New Orleans native Tim Williamson is fostering entrepreneurship in the city through an innovative nonprofit he helped found. But can the Big Easy get beyond its party-city image to become a place where businesses thrive?

Tim Williamson was born and bred in New Orleans, but after he received his bachelor’s in business from Tulane in 1987, the city didn’t offer enough opportunities for a young would-be entrepreneur like him to stay home. Instead, he joined the management training program at Drexel Burnham Lambert in New York, then went to Bear Stearns in Boston. In 1994, he moved to Atlanta and launched Auducom, a video production studio, before relocating to Pittsburgh to start Pittsburgh.com for Cox Interactive Media. It wasn’t until 1998 that he found an opportunity to move back to New Orleans. Williamson returned to run InsideNewOrleans.com, a website with news about everything from the Saints and Jazz Festival to where to find great gumbo or watch the Mardi Gras parade—all the things he loved. Determined to stay for good, he bought his childhood home in uptown New Orleans in 2011. 

“I think what makes New Orleans special—and why I care so damn much—is the way we connect as a community,” Williamson says. “New Orleans is like one crazy, and at times dysfunctional, family.”

Eighteen years later, Williamson has helped create the kind of environment that makes other businesspeople want to put down roots in New Orleans. The key to his efforts: The Idea Village, a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs through consulting and mentorships, operates a lab to incubate new business ideas and hosts an Entrepreneur Week every March that brings in national investors to eyeball NOLA startups. New Orleans Entrepreneur Week is so successful that 55 other organizations are now leveraging the platform to host 119 events to boost investments in the arts, healthcare, education, energy, and women’s and minority issues.

Tim Williamson hosting the Big Idea during NOEW 2016. Courtesy of Idea Village

With its New Orleans-style street carnival atmosphere, which includes 21 colorful contests awarding money and mentorships to aspiring entrepreneurs, Entrepreneur Week has become a highlight of the city’s cultural scene. At the Big Idea, 10 entrepreneurs pitch ideas to the public right on Fulton, a downtown street known for grand holiday events. People can invest on the spot using $25 chips. Then celebrity judges choose a $25,000 winner from among those with the most chips. Finalists this year included Thinkerella, which organizes children’s parties to teach art, science and math; the Sweat Social, a fitness company for business and leisure travelers; and Scenehound, an app that tells you how crowded your favorite bar or eatery is before you get there.

The Idea Village is just one organization, but it has had a profound effect on a city that 10 years ago was fighting for its very survival. In years past, few would have considered New Orleans a center of initiative, much less entrepreneurship. The Big Easy was known for its food, booze and music. The Idea Village has helped not just rejuvenate New Orleans, but also redefine it. The group, he says, “had to be bigger than making money. This had to be about making New Orleans a better place.”

The Idea Village got its start one night in 2000 at the Loa Bar, an upscale joint in the International House hotel just off Canal Street, where Williamson had gathered four New Orleans entrepreneurs who were fearful that their city had become nothing more than a boozy party destination. “There were no Fortune 100 companies; there was no venture capital; there was no entrepreneurship,” Williamson recalls. “New Orleans had one of the worst education systems in the country. Crime was high. Corruption infiltrated politics. More important, there was a belief that it would never turn around.”

“We wanted to create an entity that no one could own, that no one could control, that was solely dedicated to fostering an entrepreneurial environment.”

TimWilliamson_AlexisOhanian_CourtesyOfIdeaVillage

Alexis Ohanian speaking at NOEW 2016. Courtesy of Idea Village

Williamson’s comrades all worked for competing companies that needed New Orleans to be more than a tourist trap. They included Allen Bell of Nola.com and Darin McAuliffe from NewOrleans.com and Turbotrip.com; Greg Meffert from NetEx (later known as Certia), which provides encryption technology for online transaction companies; and Robbie Vitrano of Trumpet Group, a branding and advertising firm. All worried that, just as they were investing in their hometown, other people—a lot of people—were leaving. New Orleans’ population had fallen from about 628,000 in 1960 to about 485,000 in 2000.

As an incentive for startups, the five entrepreneurs decided to contribute $2,000 each to create a $10,000 business plan competition. They were gratified when 70 people submitted but were disheartened to realize the lack of resources available to entrepreneurs. So they decided to build a support network for young talent and established the Idea Village to help build a year-round entrepreneurial ecosystem. The mission was to “identify, support and retain” new business ventures.

“We wanted to create an entity that no one could own, that no one could control, that was solely dedicated to fostering an entrepreneurial environment,” Williamson says, explaining why they chose to form a nonprofit.

