Nessim Higson


Let the Right Ones In

"Is this your first time in New Orleans?" a cocktail waitress asks me with a smile, cocking her red-feather headdress to the side. "My...

"Is this your first time in New Orleans?" a cocktail waitress asks me with a smile, cocking her red-feather headdress to the side.

"My second," I reply. No virgins at this party. This response deflates her slightly, but her enthusiasm rebounds.

“We can do a shot anyway.” She mixes hibiscus juice—a product she’s promoting called Bissap Breeze—with a swig of rum from a hidden stash. The sweet red liquid distracts from the sultry 84-degree March afternoon. The atmosphere is intensified by the heat of 1,000 bodies squished onto the patio of a sports bar, their voices competing with an overamplified emcee. “This is just like Bourbon Street,” remarks a man to my left.

“People keep saying that!” says a woman passing out protein shake samples.

We’re celebrating the end of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, a Google-sponsored showcase of the city’s flourishing start-up scene, where 19 big ideas are vying for $50,000 in seed money. It’s the coda to “entrepreneurship season,” a nine-month series of competitions, workshops, and networking opportunities designed to nurture the city’s next wave of businesses.

The whole thing is meant to feel more like a festive free-for-all than a geeky crowd-funding affair. It’s about channeling the spirit of Mardi Gras—“when everyone comes together,” says Tim Williamson, cofounder and CEO of The Idea Village, the business incubator that’s hosted Entrepreneur Week since 2009. “So, if you could do that for business or economic development, it’s a big idea."

Williamson is one of the masterminds behind New Orleans’s transformation from a stagnant backwater struggling with white flight, brain drain, and urban blight—not to mention two hurricanes, an oil spill, and a recession—into a city where the number of people starting businesses is 28 percent higher than the national average. Tax credits have brought in video game, bioscience, and tech companies, diversifying an economy long dependent on tourism, shipping, and oil. The city’s $600 million film scene ranks right behind Los Angeles and New York City. Business leaders and economic developers are hustling to rebrand New Orleans as a destination for the young and creative, talking up its reputation for small business, great food, and unique music.

The roots of the local start-up scene go back 12 years, but if Katrina hadn’t hit, “I don’t know if we would be the ‘coolest startup city in America,’ I don’t know if we would be ‘the number-one brain magnet,’” Williamson says, touting recent titles bestowed on the city by Inc. and Forbes, respectively. “Movements can scale for two reasons: a disaster or an opportunity. In our case it happened to be a disaster.”

Hurricane Katrina caused $135 billion in damage and knocked out one in five jobs in the region. “Many people who probably would not have been entrepreneurial beforehand were forced into a spirit of entre- preneurialism just for survival,” says Arnold Baker, CEO of a concrete supplier and chairman of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Learning how to cope with flood, waste, and energy problems created a whole new industrial niche. Dealing with the catastrophe of the failing public school system—now 80 percent charter-operated— spurred education start-ups. Baker says citizens realized “it was going to take everything that everyone had to successfully redevelop the city. Every relationship. Every ounce of energy. Every spare dollar.”

Waves of outsiders bolstered native enthusiasm. Volunteers descended to help rebuild. So did MBA students on spring break and businesspeople eager to use capitalism for good, connecting the city’s entrepreneurs with outside networks. The floodwaters damaged 70 percent of the housing stock, but they also washed away some of the corruption and failed institutions that had contributed to decades of decline. Katrina created an opportunity most cities never get: a chance to push the reset button.

But disaster capitalism has its down side. At 350,000 people, the city’s population is nowhere close to its 1960 peak of 627,525. Allen Eskew, a local architect and urban strategist, estimates a “stable” recovery requires a population of 400,000. If the city could grow to 500,000 residents, it would enter a new population bracket and qualify for more federal funding. Plenty of cities find themselves in a similar position—Detroit is the poster child—but most have been crippled by the slow exit of manufacturing jobs. The sudden exodus gives New Orleans a unique pitch. “Where else can you make a mark like this in history? Nowhere,” Williamson says. “Everything you see was restarted.”

The real test for entrepreneurship season is whether any visitors stick around for more than a blurry weekend of partying—long enough to put down roots. Signs around town declare, “Welcome to your blank canvas.” And the architects of the city’s economic renaissance know exactly whom they’d like to fill it.

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