Meet the Entrepreneurs Building the Future of Education in New Orleans
In New Orleans, the progress pioneered by education entrepreneurs is alive and well in the city’s still-thriving edtech startup ecosystem today.
New Orleans has come a long way from the devastation Hurricane Katrina wreaked more than a decade ago, thanks in large part to a tenacious wave of grassroots entrepreneurs deeply committed to revitalizing their beloved home city.
One of the enterprising changemakers leading the charge is Tim Williamson, founder of Idea Village. Launched in 2000, the organization identifies and fosters startup talent in Louisiana’s largest metropolis, equipping them with the mentors, funds and other critical resources to start up in New Orleans.
Williamson tells the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that, in the wake of Katrina’s fury, many seed stage companies were all but destroyed, along with 800,000 housing units. But several small yet scrappy businesses hung on and slowly bounced back, helping the Big Easy transform into the remarkable comeback story it’s shaping up to be a today, as well as inspiring a new generation of area entrepreneurs along the way.
“We were laid to our death beds in 2005,” Williamson said. “People wrote off the future of the city…but people used this as an opportunity to change. Katrina fractured the closed, insular networks of the past. You have a new, grassroots movement, a community where the networks are starting to open up and scale.”
With a much-needed (and sustained) shot in the arm from homegrown startup incubators and accelerators like Williamson’s, New Orleans has bounced back to take its place among the top 10 percent of the best cities to start a business in the U.S., Idea Village director of external affairs Curry Smith tells Free Enterprise, with what’s evolved to be called the “Silicon Bayou” even ranking among the Kauffman Foundation’s recent listing of the top 20 hottest startup hubs in America.
“The startup sector in New Orleans has blossomed in the past decade,” Smith says. “As of 2015, New Orleans’ startup rate was 64 percent higher than the national average. Startup companies at first were a simple necessity of survival for the city in its recovery from Hurricane Katrina. In the last ten years, startups and entrepreneurship have become a part of the fabric of the city itself.”
He attributes the staying power and resiliency of the city’s entrepreneurial fabric in large part to local startup founders’ openness to working together and sharing resources. “Our ecosystem is remarkably supportive,” Smith says. “There is a very collaborative nature to the way that companies operate alongside each other.”
Some of the most innovative New Orleans upstarts to work in concert alongside each other inside of Idea Village’s well-appointed downtown Warehouse District location — and to individually launch out of the leading incubator — are: Lucid Data and Software, Patrick Comer’s marketing software solutions firm; Audiosocket, Brent McCrossen’s audio licensing and technology firm; Kickboard, Jen Medbery’s school culture enhancement software firm; Acrew, Michael Underwood’s map-based social nightlife app; and Torsch, Courtney Williams’ classroom observation software firm.
Smith joined the above-listed entrepreneurs, and many more, last month for Idea Village’s annual New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW) marquee event. The week-long celebration of “local business innovation and new thinking” offers several exciting pitch competitions, inspiring startup success workshops, and informative founder-led panel discussions and keynote speeches.
“NOEW not only is an excellent time for local entrepreneurs to learn more about the needs of their businesses,” says Smith, “but also a great place for the local entrepreneurial ecosystem to convene and connect.”
Another leading local entrepreneur who attended the increasingly popular event is Chris Schultz, co-founder and CEO of Launch Pad, an up-and-coming New Orleans-based startup accelerator and coworking space. Schultz echoes Smith’s observation that the area startup ecosystem is bursting with collaborative energy, at big-draw events like NOEW and Collision (one of the nation’s fastest growing tech conferences) and beyond. He notes the cross-company team spirit is particularly noticeable in the Big Easy when compared to “the vibe” in startup enclaves situated in better-known and longer-established American tech hubs.
“In a lot of the other cities and places I’ve lived and worked in, like Silicon Valley, for example, it’s a much, much more competitive and cutthroat scene amongst entrepreneurs and startup founders than it is here,” Schultz tells Free Enterprise. “In Silicon Valley or New York or Boston, you’re really focused on only what you’re doing and what you’re competing with other startups for, like investment dollars and other resources. Whereas in New Orleans, people at seed stage companies want to help others in the fold be successful, at the incubator and accelerator level, and all the way up to the government and state level, especially with the generous tax incentives offered.”
The specific tax incentive Schultz is referring to is Louisiana’s lauded Digital Interactive Media and Software refundable tax credit. The credit — which both Smith and Schultz praise for giving area tech companies, large and small, a competitive edge in the greater market — provides firms with a 25.2 percent tax credit on qualified payroll for in-state labor and 18 percent for qualified production expenditures through mid-2018. Participating companies also receive a 35 percent tax credit on payroll for in-state labor and 25 percent for qualified production expenses through July of 2018.
Many New Orleans technology startups are leveraging these beneficial credits, but they’re only one great reason of several to launch out of the city, according to Smith. The biggest draw in his eyes is the exceptional quality of life in New Orleans, a significant driver that contributed to the city’s designation among the top 25 rising American tech hubs on the latest Innovation That Matters study, a joint project between Free Enterprise, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation and 1776.
“The overall quality of life in New Orleans is great!” Smith says. “It’s a city with a low cost of living and a low cost of doing business, and New Orleans is a place where your impact matters and is felt. Unlike many larger markets, New Orleans tracks the successes of the startup companies in its ecosystem, because those jobs are felt and have a ripple effect in our economy.”
Speaking of local jobs, to date, Idea Village’s 218 entrepreneur alumni have created 2,928 jobs in Greater New Orleans, with an estimated annual local economic impact of $191 million, Smith says. He expects both numbers to steadily rise in the days, months and years ahead, as entrepreneurs from near — including many of whom he says have freshly graduated from nearby computer science programs at Louisiana State University and the University of Louisiana — and from far, continue to push the city’s promising resurgence further forward.
“Entrepreneurship is not only a catalyst for social and economic change in these parts,” Smith says, “but also a great tool for finding new leaders, and that’s why we’re continuing to support the creation of companies that could attract talented natives and newcomers, and keep them in New Orleans.”