What would you say to $100,000 in cash, plus another hundred grand in resources for your start-up—so long as your workforce was 23-35 year-olds? Oh, and you were willing to launch in New Orleans? That's the proposition that the Idea Village, a New Orleans-based non-profit, is putting on the table in a business competition aimed to lure entrepreneurs to the Big Easy.
The contest's cash prize is funded by Leslie Jacobs, a local venture philanthropist and the woman behind 504ward, an organization dedicated to connecting and leveraging the influx of young talent that's moved into New Orleans post-Katrina. (504 is the city's area code.)
Much has been made of the potential to turn the tragedy of Katrina into an opportunity to rebuild a 21st century city from the ground up. Brad Pitt's foundation has been active in the city's green housing boom. And in August, the New York Times magazine profiled the Miller-McCoy Academy of Mathematics and Business, a boys-only charter school for lower-performing students run by two Memphis transplants who moved to New Orleans in 2007. Business Week recently called New Orleans one of the best cities to ride out the recession for its low unemployment rate and relatively healthy banks, which were less exposed to the sub-prime mortgage crisis.
The sentiment, at least among local entrepreneurs, is just as hopeful. A few months ago, I spoke to Robbie Vitrano, one of the founding members of the Idea Village, which helps businesses find funding from foundations and government resources, about the resurgence of entrepreneurship in New Orleans. "There's a barn-raising quality to it," said Vitrano, "It's a very creative, convivial environment that's always attracted smart people out of the mainstream. But now there's more of a focus on execution—let's get it done, let's scale it, let's move it forward." Indeed, New Orleans even boasted a company on this year's Inc. 500 list, iSeatz. After riding out Hurricane Katrina from the top of a high rise, iSeatz's CEO Kenneth Purcell temporarily moved his company, which creates travel and entertainment booking sites for corporations like Mastercard and Delta, to New York until his hometown was fully operational again. Last year, he brought iSeatz back its roots. "There's tremendous opportunity now for people to come into a place that's basically a clean slate."
In talking to New Orleans entrepreneurs, like Seema Sudan, CEO of LiaMolly, one of four promising start-ups we profiled in our July issue, you hear a lot about the interconnectedness of the business community. Sudan focused on promoting LiaMolly, her eclectic sweater company, by outsourcing advertising and PR to capable local agencies that also happened to charge less than their coastal counterparts. And after watching a performance of the New Orleans-based Tsunami Dance Company, Sudan hired them to model her latest designs for a video on her site. "In New York, could you just call up a dance company? It's like one degree of separation down here," said Sudan.
Any of you enticed? Are any of you starting up a new venture in New Orleans? Have you ever contemplated moving your business to another city to take advantage of the business climate?
Here's a video promoting the competition that the Idea Village put together with 30 odd Google staffers who came down to New Orleans to help: