The World Focuses On New Orleans Entrepreneur Week

Since New Orleans Entrepreneur Week’s inaugural year in 2009, people wondered, “Will it work?” From business leaders and community members to media, investors and even the entrepreneurs themselves, no one knew where NOEW would be five, even ten, years later. There were less than 100 people and six startups participating in 2009. Today, there are 10,585. So now we ask a new set of questions.

New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, also called NOEW (pronounced KNOW-EEE by those in the know), is an annual business conference hosted by The Idea Village in New Orleans that celebrates entrepreneurs, their big ideas and burgeoning startups. Although, despite being a conference it’s more like a festival, as most New Orleans events are, with non-stop startup jargon and chit chat, back to back panels, corporate sponsored pitches, networking events that happen to be scheduled during cocktail hour, launch parties and celebrity (at least to those in the startup world) keynotes.

Each year NOEW is a bit different than the last, with more people and events, new speakers and bigger startups. In its seventh installment (and perhaps my fourth in attendance), I couldn’t help but go into the week wondering what this year meant for the festival. How much has it evolved? What does it mean for the region? What about the startups that pitched and attended previous years – where are they now? And, why should the world care? So, while ambitious and excited entrepreneurs eagerly perfected their elevator pitches and learned about how to handle negative online reviews, I observed and listened.

Humble Beginnings

New Orleans Entrepreneur Week started just like any other startup – much smaller and modeled differently than it is today, with little capital, some skepticism and many questions, as well as few believers. The mission has always remained the same, though – to create a self-sustaining environment for entrepreneurs.

Since its inception in 2009, NOEW has been hosted by The Idea Village, a non-profit that supports entrepreneurial talent in New Orleans. The festival initially stemmed from their IDEAcorps programming, which brought MBA students from around the country together during Spring Break to help small businesses in the New Orleans area.

Six teams of 6-8 students from elite universities provided strategic planning to 6 locally based startups, including Feelgoodz and Naked Pizza. The week kicked off with a crawfish boil at The Idea Village headquarters and culminated at Tulane University with a competition where the teams presented the impact they made on their partnered startups. Featured attendees also included Sales Force and Google. And by Sales Force and Google, I mean two friends of Idea Village staffers who worked at the aforementioned companies and offered “office hours” throughout the week. However, as NOEW grew, those friends from Google and Sales Force turned into teams from Google and Salesforce, eager to participate by providing guidance and office hours to participating entrepreneurs.

The following year, Jim Coulter, co-founder of equity firm TPG Capital, got involved. His New Orleans bred wife gave him intimate ties to New Orleans, but it was a pitch from Tim Williamson, CEO and Founder of The Idea Village, that committed him to the entrepreneurial community in New Orleans. That year, Coulter launched the Coulter IDEApitch, the first venture capital pitch at NOEW where established entrepreneurs competed for a trip to meet with investors in San Francisco.

“One of the fascinating trends going on is that of events,” said Coulter. “If you think about it, with Coachella, SXSW and Jazz Fest, here, that the concept of large scale, immersive events has become the counterweight to the digital world that we all live in. In the business world, those events range from Ted Talks to CES. So, there’s this tendency where at the same time we’re increasing the digital world, there is also a growth of events.”

By 2011, more educational workshops, panels and keynotes were added to the schedule. Coulter brought in Bill Walton and several Stanford professors to provide content and workshops throughout the week. On the final day, 225 people were invited to the Coulter Pitch, with 95% of those attendees being from out of town.

So that NOEW could become the anchor for a “self-sustaining ecosystem,” 2012 became the year of local engagement. The entrepreneurship season was created to make it relatable to New Orleanians who viewed seasons as Football, Carnival and Festival and not Fall, Winter and Spring like the rest of the world. New Orleans Entrepreneur Week would be the culmination of months of accelerator programs, educational workshops and events.

That year, NOEW also introduced the Big Idea, a pitch competition that invited locals to vote on their favorite business. Over 1,000 people showed up to see for themselves what local entrepreneurs were building.

“There’s No I In NOEW”

“The goal is to be a self-sustaining ecosystem,” said Tim Williamson. “ This year we introduced those entrepreneurs who had previously participated in NOEW as experts who could offer mentorship to entrepreneurs, education about their industry, and provide jobs. The entrepreneurs have become the content providers, closing that gap to the entrepreneurs now coming in.”

In 2015, 10,585 people were engaged in New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. The number includes 112 national and local investors, 121 entrepreneurial ventures from the South, national business leaders, corporate sponsors and thousands of interested community members. One might consider that self-sustaining.

“What is interesting is that this is an event that had very humble beginnings with quite and astronomical growth, “ added Coulter. “It’s a model that other cities should study and could replicate. Entrepreneurship at this scale really requires an ecosystem – from investors to corporate support – and entrepreneur week is a way of bringing that ecosystem together. “

Bedsides becoming a self-sustaining community where entrepreneurs can flourish and grow into successful business owners, New Orleans has become a model for other cities looking to motivate this same kind of entrepreneurial growth. So much so, in fact, that a former Idea Village volunteer and staffer brought in a team to do just that.

Daryn Dodson, who connected with The Idea Village as a volunteer from Stanford University in 2006, became the staffer who created the IDEAcorps programming that eventually grew into NOEW. Now, he is withThe Calvert Fund in DC and attends the event with different roles – investor and disciple, so to speak. He has invested in NOEW participantsBioceptive and Kickboard and, this year, Dodson hosted 19 people from around the country to better understand how the ecosystem can grow nationally and internationally.

“There is a sense that entrepreneurs from other areas, like the Delta Initiative, are being served, so there’s this idea that this model is being replicated and people from different areas are trying to bring a piece of this home with them, “ said Dodson.

He also added that one of his guests, an investor from Mexico City, wanted to know how to take this idea back to Mexico. In addition, one of the founders from The Calvert Fund remarked how great of a job entrepreneur week did at bringing investors into a community that doesn’t have large funds in order to solve different problems.

“Whether the challenge is rebuilding a great American city or building out a business, the New Orleans community has taught me to never give up on my dreams or the goals of the institution I work for.”

And, with that, New Orleans Entrepreneur Week is on display for the world to see.

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