Fertile Ground

Thanks to a boost in capital, New Orleans continues to be an entrepreneurial leader, but area leaders warn against "our biggest enemy."

Greater New Orleans continues to be recognized as one of the top entrepreneurial centers in the United States. A recent Gusto.com analysis placed the region ninth in the country for new business applications per capita in 2022.

Several national trends identified in the study align with local demographics. Small-to-medium-size metro areas are outpacing larger cities. Geographically, the Southeast and mountain West are leading the way. Most encouraging of all, women and people of color are increasing their shares of startup applications.

New Orleans both benefits from and contributes to these data, but they alone do not account for the region’s ongoing entrepreneurial leadership.

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One critical factor cited by Emily Egan, director of strategic initiatives at Tulane’s Lepage Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, is increased financial resources.

“There’s more capital here now than there has been in the past,” she pointed out. “Equity capital movement is increasing locally. It’s a more fertile ground than it was before.”

“We have much more robust angel investor groups,” concurred Jon Atkinson, CEO of The Idea Village, “and it’s also the private sector, investing in things like corporate innovation groups.”

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The successful cash-outs over the last year or so have not only increased the amount of available capital, they have also increased the attention being paid to area businesses.

“Density breeds destiny,” Atkinson stated. “The more you have of something, the more of a magnet it becomes. We’ve had some successful outcomes now, which breeds more success.”

A related factor Atkinson noted is that “there is a lot of activity right now to connect innovation and investment to our historical strengths, like the music business and cultural tech.”

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Similarly, climate technology and healthy biotech, also fields in which the region has long-term experience, are attracting higher levels of investment on the national level.

Another major contributing factor is the strength of the startup support structure here, which is itself evolving and expanding as the entrepreneurial landscape matures.

“For the first 20 years of The Idea Village, we were just trying to push the ball up the hill,” recalled Atkinson. “Now we’ve moved to building a system that can help companies not only get started but think bigger, think nationally. It’s not just getting started, it’s also what happens after your business starts to take off.”

Still, new enterprises are a major part of the picture, and continue to need early-stage support.

“We need to turn that business application statistic into successful businesses,” Egan pointed out. “We as an ecosystem need to make sure that we find these new entrepreneurs and make sure they know about the resources available to them.”

While the trends remain positive, there are potential headwinds.

“We need to be clear-eyed about challenges like affordability and infrastructure,” stated Egan. “We have to build a business environment that is stable, and a physical environment that is stable and attractive. Entrepreneurs can play a part in solving these challenges, but it’s not their duty to do so.”

“Complacency is our biggest enemy,” asserted Atkinson. “Entrepreneurship is in our DNA, but we can’t lose that edge.”

In the bigger picture, Atkinson observed that “the brand of New Orleans has to shift. If our brand is still associated with Bourbon Street and Hand Grenades, that’s going to set the movement back. We have to evolve to what the 21st century tourism brand is going to look like.”

While these and other challenges are real and must be addressed, the outlook remains positive. As Atkinson noted, “we’ve been doing this for years, despite all the existential flaws in our foundation.”

Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.


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