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New Orleans Entrepreneur Week and New Orleans Book Fest: A Jazz Fest for Ideas

NOEW and Book Fest have ambitious plans for a joint venture, and it starts this month with their first big collaboration.

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In order: Walter Isaacson, Cheryl Landrieu and John Atkinson

It’s a combination that just makes sense — like cured meats and olive salad, or beads and feathers.

And just like with both these incredible pairings, the result is going to be like nothing you’ll experience anywhere except in New Orleans.

Each spring, not long after Carnival season has been packed away for another year, New Orleans welcomes two more unique festivals — New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW) and the New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane University.

The largest entrepreneurial gathering in the region, NOEW (or ‘No-wee’ as it’s widely pronounced), has been a passion project of The Idea Village — a nonprofit idea-stage accelerator program led by CEO Jon Atkinson — for 13 years. Every March, NOEW cultivates a week of keynote speeches, speaker sessions (210 last year), networking events and pitch competitions that bring together standouts (local and abroad) in business, culture, politics and investing with aspiring entrepreneurs in an event that exists “at the intersection of innovation and culture.” Last year, NOEW hosted over 4,000 attendees, largely from the Gulf South region.

Also in March, New Orleans Book Festival (or Book Fest as it’s known) — since 2022 co-chaired by former New Orleans first lady and attorney Cheryl Landrieu and bestselling author and Tulane history professor Walter Isaacson since 2022 — takes over the Tulane campus for three days. This year it will include nearly 100 local and national authors, along with musicians, chefs and thought leaders. From its first to second years, the festival saw its attendance double from about 6,000 to 12,000 people.

You think about innovation, culture and ideas — that becomes a brand that we can export, and something that we as a community can own from an event perspective.

– John Atkinson

While the two nationally recognized festivals hosted a co-branded session at NOEW with Microsoft founder Bill Gates and former CEO of AOL Steve Case last year, 2024 marks the start of a real collaboration. For the first time, the events will not only share dates — NOEW will run March 11-16, while Book Fest runs March 14-16 — they will share programming, starting with a “crossover day” at Tulane University on the 14th. Both festivals will continue through the weekend at Tulane where aligned sessions will cover topics including business, technology, investment and entrepreneurship.

But this year is only the first step toward a larger goal — creating a joint festival that marries both of their strengths and carries the global recognition of New Orleans megafestivals like Carnival and Jazz Fest, but for ideas and innovation.

How did this collaboration start?

Walter Isaacson: My wife, Cathy, is on the board of The IDEA Village. And she and I and Cheryl had been talking about the fact that there are a lot of synergies that could happen between New Orleans Entrepreneur Week and the Book Festival: Let’s move step by step towards bringing those two together. And so, this year they overlap and we’re doing joint programming so that we’re creating a new type of festival — Cathy called it a ‘third-coast type ‘festival — in which it’s both books and entrepreneurs and maybe clean energy. And it hopefully will continue to grow.

 Jon Atkinson: When I look at kind of the macro framing, for putting all these great things together, you think about innovation, culture and ideas that becomes a brand that we can export, and something that we as a community can own from an event perspective. For a long time, New Orleans has been such a great destination for outsiders to come and host events, but this is a real effort to put together something that can be an opportunity for us to share with the broader world.

Are you modeling this collaboration after any other festivals?

WI: When I was at the Aspen Institute, Cathy and I helped host the Aspen Ideas Festival. And when Cheryl and I first started talking, one of the thoughts was that when we revive book fest, maybe it should become broader, like an Ideas Festival.

JA: There’s a big event in Atlanta called Venture Atlanta that we’ve benchmarked against that draws 1,600 people every year; we went there this year and said, If Atlanta can do this, why can’t New Orleans?

Jon, on the entrepreneurial ecosystem side in the wake of our first unicorn and a lot of success that’s happened in the past few years, what does the VC environment look like here?

JA: By combining forces here, we’re able to put New Orleans on the map, nationally and globally, and to really start to build a brand around being a destination for thought leadership. We want people to come here to engage in startup investing, to engage in building innovative companies.

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John Atkinson

I would say to the venture environment, it’s definitely gotten a lot easier to raise money in the last few years. I’ve started to see the creation of professional venture capital funds like Benson Capital or Revelry Venture or Boot64 Ventures, or Corridor Ventures that have come on the scene in the last five years. And I think their efforts are all being amplified by the fact that we’ve been able to put some skins on the wall: We’ve had some wins. We’ve had some big companies that have come out of New Orleans. And now the people that were involved with those companies are starting to do their next thing, so you’re starting to see that talent gets recycled.

From a macro perspective, with the rise of remote work and all the things that have happened since COVID, the national resources have become more fluid and more outside capital is flowing in. More networks are being built nationally, which makes this a perfect opportunity to plug into that ecosystem. We look at this alignment with Book Fest and building this new venture summit as the evolution of our signature event in a way that’s following what we’ve done with the underlying organization and our accelerator program.

