The government’s woefully inadequate response at every level in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina revealed its general approach to the recovery effort: sit back and let private enterprise and nonprofits do as much as possible and then, in select cases, step in and provide services when needed. Eight years later, we see manifestations of this approach that lets private interests run amok in New Orleans’ privatized school system, a radical cut in the city’s public housing stock, the demolition of Charity Hospital to make way for a biomedical district and rampant gentrification.
One characteristic that’s emerged in this context has been the city’s pronounced lust for entrepreneurship, particularly of the “social-minded” sort. Nonprofit organizations like Idea Village and Propeller purport to provide platforms for business upstarts that not only generate capital, but also tackle social issues and contribute to the city’s recovery. The problem with relying on businesses to confront social issues is that businesses, as a rule, must put profits before everything else. In New Orleans, this has led to an entrepreneurial landscape that benefits privileged groups in a radically skewed proportion and whose contribution to the city’s recovery as a whole is questionable at best.
With this in mind, I spent a recent sunny Monday afternoon attending the Water Challenge component of the sixth annual New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, a much-hyped gathering of investors and entrepreneurs geared to fueling local business startups, organized by Idea Village. Mayor Mitch Landrieu is a strong proponent of Entrepreneur Week—his smiling face greets those who open the event’s program, along with a quote from him that says Entrepreneur Week “shows the rest of the nation how a city, once considered closed for good, has become a laboratory for innovation, change, entrepreneurship and creativity.” The venue for the week’s happenings is Gallier Hall, a stately Greek-revival building that served as city hall for more than a century and whose steps the city’s elect still cordon off for a prime viewing post for Mardi Gras parades. The venue contributed an air of officialdom to the event and a sense of the city government’s blessing (even though you can also rent the hall for wedding receptions).
The Water Challenge is the part of Entrepreneur Week that speaks most directly to resilience — its stated aim is to “identify and support entrepreneurial solutions that apply innovative approaches to how we live with water.” In New Orleans, living with water primarily entails weathering hurricanes (and levee breaches), stemming the rapid disintegration of our coast, water contamination from the state’s robust petrochemical industry and managing the torrent of rain that falls on New Orleans each year. Of course, all our water problems exist within the larger context of the droughts, water shortages and other weird and troublesome weather phenomena increasingly afflicting the nation and the world as a result of climate change.
The organizers of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week go to lengths to curate the event’s “look,” accentuating a vibe that expresses its hope to be cooler than your average gathering of venture capitalists while exuding an aura of understated affluence — one is reminded of real estate blowhard Buddy Kane’s mantra in the film American Beauty: “In order to be successful, one must project an image of success at all times.” The Idea Village homepage during the week boasts a quote from New Orleans CityBusiness newspaper: “NOEW has grown to attain buzz-worthy status. It is not accurate to call it a conference or even a business seminar series; it’s legitimately an event, a happening.” Brightly colored banners emblazoned with catch phrases (“Hosted in the coolest startup city in America”) are unfurled between the massive columns on Gallier Hall’s façade. All of this speaks to the “hype” and “buzz” embraced by entrepreneurial philosophy and the sense of feel-good benevolence it is supposed to instill in us — Idea Village claims among its founding principles that it hopes not only to “generate jobs for many” through entrepreneurship, but also “optimism for all.”
But Entrepreneur Week’s presentation of itself as a highly impactful, socially conscious, optimism-inspiring capitalist jamboree plugged into the zeitgeist of hip New Orleans tends to fizzle when one looks at the projects it promotes. The winner of this year’s capstone competition — haughtily titled “The Big Idea” and touted as “the nation’s largest crowd-sourced investor pitch” — was … wait for it … a beer company. Last year’s co-winners were a weight-loss company that shapes your diet via healthy home-delivered meals and a company that composes discipline-themed songs that allegedly help teachers control chaotic classrooms. (The founder said the songs’ effects were “Pavlovian.”)
As creepy as that sounds, the ventures vying for the Water Challenge title seem merely to underwhelm. Before local celebrity guest host Harry Shearer took the stage to introduce this year’s competitors, we were treated to a bit of “Where are They Now?” programming with prior winners.
The 2011 winner, David Culpepper of NanoFex, said he is currently hoping to secure a government contract to build a pilot demo of his project, which transforms crawfish shells and other waste into a substance that breaks down contaminants in water. This sounds great, but it’s disconcerting to hear that, three years later, with $50,000 in seed money and support from not only Entrepreneur Week but also Tulane University and the New Orleans BioInnovation Center, the business is still in its hope phase.
Sarah Mack’s Tierra Resources, the 2012 winner, seems to be faring better. Her company works to monetize wetland carbon offsets—essentially, it creates a methodology for corporations to reduce their carbon footprints by purchasing “carbon credits” through a certified marketplace that funds projects that restore wetlands. Currently, the program is based on the altruism of corporations who feel bad about their carbon footprints—such as Shell and ConocoPhillips, which have both engaged Tierra Industries for pilot projects—but the company explicitly strives to serve as a model of what government should be doing with a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gas emissions, instead of relying on the private sector’s munificence.
