the aftermath of the storm.
But the flip side of that coin is another lesson taught by Katrina: that grassroots efforts are the most lasting and effective means of getting things done. Think Beacon of Hope, Women of the Storm, St. Bernard Project. From debris-strewn neutral grounds to houses in need of gutting to schools or churches littered with moldy furnishings, time and again some individual would notice the need, organize the response, and then wade in and fix things.
More and more, I see that sense of personal responsibility and willingness to get involved in the young people who have streamed into New Orleans in the past six years. Perhaps it’s because this city traditionally has embraced creativity and individuality. Maybe it’s simply the energy and idealism of youth.
It definitely has something to with the kind of young people increasingly drawn here (or back here); these are folk who want to make a difference.
Whatever the reason, the millenials in New Orleans don’t think twice about starting ventures, tackling problems, making themselves heard.
Here’s just one recent, notable example of what I’m talking about.
A few weeks ago, Adriana Lopez, a New Orleans native (Sacred Heart, Tulane) and founder of GenNOLA, a company dedicated to helping start-ups promote their fledgling enterprises, got a tweet from one of the many Twitter accounts she follows. In it, a major Internet entity called Under 30 CEO announced a contest to choose the top American city for young entrepreneurs for 2011.
Adriana went to the website to vote, and discovered a list of 12 cities in the running. Kansas City was there. Palo Alto, Denver, Portland. Chicago and Seattle. Even our sometimes-nemesis, Austin.
But where was New Orleans? A place teeming with start-ups, national business competitions, a growing populace of young and talented entrepreneurs? Headquarters of Launchpad, the Idea Village, the new BioInnovation Center?
Nowhere on the list.
Instead of shrugging it off, or un-subscribing to Under 30 CEO (a heretofore self-professed favorite), Adriana started a write-in campaign.
She launched it with her weekly column on local entrepreneurism at NolaVie.
“There is a very tight-knit entrepreneurial community in New Orleans, one in which everyone knows one another and what they have each accomplished,” she noted. “Everyone offers advice and help to one another, thrives on brainstorming sessions and partnerships, shares the same excitement over entrepreneurial news, and later meet for a beer at Capdeville.
“However, how much does the rest of New Orleans, and apparently the country, know about this fast-moving bubble that is essentially driving our economy?”
She set out to educate the “rest of us,” offering links to many of the major news stories written this year about the New Orleans entrepreneurial community, recapping the list of burgeoning industries here, and citing local entreprenurial resouces.
Then she tweeted, FaceBooked, and emailed everyone she could think of, asking all and sundry to go to Under 30 CEO and, under “other,” list New Orleans.
Cyberspace, when properly exploited, goes viral. The word went out.
Adriana picked up her phone one day to discover that New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu had shared her column via Twitter. She tweeted back, thanking him for sending out the story and supporting NOLA entrepreneurs. His pleasure, he tweeted back.
And New Orleans won. It beat all 12 listed cities to become the top U.S. metropolis for entrepreneurs. On a national website, frequented by the very demographic that is changing the city.
Under 30 CEO loved it. Its editors invited Adriana to write an article for the website, citing all the reasons why New Orleans had won.
She had lots of material. Her article at under30ceo.com is titled “25 Reasons Why New Orleans is the Best City for Young Entrepreneurs.” She talks about innovative organizations like 504ward and MatchNOLA, about our low cost of living and high number of entertainment options, about our flourishing film and digital media industries.
You can’t buy publicity like this for New Orleans.
In this post-Katrina world, the feeling has sharpened that you’re either with us or against us. You’re one of us, or not. New Orleans has always had this insular attitude, but it’s more pronounced these days, I think. In some ways, it’s us against the world. We’re feisty. We’re fighters.
As Adriana wrote in that first column: “Let’s show them that nobody puts New Orleans in a corner, or in the ‘other’ category, for that matter.”
I wholeheartedly vote for that.
Renee Peck, a former feature editor and writer at The Times-Picayune, is editor of NolaVie.