Last Wednesday night, I was surrounded by hundreds of dancing people, bourbon drinks in one hand and a cup of jambalaya in the other, when the Lagniappe Brass Band told - no, ordered - all of us to get low. We obliged - even those on the upper deck - for what felt like minutes, until the blast of their trumpets brought us all back to life in a way only a brass band can.
This scene took place at SanFraNOLA, the quintessential event for ex-pat New Orleanians and anyone who loves the city. More than 800 people came out to Public Works in the Mission District of San Francisco for cocktails, jambalaya from Jambalaya Girl, king cake from Haydel’s, music by Lagniappe and those pithy Dirty Coast stickers. Really, I think we all came for a muggy breathe of New Orleans.
Behind this third semi-annual event are GNO, Inc., a public-private partnership focused on driving the city's economic development, and Dirty Coast Press, with sponsorship through NOLAbound, Entergy and the U.S. Economic Development Association.
While it was quite the party, the event's organizers had a purpose: Bring in targeted people - think startups, entrepreneurs and investors - to showcase the commonalities, culture and connections between San Francisco and New Orleans.
In his address to the packed house, GNO, Inc. President and CEO Michael Hecht compared San Francisco's devastating earthquake and fire of 1906 to Hurricane Katrina, which blew through New Orleans in 2005. In his eyes, both were cataclysmic events that inspired innovation in both cities.
"New Orleans had our earthquake a hundred years later," he said. "What people don't realize is that New Orleans is a much better place to run a company and live in this post-Katrina environment, and we're trying to tell our story."
Hecht added that the goal of events like SanFraNOLA is to build a group of grassroots marketers who will talk about New Orleans as a good place to do business, and inspire companies and individuals to consider moving South.
Chris Schultz, a leader in the NOLA startup community and co-founder of LaunchPad Ignition, a startup accelerator, agreed that important business connections between the two tech communities were being formed both at and outside the event. During his trip, Schultz conducted meetings with 500 Startups, an incubator and extremely active Venture Capital firm in the Silicon Valley.
"The big vision was to communicate to the country's leading tech community that there is an emerging tech scene in NOLA," Schultz said. "I was able to invite two of our Ignition advisory board members to the event, as well as some startup CEOs who had spent some time in New Orleans. The event was a great expression of New Orleans culture with the music and food and party and atmosphere, but I used it as a platform for engaging relationships that are important to advancing our startup community."
Example: While Lagniappe blew their horns, behind them were projected slides of all the software and tech job openings currently in New Orleans.
What was really on display, though, was the strong bond so many San Franciscans seem to share with New Orleans. Everyone I talked to spent time in New Orleans, knew someone from New Orleans, went every year for Jazz Fest or Mardi Gras, or simply loved the city. Even the Code for America New Orleans fellows were in attendance to make some connections and get a feel for the city before heading down there later that week.
Schultz and Hecht, who have spent time in both places, commented on the shared "core values and ethos" of the cities. We both appreciate the arts, architecture, music and food. We share an appreciation for enjoying life.
"New Orleans is just a tropical version of San Francisco," Hecht said.
Catherine Lyons lives in San Francisco, but left a little piece of her heart in New Orleans. She is the former entrepreneur editor for NolaVie.