When a city closes down, everyone suddenly becomes an entrepreneur. That was the first lesson of Katrina — all of us had work to do if we wanted to restart the city. It was in those uncertain times that I saw an opportunity to validate the power of entrepreneurship. The nonprofit organization I led and still lead today, The Idea Village, believed that entrepreneurs – and those who believe in them – would recover, rebuild, and ultimately lead the next New Orleans. We just had to find them.
The Idea Village was then five years old, a young nonprofit with a successful record for running startup programs but no experience rebuilding a city. Our initial plan was simple: Give small grants to entrepreneurs who inspired us, those who could – and would – catalyze New Orleans’ rebirth. We began allocating what we called “triage grants,” ultimatly helping 130 entrepreneurs reopen for business. The individuals behind these companies we supported after Katrina – as well as others we met along the way – are among the most inspiring I have ever had the pleasure of working with.
Their drive, grit, and unparalleled determination were the building blocks for the entrepreneurial ecosystem that is thriving today. I don’t have close to enough space to acknowledge them all, so here are a few standouts. I call them the entrepreneurial heroes of the storm.
- The very first business to reopen after Katrina was Slim Goodies, a small restaurant on Magazine Street. I ate dinner with owner Kappa Horn in Baton Rouge the night before the city opened up. She said, “I’m going in.” That was that.
- Then there was Chill the barber. I met him cutting hair at a flooded gas station at Claiborne and Napoleon, using the power of a generator. He wasn’t waiting for help; he just decided to get to work. Idea Village gave him a small grant to get Mr. Chill’s First Class Cuts Barbershop reopened.
- And Leah Chase. I met Chase in her trailer outside of New Orleans institution, Dooky Chase’s Restaurant to provide a $10,000 grant. She told me that she “would stay on the battlefield until she dies.” It’s a quote I’ll never forget; it still give me chills.
Chef Leah Chase stands outside her famous Creole restaurant, Dookie Chase’s. (AP Photo/Cheryl Gerber, file)
- We were fortunate to support four incredible female entrepreneurs known as the Belles of Bayou Road, led by Vera Warren Williams of Community Book Store. They were the catalyst that brought Bayou Road back to life after the storm. Their motto: “when spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.”
- In some cases, all people needed was a small grant and a little bit of advice. I remember meeting with Loretta from Loretta’s Pralines. She just needed a little money to buy supplies so she could deliver pralines during the Christmas Season after Katrina. It makes me smile every time I see her at Jazz Fest.
- Local entrepreneur Jonathan Ferrara approached The Idea Village in 2007 to help support local artists. We decided to partner on what we called the “Artdocs” program and strategically allocated $41,000 to 40 artists specifically so they could buy supplies at local small businesses.
It’s not just the entrepreneurs that deserve recognition, but those who believed in them – and the sense of possibility – early on. As Atlantic reporter Derek Thompson wrote in 2013, “Sometimes a start-up city is just a city getting started, again.” Today, entrepreneurial activity in the city is currently 64 percent above the national average, according to Brookings Institution. I’d say New Orleans is well on its way to becoming the hub of entrepreneurship in the South.
But as the recovery story of New Orleans continues to be written, there should be a long chapter on the entrepreneurial talent who took the reins right after Katrina, those people who believed it was possible when it seemed impossible.
Tim Williamson is Co-founder and CEO of The Idea Village .