In 2005, the Idea Village hosted a pitch competition to put New Orleans entrepreneurs in front of investors. That first event hosted 15 New Orleans companies and 28 venture capitalists from around the country. They gave it a New Orleans flair with a lavish kickoff lunch at Commander’s Palace, the haute Creole restaurant that’s been a city landmark since the late 1800s. The excitement was palpable.

But just a month later, in August, New Orleans was underwater. Hurricane Katrina hit with furious winds and rising sea levels, and when the levees broke, entire sections of the city were decimated. The hurricane killed some 1,245 people and caused an estimated $135 billion in damage.

“The day after Katrina,” Williamson says, “everyone became an entrepreneur. Everyone had to start over.”

Supporters of the Idea Village believed that the post-hurricane New Orleans created an environment that could benefit from their project—a city in great need of a new businesses culture was finally open to one. “The closed, insular networks that existed in New Orleans pre-Katrina were fractured,” Williamson says. The need for entrepreneurship was simply too urgent.

Post-Katrina recovery resources also gave them the capital to get restarted. Foundation for Louisiana, which focuses on economic and community development, gave the Idea Village $245,000 between 2006 and 2008. The U.S. Economic Development Administration gave the group $2.2 million between 2009 and 2015. But the key support didn’t come from the federal government, which was raining down money and materials on everyone in the city. It came from individuals.

Perhaps the biggest contributor to the Idea Village has been billionaire Jim Coulter, cofounder of the San Francisco private equity firm TPG Capital, whose wife, Penny Saer, is from New Orleans. “Jim has been an angel investor of the New Orleans entrepreneurial movement,” Williamson says. “He is truly committed to building a better New Orleans.”

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Jim Coulter at NOEW 2016. Courtesy of Idea Village

Coulter explains his interest this way: “As someone who is interested in philanthropy and also interested in New Orleans, I started to think about rebuilding the city’s economic base. The idea of venture philanthropy, how can you invest money that stimulates growth in interesting ways, is something that we think about a lot out here in San Francisco.”

The year after Katrina, Coulter funded a group of MBA students from top business schools, including his alma mater Stanford, to provide technical help to companies in New Orleans. That program grew to include more than a dozen teams. Efforts like those have helped revive business in New Orleans: The metro area’s entrepreneurship rate—at 471 startups per 100,000 adults between 2011 and 2013—is 64 percent higher than the national average and 40 percent higher than other fast-growing Southern metros, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. In 2010, Coulter inaugurated his own contest for entrepreneurs, the Coulter IDEApitch, an invitation-only dinner and investment pitch, featuring high-growth entrepreneurs from the New Orleans area presenting their ventures to world-class investors.

“We made the prize this concept: We would fly you out to San Francisco and introduce you to venture capitalists in your area of business,” Coulter says. “Essentially teach a person to pitch: ‘How do you approach these markets?’ And we did that for a number of years. A few people got venture capital; more important, they got knowledge, and many of them brought that knowledge back and raised money in New Orleans.”

The contest was so successful that the Idea Village stepped in to consolidate the MBA effort into a single week. “Entrepreneur Week was born with MBA teams from around the country coming to New Orleans during their spring break to essentially do free consulting for startups and other companies in New Orleans,” Coulter says.

Impressed by Williamson and his vision, Coulter says, “He is an incredibly energetic leader for the city, and New Orleans is lucky to have him.”

Part of what made Coulter’s help so valuable was that, unlike some philanthropists after Katrina, he didn’t just come for a quick visit, then take off. “We are long-term investors, so it wasn’t about what we did in year one,” says Coulter. “It was about where it might go. We’re bringing skills from the business side with our goals from the philanthropic side to try to do something special. That’s culturally who we are, and culturally the type of project that we want to engage in.”

Coulter believes that New Orleans has always been rich territory for that ecosystem to take root. It’s a cheap place to do business. It has tax incentives. As hard as the storm was, it didn’t damage the infrastructure for entrepreneurship, Coulter says. “There’s some common ground around cities where strong entrepreneurial cultures grow up—places like Austin, San Francisco, pieces of New York. They tend to be places where millennials want to live, because one of the things about this wired world is that you no longer need a river or transportation system, a railroad and industrial building to be an entrepreneur. You just need a fiber-optic line and a laptop.”

“He is an incredibly energetic leader for the city, and New Orleans is lucky to have him.”