Last year’s winner, Webster Pierce of Pierce Industries and creator of the Wave Robber, was introduced with a remark about how much he “charmed the audience last year”— each Water Challenge contestant has only seven minutes to present his or her endeavor, with five minutes of questions from judges, which makes personality a huge determinant in who wins. Pierce, a good ol’ boy from south Louisiana who’s spent his life watching his beloved homeland melt into the Gulf of Mexico, lends an air of local authenticity to a room mostly full of transplants and local suits. It’s no wonder he’s a darling of this image-conscious dance.
The real benefits of his Wave Robber, however, which is a device meant to be installed in huge quantities along the edge of the coast to lessen waves’ corrosive impact on the land, are questionable. Len Bahr, who served as point man for all things coastal under four Louisiana governors, went as far as to proclaim that the Wave Robber “won’t do squat for the coast.” He pointed out that it operates according to two basic fallacies about why and how the coast is disappearing. The first fallacy is that coastal erosion means shoreline retreats from south to north, while, in fact, the entire landscape is breaking up from within. The second is that even 10,000 Wave Robbers lined up along the shore—a far larger quantity than is imaginable at this point—would trap merely a fraction of a fraction of the sediment needed to offset the deficiency of Mississippi River sediment caused by human manipulation of the waterway. The Wave Robber, Bahr said, is merely the latest in a long string of sediment-trapping contraptions he’s seen proposed that essentially amount to “bailing a sinking sailboat with a spoon.”
Of the four finalists in this year’s Water Challenge who pitched their ideas to the audience and judges, two hardly qualified as “solutions” or “innovative approaches to how we live with water.” The first was a venture that seeks to fight water shortages (no matter that we face quite the opposite problem here in New Orleans) by offering people decorative covers for their rainwater cisterns — they come several designs, including wood, metal, and vine-covered trellis—to help people overcome their aversion to cisterns because they “look ugly.” Another offered property owners protection from flooding via little pocket baffles that sit flat, circled around a person’s home or business, until the floodwaters rise, at which point they begin to fill and block the water’s path. Both of these companies leave the onus for fixing Louisiana’s widespread and systemic water problems on the individual consumer.
A third proposal involved using crowd-sourced information to predict harmful weather phenomena related to global warming — its representative, Julia Kumari Drapkin of iSeeChange, characterized the product as a Farmer’s Almanac for the digital age. She pointed to journalists’ and scientists’ difficulties in answering questions about climate change and its effects to a broad audience – Drapkin is a seasoned science journalist — and argued that, through iSeeChange, updates by members of the climate-based social network that report, for instance, that lettuce is blooming early in Salt Lake City could predict a drought like the one that’s been bedeviling the western United States. Drapkin asserted that the technology (and the reports of early lettuce blooming it enables) could have given public officials two months advance warning of the drought, allowing them to prepare accordingly and offset many of its harmful effects. The judges, however, expressed skepticism. They questioned whether enough people would pay for this information to make the company, whose revenue model is based on paid subscriptions, economically viable. In a bizarre declaration befitting today’s legion of amateur Internet experts and the culture of self-importance it bestows on each individual’s opinion (no matter how misguided), Drapkin said, “Americans don’t want to be told how climate change is affecting them — they want to find out for themselves.”
The judges didn’t buy it, and instead awarded the competition’s $50,000 in winnings to ORA Technologies for its efforts to build oyster reefs, which provide solid yet natural infrastructure in estuaries such as those in the Mississippi Delta, out of components that are “like big, round Legos,” as representative Tyler Ortego described them (after setting a sculpted cluster of oyster shells in front of him on a pedestal next to the lectern). ORA is currently involved at the patent-holding level of five coastal reclamation projects, and seeks to expand its role in the process — and the stake in the revenue — with the help of the cash prize.
To be fair, the judges selected the correct winner. ORA was already heavily involved in implementing the insertion of these artificial reefs, alleviating the judges’ concerns that the money will go to a venture that will never get off the ground. But their selection of ORA as the winner seems to fly in the face of the tenor of the entrepreneurial project. ORA’s clients are almost exclusively government agencies, making the company essentially a part of the cumbersome, bureaucratic apparatus to which sleek investors and startups are supposed to be the counterpoint. Building oyster reefs is also far from a novel, innovative undertaking — everyone even remotely involved in coastal issues knows that oyster reefs help stem coastal erosion, that they were massively damaged during the BP oil spill and that they are important not only to the composition of the coast but to Louisiana’s seafood industry.
In making the correct decision to fund ORA, the judges supported the work of government and a common-sense solution. The company is far from the embodiment of a sui generis entity, a diamond that events such as Entrepreneur Week purport to pull from the rough via crowd-sourced pitch competitions and the like. Building oyster reefs is something that should obviously be done, so why the song and dance?
In the end, the whole dog-and-pony show of Entrepreneur Week is not the cause of the sickness, but a symptom. Private interests that are selected willy-nilly on the basis of seven-minute pitches are clearly not the answer to the serious and intensely complex problems that confront New Orleans, and we need to stop pretending that the “wisdom of the market” — which is promoted by and large by those who benefit most from it — is any viable substitute for sound science and practical solutions executed at the behest of smart public policy that has everyone’s interests in mind.
Nathan C. Martin is a writer and editor in New Orleans. He is the author of the Wallpaper* City Guide to New Orleans and his writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Oxford American, The Believer, VICE, and other places. He is the founder and editor of Room 220: New Orleans Book and Literary News as well as its related literary event series. From 2008 – 2010 he was associate publisher and web editor of Stop Smiling. He is currently at work on a book about Wyoming, his home state.