New Orleans already is the fastest-growing city in the U.S. – and a local nonprofit wants its businesses (and hopefully, a reputation for fostering innovation) to keep pace.

Enter New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, a seven-day festival of speeches, classes, and advising run by business incubator Idea Village. The event kicks off March 20.

Among the happenings: IDEACorps, a kind of Peace Corps for business (hence the name) that pairs MBA candidates with local entrepreneurs. The four-year-old project pairs teams of visiting consultants (graduate business students from top schools like Stanford plus folks from companies such as Google and with local start-ups to help grow the businesses. The "consultants" help refine business plans, solve distribution problems, and otherwise provide the sort of service that could go for some $25,000 to $40,000 in any other setting.

The week will also feature speakers such as Walter Isaacson, the former managing editor of Time magazine who's now the Aspen Institute's CEO; Jim Coulter, founding partner of TPG Capital (formerly Texas Pacific Group); General Wesley Clark, and tech entrepreneur extraordinaire Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks. In the photo accompanying his biography, Cuban sports a Naked Pizza t-shirt—the all-natural, health-conscious pizza (in which Cuban has invested) is a New Orleans and Entrepreneur Week success story—thanks to help from Idea Village, whose consultants suggested the company re-brand from World's Healthiest Pizza. And during the '09 Entrepreneur Week, DePaul University students helped Naked Pizza figure out how to go from operating a single delivery pizza shop to opening as many as 1,000 nationwide. Not bad for a business that began in a flood-ravaged building on New Orleans' Claiborne Street. 

Another Entrepreneur Week darling: Feelgoodz, an eco-friendly flip-flop company. At 2009's event the company – inspired by a pair of flip flops founder Kyle Berner bought in Thailand in 2007 – picked up advice from Stanford University business students about how to ramp up its distribution to handle a deal it had just signed with Whole Foods. This year Berner picked up a $100,000 short-term loan from the newly-launched Village Capital, a novel financing concept that lets participating entrepreneurs decide how to distribute funds. (The pitches were supposed to take place during 2010 Entrepreneur Week, but last month Berner had growing demand – including orders from 75 new Whole Foods stores – to cope with, and couldn't wait. Luckily his fellow entrepreneurs agreed.)

Other events in the so-called "festival of entrepreneurship" include closed sessions for established New Orleans entrepreneurs with Aspen Institute members, plus help for one local business from a team of 20 Tulane University students. And free "Google 101" classes will give entrepreneurs a primer on free or almost-free services the company offers small businesses. (Google's history with Idea Village began the day the evacuation order for 2008's Hurricane Gustav was lifted – the company sent a 32-person team to the city.)

Entrepreneur Week organizers estimate the bizfest will provide $900,000 in consulting services, thanks to 9,000 hours of service from 90 MBA and corporate volunteers. Seventy-five entrepreneurs will receive direct support.

Can't get to New Orleans – or are saving your trip for Jazz Fest? Speeches and other events will be streamed live on the event's website.

Published on: Mar 17, 2010