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Williamson at the Idea Village office. © Craig Mulcahy

The next step for the Idea Village, Coulter says, is to create enough opportunity and growth locally that the competition will be for local money and resources. “You want to signal that, given how much progress is made, you don’t need to fly to San Francisco anymore,” he says. “Two of the three entrepreneurs who pitched this year were people who had moved into New Orleans to start their company there. Fascinating, right? These are excellent companies. People decided they wanted to place themselves in New Orleans.”

One hundred people participated in the first Entrepreneur Week. “Last year,” Williamson says, “we had 10,585.”

Entrepreneurs attracted to New Orleans with an assist from the Idea Village include Jennifer Medbery, who had taught math in public schools and wondered if there was a better way to process student data. She founded Kickboard, which tracks student achievement through an analytics program. Patrick Comer founded the marketing company Lucid, which he describes as the world’s largest provider of audience demographics for survey and polling efforts. “We wanted to raise a family here,” Comer, whose wife is a native, says about why they moved to New Orleans after the hurricane. “It felt like our duty.” He didn’t expect the business opportunities he found, or the thriving business culture. Today he rides atop a Mardi Gras float as part of Krewe de Nieux, a group of some 30 entrepreneurs who get together to give each other advice and support.

Williamson takes great pride in the fact that Entrepreneur Week is now sandwiched between Mardi Gras and the Jazz Festival, prime real estate in the New Orleans landscape. The city’s residents “connect around Mardi Gras; we connect around festivals,” Williamson says. “We never really connected around business innovation or entrepreneurship thinking.” They do now.

— With Rose Arce 

For more information, contact: Tim Williamson, tim@ideavillage.org, 504.304.3287, ideavillage.org

LIKE TIM WILLIAMSON, PHILANTHROPISTS OFTEN INVEST IN THE CITIES THEY LOVE. HERE ARE THREE OTHER EXAMPLES.

Who: The Kresge Family
What: The New Economy Initiative

Few cities were hit as hard by the Great Recession as Detroit, and private philanthropists have played a major role in its revitalization efforts in the years since. One of the leaders: the Kresge Foundation, created by Kmart founder S.S. Kresge in 1924 and based in Troy, Mich. Among the programs it champions is the New Economy Initiative (NEI), a project started by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan (CFSEM) in 2007. NEI provides funding to local businesses to drive economic growth and entrepreneurship. This was the third and final year of the NEIdeas competition, which awards a combined $500,000 to Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park businesses with feasible growth plans. The Kresge Foundation was one of 10 donors that contributed a combined $100 million to start NEI. The foundation also contributed $100 million to the Foundation for Detroit’s Future, another nonprofit affiliated with CFSEM that oversees the distribution of donations intended to support Detroit’s future. 313.961.6675, neweconomyinitiative.org 

Who: Liam Krehbiel
What: A Better Chicago

Only an estimated 14 percent of Chicago public school students graduate from college by age 25, according to a 2011 report from the University of Chicago. In 2010, former Bain consultant and Chicago native Liam Krehbiel founded the nonprofit A Better Chicago to help improve that alarming statistic. Convinced that income disparity is at the heart of the city’s education challenges, A Better Chicago awards grants to nonprofits focused on education for low-income people—the groups do everything from creating charter schools to improving programs at existing schools. Since its founding, A Better Chicago has donated or invested more than $11 million to promote local education. Its corporate partners include Bain and Chicago-based Accenture; prominent Chicago family foundations such as the Joyce Foundation and the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation have also supported the fund. info@abetterchicago.org, 312.674.7090, abetterchicago.org 

Who: Alfa Demmellash and Alex Forrester
What: Rising Tide Capital

Harvard grads Alfa Demmellash and Alex Forrester founded Rising Tide Capital in 2004 to combat unemployment through city-specific efforts. They started with Forrester’s home state of New Jersey and focused on Jersey City. RTC, a nonprofit, has an annual budget of approximately $3.5 million and two main focuses: business education and entrepreneurship. Its flagship program is the Community Business Academy, a 12-week effort that teaches business fundamentals to local entrepreneurs. Following Jersey City, RTC expanded to Newark, Union City and Orange, N.J., and Chicago. Since its founding, the academy has graduated more than 1,000 students, and according to the group, 87 percent of the businesses that its students start make it past the five-year mark. Other philanthropists are noticing: Rising Tide’s support comes from major corporations including Bank of America and Goldman Sachs, family foundations and government programs. info@risingtidecapital.org, 201.432.4316, risingtidecapital.org 

EXPERT

Soledad O’Brien
CEO | Starfish Media Group

Soledad O’Brien is an award-winning journalist, documentarian, news anchor and producer.