The summit is a specifically tailored event, though, so not open to the public.

JA: Yes. It’s about curated connections, it’s an opportunity for companies that are actively raising money. We’ve put the bullseye on companies raising a million dollars or more in venture capital, that’s kind of our north star. We’re inviting those companies in and actively connecting them with investors.

It’s about getting deals done and helping VCs build the habit of coming to New Orleans to see great companies.

Do you have any corporate entities involved with the 3rd Coast Summit?

Yes. Halliburton Labs, Benson Capital, Entergy, JPMorgan Chase & Co. with the Tulane Innovation Institute, with Ochsner Ventures, Key String Labs — those are our core host committee members that are helping us build this. It’s worth noting that we wouldn’t have been able to do that five years ago.

And then with that, the other big news that we have as an organization is that we’re launching a $7 million fund that’s going to support our accelerator companies, and then also fund idea pitch, which is our kind of capstone event that will happen Thursday at Tulane.

Where’s that $7 million coming from?

JA: We’ve raised private capital largely from folks that were involved in the first wave of startups — so the founders of the successful exited companies — then we’ve matched that with funds through the LED SSBCI [State Small Business Credit Initiative] program.

Let’s jump back to Book Fest. How did it get started?

Cheryl Landrieu: The New Orleans Book Festival started in 2010 as an initiative of the city administration when I was first lady. It started as the Children’s Book Festival, and over time we grew and included adult authors as well. In 2019, we weren’t involved in the administration anymore and I talked to Walter about whether we could continue it and he had the idea that we could possibly come to Tulane. We went to them, and the university opened its doors and allowed us to use pretty much every aspect of its campus.

There’s great synergy between having the students here and having these national and local authors coming in and doing these presentations. Our event has always been free and open to the public. There’s no registration required. It has always been designed to be a creative space for thought leadership for people to come and share and connect over a wide variety of topics. We want to foster big ideas and thought leadership.

How do you decide what your lineup is going to be?

CL: Walter always has great thoughts starting from the get-go on who we’re going to have and their range. I can remember the first author we ever had, and that started when Walter texted one day and said, ‘John Grisham wants to come.’ That’s when I realized this was going to be a bigger event than it had been in the past.

WI: One of the problems we have today — which is a great problem to have — is so many people want to come; we get a lot of incoming requests. But we try to have a mix of ideas — fiction, nonfiction, New Orleans authors like Michael Lewis, have helped us draw writers and invite people.

There are about eight or nine great book festivals in America, and New Orleans is one of them.

How did you get Bill Gates last year?

WI: I just emailed him and said, ‘People are interested in your two new books.’ He had written a book on climate and another on his philanthropy. I had his email because I had met him over the years, so I just said, ‘Come on down.’

Walter texted one day and said, ‘John Grisham wants to come.’ That’s when I realized this was going to be a bigger event than it had been in the past.

– Cheryl Landrieu

You have also worked in partnership with different large media groups.

WI: There are a lot of national media organizations that work with us to make this a success. We partnered with NBC News one of our years, and we had the “Today” show come with Jenna Bush Hager and Hoda Kotb.
This year we’re partnering with The Atlantic — publisher of both the magazine and website — so that’ll add to the excitement.

JA: And Walter, you mentioned Bill Gates, and much of his conversation in 2023 was around AI, where he really predicted what’s going on now. Students at Tulane are still talking about how Bill Gates gave them the heads-up that their generation will be the ones that connect AI to every other aspect of our lives.

I love the line from the Bill Gates talk when he said, ‘AI made me go back to work at Microsoft.’ That made me perk up and take notice.

Jon, how does NOEW decide on content?

JA: We look at it from the lens of what are the topical themes that we need to be talking about right now? And if you’re building something in New Orleans, what do you need to know? Then we work backwards.

We think about things like artificial intelligence, which is going to be a huge theme for us this year, sort of building on what we did last year, and what Book Fest did last year. Climate tech is also a major theme this year. I think if we point to the single biggest opportunity that this region has to lead, it’s going to be in climate tech. Halliburton Labs has been a major partner for us for the last few years and has really helped us start to think about how we create a climate tech ecosystem between here and Houston that is differentiated nationally and globally.

I think that’s a theme that we’re just going to keep pushing because if you’re doing emissions reduction work or carbon work touching the industrial corridor, you’re coming through here one way or another. And so, we have a question in front of us from an economic development lens: Do we want to capture that, or do we want to let that value leave?

