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How Businesses Are Launched, Big Easy Style

Entrepreneur Week comes to New Orleans.Right after Hurricane Katrina hit, the academic world responded to the disaster. Schools...

Entrepreneur Week comes to New Orleans.

Right after Hurricane Katrina hit, the academic world responded to the disaster. Schools sent students to do relief work, symposiums were planned to discuss issues of race and class, and the city was soon filled with graduate students trying to analyze the storm's aftermath. And while the national spotlight has somewhat dimmed, New Orleans still continues to attract business students who are eager to help nurture an emerging start-up community.

Over spring break, while many of their peers lapped up tropical-flavored drinks, business students from around the country flew to New Orleans, where they were matched with local entrepreneurs as part of Idea Village’s Entrepreneur Week.

Almost five years after Katrina, Idea Village, a nonprofit dedicated to fostering economic development in New Orleans, has created a turn-key program that is beneficial to both MBA students and local entrepreneurs, but it was not always clear what would be the most productive way of linking the two.

Enter Daryn Dodson, who works for Idea Village, but had previously attended Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. Dodson believes MBA students can be tasked with more than simply gutting houses. While the gutting was crucial to the immediate recovery of the city, business students had the potential to help businesses and nonprofits build capacity and work toward longer-term sustainability.

Unfamiliar with New Orleans' networks, Dodson googled "entrepreneurship" and "New Orleans"—which is how he discovered Idea Village. What followed was a conversation with its CEO, Tim Williamson, and a process by which business students were matched with local entrepreneurs. Over the past few years, Dodson has been creating relationships with schools, while trying to figure out how the local entrepreneur can best take advantage of the free consultation from the MBA students.

The week is about showing the rest of the country that New Orleans is a great place to start a business. Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute and native New Orleanian, told participants, that the founders of America were true entrepreneurs, and that the “new founding fathers and mothers of the United State are the people of New Orleans.”

Last year, students from DePaul University helped create the social-media strategy for Naked Pizza, a local New Orleans restaurant that specializes in making healthy pizza at discounted prices. The company received a $15,000 investment and now, with the help of Mark Cuban, they hope to expand to other cities.

While the national and local press is great for creating buzz for the city, Darren Hoffman still has to worry about whether he has the competitive advantage and the right marketing plan to sell his product. Originally from Miami, Hoffman came to New Orleans almost five years ago to study jazz music. In February, Idea Village flew Hoffman to the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business to meet with their team.

Hoffman's business, TuttiDynamics, plans to sell lessons taught by the jazz masters of New Orleans: Shannon Powell, Jason Marsalis, Lucien Barberin, among others. The prototype is being built for the iPad, where the pupil, for example, can place it on top of the piano, record sound, send it to the master, and subsequently receive feedback from the actual jazz legend. Hoffman says, “It is vital that the artists are compensated for the value they created over their lifetime."

“It's great to get this objective feedback,” Hoffman told me when I asked about whether the business school students, not having had a background in music, affected the helpfulness of their advice. “I have the music background," he explained, "But these students have the business skills that can really help me launch my business.” He is now close to having the material to start selling lessons.

Most of all, students were able to apply what they are learning in the classroom to New Orleans start-ups. Julia Reardon, who grew up in New Orleans and attends the Chicago's Booth School, summed it up: “This is the first time I’ve volunteered besides gutting my own house. It really feels like we are contributing to something bigger than us.”

Nathan Rothstein has spent the last four years working in a variety of Katrina-related recovery projects. In 2006, he joined AmeriCorps and spent a year gutting houses. Three years ago, he co-founded and served as the Executive Director of the New Orleans Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals Initiative, an organization dedicated to creating a support network to connect, retain and attract young professionals from diverse backgrounds for a sustainable New Orleans. He blogs about Gen Y leaders for True/Slant.

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