When we think of America’s top tech hubs, long-established hot spots like Silicon Valley and New York quickly spring to mind. But a growing crop of New Orleans entrepreneurs like Glenda McKinley English aim to add their city to the list.
The co-founder and president of MySelfie Live, an events-based social media marketing startup, McKinley is betting big on the Big Easy’s emergence as a budding tech hub.
“New Orleans is now number one in the country for tech startup growth, and fifth in the U.S. for women in tech, according to the National Center For Women in Technology,” she tells Free Enterprise when asked why she’s confident her home city is poised to compete with some of the larger cities at the forefront of America’s digital economy.
“We’re creating tech jobs here at an incredibly fast rate as well,” English says, “with the number of positions in math- and computer-related jobs in New Orleans growing by approximately 32 percent between 2012 and 2015.”
The vibrant Southern metropolis, the 49th largest city in the U.S. by population, ranked among the leading 25 rising American tech epicenters on the latest Innovation That Matters study, a joint project between Free Enterprise, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and 1776.
English, also the founder and president of Gmc+Co., Inc., New Orleans’ oldest and largest minority-owned digital advertising agency, has single handedly created dozens of local tech jobs, including four relatively new positions at MySelfie Live. She launched the startup with fellow area entrepreneur Reggie Brown in 2014 from the heart of the city’s historic Arts/Warehouse District.
KG Charles-Harris, founder and CEO of Quarrio, a San Jose, Calif.-, and New Orleans-based sales data analytics startup, heavily credits PowerMoves’ — and its persuasive founder Leslie Jacobs in particular — for attracting him, and his nascent business, to the Big Easy “like a magnet.”
“I’m not joking when I say that PowerMoves is THE reason I came to New Orleans,” Charles-Harris tells Free Enterprise. “Leslie Jacobs is like a force of nature with her unrivaled and unstoppable passion for pulling innovative startup entrepreneurs to this city.”
He continued, “When Leslie reached out to me and said, ‘I want you to move to New Orleans and do business here,’ I thought it was ridiculous at first. I was like, ‘Why on earth would I leave California’s Bay Area?!’ But she showed me the treasures this city has to offer entrepreneurs — in-person, on the ground, where it’s happening in tech — and she basically brainwashed me in a good way. I loved what I saw and experienced, and I’m here to stay.”
In addition to access to PowerMoves’ resources and deep-rooted professional network throughout the city’s burgeoning tech startup ecosystem, another main driver keeping Leslie, a native of Sweden and veteran world traveler, in New Orleans is its legendary arts and culture scene. He says it feeds not only his soul, but also his and many others’ overall business sensibilities.
“Unlike New York, L.A. or Silicon Valley, and more like Stockholm, Sweden, or Haifa, Israel, New Orleans is an exceptionally affordable, artistically driven, Bohemian-type culture, even though it’s smack-dab in the Deep South,” he says. “Because of that distinctive background in the very bones of the city, the people here understand entrepreneurship on a fundamental level.”
He says, “Entrepreneurship, to them and to me, is like creating art. Yes, that may sound crazy — which many of us are as risk-taking entrepreneurs, to some extent — but that shared creativity in the air is what drives us to innovate off the beaten path, and to invent and reinvent, and reinvent again.”
English, too, finds inspiration in the Big Easy’s distinctly diverse, freewheeling and inventive arts culture. “New Orleans inspires so much creativity,” she says. “The weather, the food, the culture, the festivals…What’s not to love?”
Charles-Harris credits New Orleans entrepreneurs’ aptitude for innovating — and gambling on — unconventional entrepreneurial solutions to a collective resilience born out of ascending from the ashes of Hurricane Katrina.
“New Orleans went through what I would call a near-death experience in 2009,” he says. “Whenever a business or a person goes through a near-death experience, it focuses them on what’s important. In this case, it was survival. We decided to survive. More than that, we decided to thrive. Ultimately, Katrina was a restart for the local business community, and it catalyzed growth and change.”
Not unlike Charles-Harris, the city’s collaborative entrepreneurial climate and laid-back, artsy lifestyle also drew Sean Carrigan to the Big Easy from across the miles. The entrepreneur moved to the city six years ago to launch his first successful tech venture, adverCar, a democratizing digital platform that matches everyday drivers with advertisers (who want to wrap their vehicles in ads).
In 2012, Carrigan rolled the entrepreneurial dice in New Orleans again, launching MobileQubes from the downtown, state-of-the-art New Orleans Bioinnovation Center, this time with seasoned biological engineer and Louisiana native Jason Palmer.
The eight full-time employee-staffed startup, which, similar to English’s business, received support from the New Orleans Startup Fund, pioneered electronic self-service kiosks that enable people to rent and return small, portable battery “Qubes” that quickly charge smartphones on the go. So far, MobileQubes has rolled out 20 kiosks at various high foot-traffic venues throughout New Orleans and an additional 175 across the U.S.
“The strong — yet very open and creative — entrepreneurial and cultural community here was definitely a factor in my move to New Orleans,” Carrigan, who has extended family in the area, told Free Enterprise. “This is a close-knit ecosystem, but is still very much an international destination city, and the startups here are encouraged by support from a local and state government that actively promotes entrepreneurial ventures. Different as we may be, we’re all in the same boat together, pulling in the same direction. We all want to be successful, not only for ourselves but also for the city and each other.”
Charles-Harris echoes Carrigan’s sentiments.
“We fight to survive and thrive in New Orleans, because it’s a way of life here,” Charles-Harris says. “In the Bay Area, people say, ‘It’s not personal, it’s business.’ Here, we say, ‘It’s business, it’s personal.’ This is a place where entrepreneurs are looked at as individuals, and people want to help you as an individual. If you survive, your business survives. Then we survive, and we all make our mark and elevate New Orleans together.”
Still, running an early stage business in the jewel of the Silicon Bayou isn’t all Mardi Gras beads, mint juleps and confetti. According to all of the startup founders interviewed for this article, there’s plenty of room for improvement, especially when it comes to access to venture capital.
“You can’t throw a rock in Silicon Valley without hitting a startup that’s raising $20 or $30 million dollars,” Carrington says. “Whereas they’re few and far between here in New Orleans, but they are becoming more prevalent every year. I’d say the biggest challenge for tech startups here right now is the ability to get in front of investors, venture capital firms and strategic partners. Unfortunately, our geography continues to play a role, but the investment will eventually come.”