It's been 10 years in the making, but New Orleans is back.
Among other signs of its resurgence, Crescent City has undergone a building boom--with luxury hotels and a billion-dollar state-of-the-art health center, and more sporadic rebuilding efforts in the Lower Ninth Ward. Big businesses including GE Capital and Costco have brought hundreds of new jobs to the city from out of town. And efforts like Idea Village, a non-profit accelerator devoted to fostering entrepreneurship in New Orleans, are taking root.
Small businesses have also played an enormous part in the recovery effort, including bars and restaurants, of which there are 600 additional establishments. There's also a newly burgeoning tech and software industry, education companies, and alternative energy firms.
The following is a selection of successful businesses from sectors old and new, whose entrepreneurs found their true grit in the events following Katrina. Many are born and bred in New Orleans, and they're proud of their city's cultural heritage. Some also were the recipients of high-impact training from Goldman Sachs, whose 10,000 Small Businesses initiative brought needed skills, mentorships, and funding to 400 New Orleans businesses. All share a desire to return New Orleans to a pre-eminent spot among the nation's top cities.
Daniel Victory founded the bar in 2010, shortly after being named one of GQ magazine's top five bartenders of the year. The acclaim certainly helped light a fire under his business. He had been working at the New Orleans Ritz-Carlton when Katrina hit, which shut the hotel bar down for three years. During that time he traveled around the country, sold cars, and did construction. He and then partner Andrew Emory bootstrapped the bar, located near the city's French Quarter, with $40,000 in savings. Today, Victory has 13 employees and sales of $800,000. The bar makes signature drinks with roots in New Orleans culture, like the Gin Fiz, Hurricane, and Sazerac, which may have been the United States' first cocktail, allegedly created by a former slave turned apothecary.
"The day I opened the bar, me and my partner had $200 between the both of us," Victory says. "I put the cash in the drawer, and that's what we started out with. It's crazy the way things worked out."
My Cleaning Concierge
For Barrett Wiley, Katrina and its aftermath was a defining moment. And, certainly, cleaning up the flood damage and mold in his Gentilly Parish home helped lead him to the idea for his company, which offers cleaning services to large commercial spaces in New Orleans. "It forced me to live in the moment and to adapt," Wiley says. "What we knew was no longer there, and you had to figure out the next best way."
He didn't like the smell and feel of industrial cleaning products, so he decided to market a business that used green and sustainable cleansers instead. Today, the company has 14 employees and $450,000 in annual sales. Wiley says he thinks New Orleans could have done more to help its small businesses in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Specifically, money earmarked for rebuilding should have gone to more local contractors, Wiley says. And he fears some areas may never recover.
"The Lower Ninth Ward has been left behind because the homeowners haven't gone back to their old lives," Wiley says.
Cook Me Somethin' Mister
Kristin Preau started her seasonings business literally in the days following Katrina. A recent college graduate, she was on the road working for the University of New Orleans sports department. The department heads asked her to try to raise some money for the school to get it up and going again after the storm. So she turned to what she knew best--cooking jambalaya, and raised $100,000 in three months at tailgating parties at other Southern universities. "I did what my family always does to help out," Preau says. "My entire life growing up, we'd bust out the cast iron pot and cook jambalaya."
And she comes by her business honestly. Her father was in the restaurant business, too, selling jambalaya pots and specially engineered outdoor cookers for regional specialties, including to famous chefs such as Paul Prudhomme. He just didn't see that what went into the pots could be as big a business, Preau says, adding that her recipes had been cooked for generations by both her mother's and father's families.
It took a few years for her to get her seasonings company going. She started out by selling her blend to local grocery stores, one shelf at a time. And those would sell out pretty quickly, Preau recalls. Today she and five full-time employees sell online, and direct to regional grocery stores, generating $250,000 in annual sales. She's soon branching out to gumbo.
An electrical engineer by training and a software developer, Jeff Cantin used his skills to help people rebuild in the immediate aftermath of the storm. But it was solar energy that really intrigued him most. The state had rolled out significant tax incentives for consumer use of solar energy, and so he launched Solar Alternatives, an Inc. 5000 company, in 2008.
"Nobody was doing [solar energy] in Louisiana at the time," says Cantin. "There was no market, and you had to create it, and educate constantly."
Outside groups like Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation--which offers sustainable housing to residents of the Lower Ninth Ward--Global Green USA and AmeriCorps all helped bring about a sea change in consciousness about sustainable housing and renewable energy, Cantin says. Today, the fast-growth company has moved into more comprehensive services than solar panels, including home weatherization. In addition to New Orleans and southern Louisiana, the company has expanded its footprint to Mississippi. It has 32 employees and is looking to top $5 million in revenue for 2015.
Entrepreneur Jen Medberry parlayed her experiences from Teach for America as well as her computer science background from Columbia University into an education startup dubbed Kickboard. Medberry was recruited in 2008 to teach in a New Orleans charter school, when she realized standards that measured student achievement hadn't been updated in generations. Her company crunches achievement data to make assessments of students, looping together the entirety of their work to help teachers make decisions that will boost performance.
"The state and city used Katrina to wipe away the dysfunction and corruption in the school system," Medberry says, referring to the city's charter school initiative, which largely replaced public schools with privately operated institutions after 2005.
Kickboard has reeled in $5.5 million in angel and venture funding, and Medberry has used her experience in New Orleans to sell to 35 school districts nationwide and 2,500 schools. The company currently has 25 full-time employees.
"The fact that we are in New Orleans and tied to education innovation has helped us secure VC money, and stand apart from the noise in Silicon Valley," Medberry says.