At a coffee shop in New Orleans, voices of a city striving
When we took our table at Laurel Street Bakery in Broadmoor on Friday, NOLA.com reader engagement liaison Rebecca Alexander and I weren’t sure what to expect. This was the first time, after all, that we had invited people to coffee via mass media open announcement.
It was an experiment for our news organization in forging and preserving connections to the community we serve. But what if no one showed up? Or, maybe we would be swamped. Maybe the visitors would bring us tremendous insights about the news, particularly business news for me as a business reporter. Maybe their messages would be more diverse.
What followed was remarkable. I ended up hearing from a procession of passionate New Orleanians. They approached it from different angles, but expressed a shared spirit: caring about the city, desiring to see it thrive and striving to create something to add.
Most of the visitors focused on the city’s climate for startups, in line with my reporting emphasis on entrepreneurship. And they nicely represented a cross-section of that arena: small business owners in widely varying fields, neighborhood revitalization promoters, lawyers from a firm with deep roots that now is drawn to the newest companies and some of the city’s top boosters for entrepreneurs.
Here’s what they said, in condensed form, at the table at the coffee shop:
Sean Arrillaga stopped in and said he didn’t think it was any harder starting a business in New Orleans than it would be anywhere else. But he’s from New Orleans, so it’s the only place he considered. Along with partner Jason Hemel, he started Peristyle Residences in 2011 and now operates New Orleans, Metairie and Gretna assisted living homes, each with six to eight beds in the familial settings of renovated houses. They left other jobs in senior care to start the company. They’re planning more locations.
“We wanted to create a business that fulfills a need, but it’s something we can do,” Arrillaga said. “There are not a lot of opportunities for people who can’t live at home.”
The demographics of an aging nation suggest a large market for such services going forward. When it comes to a business resurgence in New Orleans, however, Arrillaga said his biggest concern is that the energetic, idealistic young people who have arrived since Hurricane Katrina will decide to leave as they mature and start families. That’s why the city has to stay focused on goals such as improving schools and neighborhoods and cutting crime.
David Winkler-Schmit, spokesman for the Broadmoor Improvement Association, New Orleans City Council member LaToya Cantrell and other groups, talked about the resurgence of the very neighborhood where we were meeting, the intersection of Washington Avenue and Broad Street, where Laurel Street Bakery opened its newly renovated space in October. The Propeller incubator for social entrepreneurs opened a building around the corner a year ago and a neighborhood health clinic is under development across the street.
“This is an historically neglected corridor, and it’s blowing up” Winkler-Schmit said. “This is like a Freret Street two years ago.”
Edward George and Jonathan Brouck took seats at the table to describe how their long-established law firm, Chaffe McCall, founded in 1826, is exploring the realm of the newest upstarts in town. Brouck, who is 27, said he finds himself surrounded by friends his age talking about their new enterprises at social occasions.
“The last thing a young entrepreneur, or any entrepreneur, wants to do in starting their own business is hire a lawyer,” George said. But businesses have legal needs, and the firm is seeking ways to help. It even held its own business pitch contest in February.
“This is unprecedented, having this much entrepreneurial energy focused on New Orleans,” George said.
Kristi Oustalet, meanwhile, said “creative entrepreneurs” in New Orleans, such as artists, photographers and designers, need help learning more about the business side of their businesses. So she’s launching a potential solution, a “pop-up school for creatives,” called the A.C.E. Academy. The initials stand for Adventures in Creative Entrepreneurship, which is also the title of an online video series Oustalet produces.
Oustalet herself is an artist. She paints live events. She also has worked as an arts program administrator.
“Most of these entrepreneurs are kind of one-man shows,” she said. “They get stuck because they get overwhelmed.”
Husband-and-wife team Adrian Guy and Eugene Anderson also said they want to see more support for small businesses. They own the Krewe du Brew coffee shop on St. Charles Avenue, but their purpose in visiting me at Laurel Street Bakery on Friday wasn’t to talk about their shop.
They said they wanted to spread the word that business ownership can be for anyone. The idea intimidates people, they said, but it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than seizing on something you already love to do.
Guy and Anderson said they want to see more attention on small business owners, by news media and other business people. They mentioned recent occasions with national firms, like the Square credit card payment service, hosting events focusing on small businesses in New Orleans. “That’s something we should be doing ourselves,” Anderson said.
They envisioned forming a group of small businesses with members who promote each other. They mused that it could be called “the Grassroots Chamber of Commerce.”
Richard Pomes, co-founder of the start-up RapJab marketing and advertising firm, which uses a promotional style of telling the personal stories of clients, described a successful first year. RapJab grew from a two-person operation with Pomes and the other founder James Brandel to a seven-person operation. Business has been growing 26 percent per month, Pomes said.
His concern, however, is whether New Orleans is a large enough market for the firm to keep growing here.
“We have a lot of passion for New Orleans business,” he said.
Yet, he said, “There’s definitely a cap on the market you can reach in New Orleans. We want to stay here, but there’s not always business here.”
And Tim Williamson, the chief executive officer of The Idea Villageentrepreneurship network and Cameron Adams, communications director for the group, visited to offer a progress report on the latest cohort of entrepreneurs in their coaching course, called the IDEAxcelerator. Participants will be making mid-season presentations on their efforts this week. Some ultimately will appear in business pitch contests during New Orleans Entrepreneur Week in March.
Along the lines that Guy and Anderson discussed minutes earlier, Williamson described watching the process of people from familiar backgrounds gradually embracing the identity of “entrepreneur.”
“Within this group, there’s an artist, there’s a teacher, there’s an athlete, a banker and a real estate agent,” Williamson said. “Who are these entrepreneurs? They’re actually you.”
“Anyone can be an entrepreneur.”