Big Easy Living: City's mom-and-pop past makes way for a new generation of entrepreneurs
By Renee Peck
When I left The Times-Picayune two years ago, I explained to people that I was taking early retirement. Emphasis on the early.
Retired people seem … old. And one reason I retired when I did, at 55, was to be able to do things I’d always wanted to do, but never had the time, before I was … too old.
I didn’t, however, think I’d be jumping into the local entrepreneurial waters. Yet here I am, with a new startup, swimming alongside the city’s burgeoning generation of young professionals. And while you might think that networking and brainstorming with people half my age would make me feel, well, old, it’s actually pretty rejuvenating.
Many of the editors and contributors to NolaVie belong to what Business Week, The New York Times, Entrepreneur Magazine and other publications have dubbed “a new, post-Katrina entrepreneurial culture” – a community of young newcomers who are seeing promise in a city once dismissed as hopelessly past its prime.
As The New York Times acerbically put it, “It has been a long time since the word “optimism” was spoken in the same sentence as ‘New Orleans.’ ”
Pundits with far better insight than me have attempted to explain this explosion of Big Easy entrepreneurial endeavor. Certainly, the devastation left in the wake of Katrina proved a siren call to urban planners, volunteers, the service-oriented and anyone yearning to make a difference in the world by fixing something. We needed a lot of fixing.
But New Orleans is proving fertile ground for this generation’s best young people for other reasons, too.
For one thing, it’s a fun place – “the ultimate college campus for adults,” according to that story in The New York Times.
It’s fairly cheap, too, compared to many other cities.
And it’s collaborative. New Orleans is community oriented. We helped one another rebuild; we root for one another; we all row the same boat. Competitive, we’re not. Meet a fellow New Orleanian in some distant locale, and you’ll likely soon find a beer in one hand, a bowl of etouffee in the other, and discover a shared distant cousin in the family tree.
And yet, New Orleans also is a place where we cherish the individual. We love the family eccentric; we tend to live and let live. That appreciation for the idiosyncratic is part of what makes this city fertile ground for entrepreneurial spirits.
We’ve always had a mom-and-pop mentality in a corporate-minded world. One thing I love about living Uptown is that I eat in one-of-a-kind restaurants, shop at unique boutiques, buy staples at corner groceries.
In fact, New Orleans is built upon an entrepreneurial foundation, whether you’re talking 18th-century street peddlers or 19th-century plasterers and brick-layers or today’s Mr. Okra and Roman Candy Man. We’ve always had people who lived above the family store. We embraced buying local long before it became a contemporary national trend.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that a new generation is discovering that New Orleans is a promising environment for individual enterprise. What might be surprising, however – in a city I’ve heard called this hemisphere’s “northernmost Third World country” – is their vision and their promise.
As the 21st century surges forward on a tide of ideology and technology, this brainy new generation represents the entrepreneurial wave’s cutting edge. The fact that the New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, being celebrated here for the third time, is drawing the best and brightest businesspeople from across the country puts New Orleans on the map in a whole new way.
As local media consultant Todd Ragusa explained it in an email to me, “Part of what makes this an interesting story is that it’s finally something relating to New Orleans that has absolutely nothing at the moment to do with recovery. This is New Orleans out ahead of the curve, innovating, influencing the rest of the country and drawing brilliance from every corner of the U.S. The city is staking its claim as belonging in the conversation with other thought-leading cities and regions in the U.S. – New York, Seattle, Boston, Silicon Valley, etc. NOLA has been the laboratory and is now serving as the model for how to do this in other cities across the nation.”
So no matter how many entrepreneurs lie in New Orleans’ past, the real headline here lies in what these young people are doing for their – our-- future. They’re not repeating history: They’re making it.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]