Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Post Katrina Entrepreneurs

     New Orleans is coming back strong.  After sustaining the disaster of  Hurricane Katrina, the national economic recession, and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans today shows significant signs of rebounding, thanks to key reforms in education, criminal justice, and local government policies. Among its most noteworthy accomplishments, according to a recent Brookings Institute Report,  its entrepreneurial activity is currently 40% above the national average.
      Not surprised by the flurry of fledgling companies, Tim Williamson, Co-founder and CEO of The Idea Village, a non profit formed to identify, support and retain entrepreneurial talent in New Orleans, says that “when Katrina hit, New Orleans became start up city. Everyone was an entrepreneur overnight because we all had to rebuild houses, neighborhoods, networks-- with limited resources.  As a result, leaders came out of the woodwork, fracturing the insular networks that had characterized New Orleans for some time. Almost overnight New Orleans became a globally funded city.” 
    Capitalizing on the infusion of local and outside support, The Idea Village, offers start ups a business acceleration program, collaborative entrepreneurial hubs, and investment capital as well as access to funds.   Since its founding in 2002, Idea Village has supported 1100 entrepreneurs who have created over 1000 local jobs, generating annual revenues of $82 million.
   After Katrina, The Idea Village capitalized on the renewed interest in the revival of an economic base for New Orleans by launching an annual Entrepreneur Season, starting with a competition each summer to identify early stage, high impact entrepreneurs.  From several hundred entries, about 20 companies are invited each October to join a six month program that provides access to strategic consulting, mentors, and capital. In addition, a variety of educational programs are available to all local entrepreneurs who register.  The training culminates in  Entrepreneur Week (March 10-16, 2012)   which  brings  together entrepreneurs, investors, local business and civic leaders as well as MBA students  from top business schools who provide assistance to the fledgling  New Orleans start ups through a host of events.  Tim Williamson says between October and March “ about 500 New Orleans entrepreneurs will receive over $1million in resources from a global network of CEOs, corporations, universities and investors.”
Jen Schnidman Medbery
   One of 2010’s winners is Jennifer Schnidman Medbery, CEO of Drop the Chalk, who originally moved to the Mississippi Delta with Teach for America. After the hurricane, she was invited to help found Sci Academy, a charter school in New Orleans.  While she enjoyed teaching in what she calls “a hotbed of progressive educational reform,” she also noticed that the energetic principal and teachers lacked reliable ways to measure student progress. A computer science graduate of Columbia University, Jen says her passion for technology, along with a grant from Idea Village,  encouraged her launch a company to develop software, she calls Kickboard, to  track student performance.  With input based on notes from teachers, the program then analyzes the data on student behavior and skills looking for patterns that can assist teachers to encourage improvement.    
    One of a welter of assessment tools, Kickboard’s competitive edge, says Jen, lies in its ability to cater to the standards, culture and curriculum of specific schools--creating a customized student data management system for each client.  Besides, Jen’s software provides “real time data, because principals do not want to waste a year by relying on annual assessments.” To date, Jen’s program has been purchased on a subscription basis by over 50 schools in New Orleans, and as far away as New York and Alaska. With ten employees, she is now focusing on building a team to support her growing client base.  
Kay Morrison
     Another recent Idea Village competition winner is Kay Morrison, founder and CEO of The Occasional Wife, a service which “empowers women by allowing them to do what they want to do while my company takes care of the rest of their lives,” from organizing moves to  setting up home offices, hanging  pictures,  planning events, purchasing tickets, or  arranging travel.Post Katrina, Kay Morrison observes, “the entrepreneurial world has been crazy vibrant down here. It certainly triggered my business. My family and I lived in four states after the storm.  Formerly a Global Accounts Director for Starwood, Kay said she was overwhelmed by a desire “to save the reputation of my city.”  She organized Occasional Wife in 2006, and has since opened two retail outlets in New Orleans to showcase her services and the streamlined products she uses to organize people’s lives.
     One satisfied customer is Sally Kenney, executive director of Newcomb College Institute of Tulane, who, after her appointment, hired Occasional Wife to help her organize her home and offices.  She told Kay, “your company  gives  me a competitive edge in my new position by freeing up time I would have spent on mundane activities, thus allowing me to concentrate on my professional responsibilities.”
   Kay says as she hires women to work for her, she adds services based on whatever  skills they bring to the company.  “I think of my company as an incubator of women,” she observes.  Anticipating revenues of $700,000 for 2011, Kay’s next move is to go national through franchising arrangements. Recently she expanded her services to Austin, Texas. Her philosophy is “I don’t pick locations, but I do pick people with good marketing skills who understand how to work under pressure.”
Francine Ballard
         Among the three women selected last month to participate in the 2012 Entrepreneurship Season at Idea Village is former New Yorker Francine Ballard who left the fashion world a few years ago to move to New Orleans with her husband who wanted to migrate home.  As a former advertising director of Lucky and fashion director of InStyle, Francine launched DesignerSocial, an online forum and marketplace for new and pre-owned accessories.   Along with sales items,  Francine includes  fashion industry tips and gossip for her 20,000 email subscribers.  With  minimum outside funding to date, sales since the 2009 launch have already topped $500,000, proving perhaps  you can—or should-- go home again!
            First appeared in Forbes Woman



  1. I'm so proud of these women. Though the competition is high when it comes to business, each has it's own territory where they do best.

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