CL: Let me do a quick emphasis on something Jon just said. Halliburton Labs has been a wonderful partner, because in the clean energy space, they’re doing pitch contests for the greatest companies around the country, and they’re going to make them part of the Halliburton Labs ecosystem. Likewise, United Airlines has a venture fund for clean energy, and they’re going to be partners as well. They’ve been a sponsor of Book Fest.
I think all these things work together to get national companies focused on New Orleans and its potential, both intellectually as a generator of ideas, but also as a generator of startups and entrepreneurship.

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Cheryl Landrieu

Did you collaborate this year when you were all coming up with content for the two festivals?

CL: Oh yes. We’ve had a lot of conversations. We didn’t coordinate as much this year as I’d hoped, but we do have corresponding sessions going on. We’ll definitely be involved in each other’s business, for lack of a better way to say it, because we have a lot of crossover appeal to each other’s audiences.

WI: I’d like to give my wife some credit because she’s on Jon Atkinson’s board and she really encouraged me and then Cheryl to help put this all together. She’s really driving a lot of the synergy.

JA: The Book Fest team has just been amazing to work with. This is the real collaboration that we’ve been looking to have for a long time. It’s allowing us to bring in these larger resources that we just haven’t had access to. It really does feel like this is the kind of turning point moment — like it’s foreshadowing some really big things to come.

There are about eight or nine great book festivals in America, and New Orleans is one of them.

– Walter Isaacson

Could each of you talk about what, specifically, you’re most excited about this year?

CL: Well, speaking from the Book Festival, I think it’s going to be the incredible lineup that we were able to acquire this year. It’s two and a half days of chockablock programming on so many varieties of topics…We have a lot of New Orleans components that I think will be really exciting this year as well.

Can you give any specifics?

CL: We have some authors that have done work in New Orleans, both on music and the cultural side. We spend a lot of time with our panels, trying to make them as authentic and engaging as possible so that people can learn and grow from things that are already happening here in New Orleans. There will be a lot of New Orleans culture built into everything we do, which I think is what makes the national folks come in. We have several — I don’t know if we’re going to call them lifetime people — but several authors who really enjoy coming back every year and participating in what we’re doing.

JA: The thing I get most excited about is really the energy and the buzz and the opportunity for all of these collisions. We like to joke that what happens in the hallway is almost as valuable as what happens in the room. And that’s a really special thing about NOEW that’s become kind of part of our brand…I think people are going to be really impressed with the quality of the companies, both locally and those that are coming in from around the region.

I think there’s a lot of really amazing stuff happening in the startup world right now. Patrick Comer, the founder of Lucid, likes to say that great companies get started in down markets. If you look at the national headlines, this is sort of a down market for startups. But what we’re seeing on the ground is, really exciting. I think it’s really a great foundation for what we’re going to be talking about five to 10 years from now.

I think the last thing we’re also seeing a lot more emphasis put on diversity in tech. And I think you’re going to see that show up early this year. You know, Black-led VCs like Corridor Ventures and what Sabrina Short is doing with NOLAVATE Black and tying in the workforce development side, how you bring people into tech. So I think those two things are really going to be exciting…

I think we’re sort of scared to say it, but at the top of the comparables really is a South By Southwest. That is the type of event that we want New Orleans to be able to own. And I think, well, we threw a 15-band music festival last year as part of NOEW. New Orleans knows how to do that if we can combine the sort of ideas, culture and innovation and create that gumbo.

It sounds like the goal is really to cement that intellectual part, the business part, the ideas part of the region so that we’re known as more than a place to come and have a good time. Is that a fair thing to say?

CL: That’s fair… People have fun here. There’s no denying that. But we also want people to engage in conversations that help New Orleans grow and be the leader in the South that we all know we have the potential to be.

Frankly, being associated with a university such as Tulane has been very helpful because there’s so many smart resources here that we can tap into. And thought leadership here is a regular occurrence.

JA: We’ve also really made a concerted effort to bring all the local universities to the table. The Loyola Center for Entrepreneurship has been part of this, and Xavier’s actually doing a national HBCU entrepreneur week that’s going to coincide with what we’re doing here.

Looking into the future, if this all goes as planned, what do you think a joint festival like this could mean for the region?

CL: I think it can be huge. We’ve been talking with some of the city leaders about what that might look like, and what the possibilities there are now. We just have to make it happen. The potential of this would be game-changing for New Orleans if we can continue to get it done.

JA: Personally, I am a reluctant event producer. I didn’t get into this to produce a large-scale event. But if it works, it means that we’re producing an event that then spills over the other 360 days a year in building the relationships that empower and lift up business in New Orleans, that help us compete on a national and global scale, that put us on the same level as an Austin or Boston or even San Francisco.

I think the advantage that we have going forward is the future is about authenticity, and New Orleans has authenticity in spades. So, if we can create an environment that leads with that authenticity, but also doesn’t mean that people have to compromise their economic interest to tap into that, then the world is our oyster.

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Walter Isaacson

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