In December, I took a trip to New Orleans to learn more about Propeller – an accelerator I had heard much about in as far as Richmond. A friend in D.C. made the connection with Rob Lalka – head of Strategy at Propeller. That very morning, Propeller was hosting Innovate New Orleans – a two-day training program in design thinking and social innovation run by Civic Accelerator. So I first saw Rob in action when he introduced Propeller to the twenty or so workshop participants.

Rob Lalka welcoming participants of Innovate New Orleans

Rob Lalka welcoming participants of Innovate New Orleans

Leveraging the spirit of renaissance

Propeller was originally founded as Social Entrepreneurs New Orleans just after Hurricane Katrina and later became Propeller. “Right after the storm, a lot of people simply wanted to help rebuild. Some people said that we should not rebuild, but that was not an option. Where you are sitting right now was supposed to become a park. Instead it is New Orleans’ hub for social innovation and entrepreneurship.” Propeller works with ventures primarily in sectors of food security, education, healthcare and water. Since 2011, Propeller has supported the launch of over 90 ventures, which in turn have created over 250 full- and part time positions and generated over $60 million in revenues and follow-up funding (website). Looking at the bigger picture, Propeller ventures have increased the amount of healthy meals for school children in New Orleans by over 40 percent, rehabilitated over 1,300 acres of wetlands, improved healthcare access for families from low-income communities, and with disabled children, and have worked with over 1,100 educators to support student learning outcomes and prevent youth violence (website).

Propeller runs an accelerator for early-stage ventures in the fall and one in spring for those that are looking to scale their activities. Besides, it functions as an incubator that offers 10,000 square feet of co-working and event space. Having worked with Village Capital in D.C., I ask Rob how the social enterprise landscape in New Orleans is distinct from the capital. He explains: ”You can’t talk about New Orleans without talking about community. You cannot solve a problem in this city without engaging the people around you. Rebuilding the Ninth Ward and developing Propeller would not have been possible without the support from the community. Most entrepreneurs we work with – when faced with a shortage of some kind – will respond with ‘I have a guy, I know someone who can help me with this.’ And that makes New Orleans different.” I was intrigued.

Social entrepreneurship in smaller communities

By Rob Lalka

Having mainly spoken with support organizations in large cities I was curious to hear more about the role of community in a smaller city like New Orleans; how do you engage locals in social ventures? What does that look like?

Rob tells me: “Amidst all of the good indicators in New Orleans – and there are many from the last decade – it is clear that all businesses across the city have not benefited equally.  Racial inequities are particularly alarming: while minorities represent 43% of the population citywide, they own 27% of all firms, and their businesses receive less than 2% of receipts.

“Surveys completed for the Data Center’s New Orleans Index at 10 show that these business owners do not feel supported by the ecosystem and that they are either unaware of or excluded from available resources. Despite being generally positive about the services to support small businesses, only 39% of respondents agreed with the statement: “Generally speaking, I feel that New Orleans is friendly to minority small business owners.” The uneven playing field is more than an opinion; this is the reality of an incomplete recovery.

Propeller work space

Propeller work space

“At Propeller, we believe that it is our responsibility – to our board, our funders, and to fulfilling our mission – that we address these issues directly, honestly, and meaningfully. The citywide statistics, and the stories our neighbors share each day, make it clear that our entrepreneurial community must come together to support our entire community.

“Thus far, our efforts have yielded results. To date, minorities have represented 42% of our entrepreneurs (exceeding the 27% of firms that are minority-owned in New Orleans). Similarly, 7 of our 14 staff members are minorities and 4 of our 9 board members are minorities. Nationwide, 29% of firms are women-led; at Propeller, 57% of our businesses are led by women, 12 of our 14 staff are women, and 6 of our 9 board members are women.  But there is far more work to do, and our work in the community — organizing from the suites to the streets — on a day-in, day-out basis will continually be important in the coming months.”

Wrapping up

On my way to the airport a few days later, cab driver Cliff confirmed this mentality. He spoke about how all the cabbies stick together and help each other out. According to Cliff, Uber was currently being sued in New Orleans for over-charging a lady in Jefferson Parish “She told the sheriff, who was her uncle, or her cousin, or somehow related to her, and the sheriff told Uber they weren’t welcome in his Parish. That’s why folks like it – everyone in the community looks out for each other.” Whether Cliff got all the details of the case I don’t know, but he – as much as Rob Lalka at Propeller – feels strongly about the importance of community in New Orleans.



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