In partnership with Tulane University, the Idea Village, a non-profit organization devoted to supporting New Orleans-based entrepreneurial ventures, recently launched its first IDEAcorps team -- a Peace Corps-like initiative for entrepreneurs.

Funded by a $100,000 grant from the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, the IDEAcorps team includes M.B.A. students from Tulane University, community volunteers and professional consultants. The grant has been earmarked for tourism-based businesses indigenous to Orleans Parish and exemplify the cultural flavor of New Orleans.

"Many local treasures need community support as we work to increase tourism traffic during these slower times. These businesses epitomize New Orleans and are perhaps even more crucial to our community members than to tourists," said Stephen Perry, president of the New Orleans metropolitan convention and visitor's bureau in a statement.

The IDEAcorps team is planning on awarding all the grant money by August 29, 2006 — the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's assault on New Orleans. More than 100 companies have applied for the funding; only 20 will be selected.

Miji Park, one of the IDEAcorps members, said that the team has spent time driving around the community as an outreach to small businesses who may not know about the program. 

"The customer base has decreased by 75% for most of these firms -- they're barely surviving," said Park.

A recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, Park is an urban studies and economics major. She turned down a job as a consultant at a real estate and economic research firm in Berkeley, Calif., to stay in New Orleans after volunteering for a month with The Idea Village.

"My mom was pretty disappointed with my decision at first, but the work I am doing is very rewarding," Park said.

Team members visit each applicant and rate them on both objective and subjective criteria. Objective criteria includes:

  • The company must have been in business before Aug. 29, 2005.
  • The company must have at least two employees but no more than five.
  • 2005 revenues must be less than $5 million.
  • Business must have been founded in New Orleans.

The subjective criteria is less cut and dry, and includes such qualifications as having demonstrated an entrepreneurial zeal in the past year that sets them apart from the crowd. The IDEAcorps team is looking for self-made entrepreneurs who also displayed a courageous and entrepreneurial spirit in their post-Katrina business endeavors.

"A lot of folks have been applying for SBA loans and just waiting. We need to help these businesses now," said Tim Williamson, president of The Idea Village. "This will not be enough money to save everything, but I hope we become a part of a successful relief package."

Grants will range from $1,000 to $10,000 with an average of $5,000 awarded to each company.

The grant money is not to be used for paying off debt. Instead the businesses must come up with a creative way to use the money to create revenue. Examples would be creating a website for the first time, buying key words on a search engine or planning an event to bring media attention to their business.

The IDEAcorps team is working closely with a board of advisors that is made up of community leaders who are in tune with the business of tourism in New Orleans.  The grant recipients will be able to network with these business leaders and participate in other educational opportunities organized by the IDEAcorps members.

"This is a great opportunity for these small businesses to build relationships with key leaders in the New Orleans community," said Williamson. 

The Idea Village is looking to expand the IDEAcorps program at the end of the summer by creating other teams that would help the needs of small businesses in specific neighborhoods and corridors in New Orleans. "We will evolve the focus of the teams from relief into growth through the next 10 years," Willilamson said.

" I commend organizations like The Idea Village and Tulane University for their unwavering commitment to rebuilding New Orleans and the important example they set for the rest of the community," said Donald Powell, federal coordinator for Gulf Coast rebuilding in a statement. "A creative combination of resources such as this will help ensure a strong future for New Orleans."