If New Orleans needs a symbol of its entrepreneurial uprising, this is it: A grand building in the heart of the Warehouse District, once home to one of the city's old-line law firms, has been completely taken over by young business renegades.
By April, the lawyers had been swept out of the building at 643 Magazine Street. It was freshly rehabbed, christened the Intellectual Property, and the future started moving in: businesses like TurboSquid, an emerging player in the wild art of 3-D modeling, and iSeatz, the online engine behind major travel and entertainment sites.
Down the hall, an outfit called Launch Pad is leasing low-cost work space to freelance designers, writers and other would-be entrepreneurs. The Idea Village, a nonprofit group that fosters entrepreneurship and helped create the Intellectual Property building, moved in and started planning community events in the lobby. PlayNOLA, an organizer of sports leagues for young professionals, got its space by winning a local business plan competition. There are even a few new lawyers at Couhig Partners, which specializes in helping corporations with commercial litigation and business management.
The idea behind the I.P., as the building is called, is to provide a hub for an entrepreneurial culture that is bubbling up all over the city, in almost every kind of enterprise. Four years after Hurricane Katrina and the many stumbles toward its recovery, these young businesses represent technology, invention and youthful, entrepreneurial energy—altogether, the potential for rebirth in a region devastated by disaster.
"As someone who cut his teeth in the Bay Area during the dotcom boom, it's my opinion that we have an opportunity in New Orleans to recreate what we saw there in the late 1990s, or what Austin or Seattle has done," says Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., a nonprofit economic development initiative, and one of the minds behind the I.P. "We're creating a mecca for entrepreneurs."
The evidence is growing—from the thousands of new jobs to the tens of millions invested in business development and incentives. Not far from the I.P., in the Central Business District, a building at 220 Camp Street houses an upstart alternative energy provider, a new online exchange for business receivables and a startup music licensing firm. In the Faubourg St. John neighborhood, Trumpet Ventures is incubating startups in a 12,000-square-foot converted warehouse as it continues to expand its own marketing business. A new motion picture studio sprung up in Elmwood and already has a $60 million Sylvester Stallone action flick in production.
All of this is happening in a city that's still trying to clean up the tangible and psychological damage of Katrina, even as it clears away the long-existing lore of embedded industry and somewhat dubious business practices. In the midst of one of the worst national economies in decades, New Orleans is recreating itself as a hive of entrepreneurial initiative and demonstrating to other cities how to recover from even the worst disaster.
"Everyone's going through Katrina right now," says New Orleans fashion designer Seema Sudan of the current economic calamity. "When I go elsewhere, I feel what's going on in the world. When I'm here, I feel the optimism."
Seizing the Moment
New Orleans has always welcomed the unique and the creative; just think of the Mardi Gras revelry, the city's jazzy soul, the vibrant Creole and Cajun cultures. But it was almost never the place entrepreneurs thought of when they were ready to set up shop. Any prior associations between business and New Orleans were more likely related to big industry confabs at the city's Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and the staggering conventioneers on nearby Bourbon Street. Even longtime residents were challenged by the notion of New Orleans as a startup city: They knew the back-office machinations of government and old-line business practices would make it difficult to transform entrepreneurial thinking into a thriving young business community.
That all started to change in late August of 2005. Hurricane Katrina brought unspeakable tragedy to New Orleans and the other Gulf Coast regions it hit. More than 50 levees and floodwalls gave way, flooding 80 percent of the city. Endless media coverage locked in images of the city's devastation and the years of blight that followed. But if the storm did nothing else for New Orleans, it began to wash away an outdated, stifling way of doing business.