New Orleans has been good to Jen Medbery. She came to the city three years after it was devastated by Hurricane Katrina as a Teach for America participant with a degree in computer science from Columbia University. Now three and a half years later she's the founder of thriving education tech company, Kickboard, which is in use in about 75 schools across America, winner of the Domain Companies New Orleans Entrepreneur Challenge and one of Inc’s 30 Under 30 honorees.
And it's not just Medbery whose entrepreneurial ambitions have been nurtured by a city many people in the rest of country remember associate more with gumbo, jazz music, and failed levees. The city, she says, was key to getting her entrepreneurial dream off the ground.
There was really no other place I would have considered launching Kickboard. For somebody who had never been to New Orleans, but moved there initially to teach and then a year later left the classroom to start a company, I've seen firsthand just how much the community has invested in bringing in and retaining young people who really want to contribute to rebranding the city, bringing it from, old oil and gas and just tourism really into the 21st century with lots of high-tech, high-growth businesses.
With programs like the Domain competition, Idea Village, Launch Pad, and the New Orleans Startup Fund, New Orleans is building a reputation as an under-the-radar location for young entrepreneurs. The local government may be dishing out cash and support to nurture young entrepreneurs, but as Court Robinson, a native of New Orleans and president of the Tulane Entrepreneurship Association, explains, benefits flow both ways as the area helps start-ups succeed and start-ups in turn help the local community flourish:
Since Katrina happened I think the city has been revitalized in a lot of ways. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s you had a status quo in this city. Everything was just banging along and the economy had been decreasing steadily since all the oil companies left in the 70s and 80s. Once Katrina happened, first off a lot of people left, but then you had a lot of people come down and do community service projects, help rebuild, and a lot of them were young people right out of college through things like AmeriCorps or Habitat for Humanity, etc. A lot of those people fell in love with the city, and they decided, ‘hey, I’d love to start a career here, come live here and see what happens.’ They brought a lot of new blood into this city.
You’ve had a lot of support systems build up, things like Idea Village, Launch Pad. You’ve got support from the government to foster entrepreneurial activity, and I think that is because they realize the city was in a lull. The storm changed the dynamic and allowed more new ideas to flow through. I think you see a buzz in this city that wasn’t there five years ago.
The feedback loop of the city making itself attractive to start-ups and start-ups helping to make the city attractive to talented young people (who in turn create more businesses that attract more young people) is only getting started, but Robinson says he can already see the effects both in terms of the area's legitimacy--"people are saying, 'hey, I would actually invest here or I would start my business here' as opposed to 10 years ago where people would avoid the city at all costs"--and quality of life for young people. "I think they’re starting to have more stores and different things that cater towards a 20-to-30 crowd," says Robinson.
Medbery agrees that the growing start-up scene is “one more reason to move to New Orleans,” but notes that the city was never short of attractions. “New Orleans had plenty of things going to it before. It really is a place for creative, motivated people who want good food, good music, good culture and a lot of like-minded people.”
But if you’re intrigued by New Orleans as a possible launching pad for your business, you should probably move quickly. One aspect of the scene--its supportive vibe and comparative lack of competition--will only last as long as the city remains relatively undiscovered among entrepreneurs. Medbery explains:
I’ve spent time in New York. I’ve spent time in the Bay Area and in some of those other tech hubs and it’s very competitive. It’s just a different feel and a different focus in New Orleans. We’re not just starting a start-up for the sake of launching a venture. There’s a community-driven component to it. Everyone wants Kickboard to succeed because it means New Orleans is succeeding, and so we really rally around each other.
While everyone in New Orleans knows what an amazing place to launch and grow a company it is, not everyone else in the rest of the country is convinced of that yet, and so you get the same amount of resources that you would in a larger entrepreneurial, community without all of the competition.
The increasing prominence of the city's start-ups might eventually spell the end of the community’s homey vibes, but their rise is only good news for the city as a whole. “We haven’t seen the full results of how it impacts the economy and the jobs scene yet but I think that’s coming in the next couple of years,” says Robinson. “I think it’s just getting started.”