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Ten Years After Katrina, A New Startup Sector Takes Hold In New Orleans

Rebuilding the city brought forth a new generation of tech entrepreneurs, though local venture capital remains in limited supply.

  • <p>Founded by New Orleans <a href="https://www.teachforamerica.org/" target="_blank">"Teach for America"</a> grad Brian Bordainick, Dinner Lab puts together chefs, hosts, and diners for one-night pop-up restaurants around the country.</p>
  • <p>Dinner Lab has benefited from the relatively cheaper housing and office space costs in New Orleans.</p>
  • <p>New Orleans has always had a reputation as a culinary hub.</p>
  • <p>“The startup costs were a lot cheaper. We were able to make a pretty small investment last a long way.” - Brian Bordainick</p>
  • <p>Dinner Lab's unique origin story is told on its official site: "It started out as most arrest records do...on a night in New Orleans. We now call them our Board of Directors, but back then they were just a few hungry guys with no late-night options."</p>
  • <p>"Many meals and a bit of trial and error led to Dinner Lab as we know it today: a roving night out that is forever changing and always an experience to remember."</p>
  • <p>Dinner Lab debuted in 2011. Their very first <em>Chef de Cuisine</em> was Lalita Kaewsawang.</p>
  • <p>In 2012, Dinner Lab actually hosted a meal inside an old New Orleans brothel.</p>
  • <p>Dinner Lab's first foray outside of New Orleans took them to Austin, Texas.</p>
  • <p>By 2014, Dinner Lab had grown tremendously. According to their official site: "Our first event was for Google, and a few events later we hosted Solange Knowles' immortal 'White Wedding'."</p>
  • <p>Dinner Lab's office was originally housed in Brian Bordainick's French Quarter home.</p>
  • <p>Chefs can submit a profile and a suggested menu, and are considered for Dinner Lab presentation.</p>
  • <p>Dinner Lab has since hosted events in Nashville, Chicago, and New York City.</p>
  • <p>“I lived here before the storm, and there was just not a lot of energy around entrepreneurship and problem solving." - Andrea Chen, executive director of Propeller</p>
  • <p>Today, Propeller operates a 10,000-square-foot space and offers an accelerator program for startups.</p>
  • <p>Propeller's focus is on finding solutions to problems having to do with food, health, education, and water management.</p>
  • <p>Some Propeller-backed companies include Clear Health Analytics, which uses statistical techniques to help people pick health insurance plans and VEGGI Farmers Cooperative, which has helped fishermen from the city’s Vietnamese community shift to growing local vegetables after the 2010 BP oil spill contaminated the Gulf of Mexico.</p>
  • <p>“After Katrina, New Orleans became the leading Teach for America city in the country, so you have a lot of very smart people moving down to become teachers through the Teach for America fellowship." - Chris Schultz, cofounder of the startup community Launch Pad</p>
  • <p>Launch Pad describes itself as "a collaborative workspace and community of entrepreneurs, creative professionals, and freelancers--building businesses together. Sick of working at home or hanging out at coffee shops? Drop into Launch Pad and see what a joy a great workspace can be."</p>
  • <p>Launch Pad offers educational as well as mentorship programs.</p>
  • <p>The program also sponsors its own awards, "The Launchies."</p>
  • 01 /21 | Dinner Lab

    Founded by New Orleans "Teach for America" grad Brian Bordainick, Dinner Lab puts together chefs, hosts, and diners for one-night pop-up restaurants around the country.

  • 02 /21 | Dinner Lab

    Dinner Lab has benefited from the relatively cheaper housing and office space costs in New Orleans.

  • 03 /21 | Dinner Lab

    New Orleans has always had a reputation as a culinary hub.

  • 04 /21 | Dinner Lab

    “The startup costs were a lot cheaper. We were able to make a pretty small investment last a long way.” - Brian Bordainick

  • 05 /21 | Dinner Lab

    Dinner Lab's unique origin story is told on its official site: "It started out as most arrest records do...on a night in New Orleans. We now call them our Board of Directors, but back then they were just a few hungry guys with no late-night options."

  • 06 /21 | Dinner Lab

    "Many meals and a bit of trial and error led to Dinner Lab as we know it today: a roving night out that is forever changing and always an experience to remember."

  • 07 /21 | Dinner Lab

    Dinner Lab debuted in 2011. Their very first Chef de Cuisine was Lalita Kaewsawang.

  • 08 /21 | Dinner Lab

    In 2012, Dinner Lab actually hosted a meal inside an old New Orleans brothel.

  • 09 /21 | Dinner Lab

    Dinner Lab's first foray outside of New Orleans took them to Austin, Texas.

  • 10 /21 | Dinner Lab

    By 2014, Dinner Lab had grown tremendously. According to their official site: "Our first event was for Google, and a few events later we hosted Solange Knowles' immortal 'White Wedding'."

  • 11 /21 | Dinner Lab

    Dinner Lab's office was originally housed in Brian Bordainick's French Quarter home.

  • 12 /21 | Dinner Lab

    Chefs can submit a profile and a suggested menu, and are considered for Dinner Lab presentation.

  • 13 /21 | Dinner Lab

    Dinner Lab has since hosted events in Nashville, Chicago, and New York City.

  • 14 /21 | Propeller

    “I lived here before the storm, and there was just not a lot of energy around entrepreneurship and problem solving." - Andrea Chen, executive director of Propeller

  • 15 /21 | Propeller

    Today, Propeller operates a 10,000-square-foot space and offers an accelerator program for startups.

  • 16 /21 | Propeller

    Propeller's focus is on finding solutions to problems having to do with food, health, education, and water management.

  • 17 /21 | Propeller

    Some Propeller-backed companies include Clear Health Analytics, which uses statistical techniques to help people pick health insurance plans and VEGGI Farmers Cooperative, which has helped fishermen from the city’s Vietnamese community shift to growing local vegetables after the 2010 BP oil spill contaminated the Gulf of Mexico.

  • 18 /21 | Launch Pad 2013

    “After Katrina, New Orleans became the leading Teach for America city in the country, so you have a lot of very smart people moving down to become teachers through the Teach for America fellowship." - Chris Schultz, cofounder of the startup community Launch Pad

  • 19 /21 | Launch Pad 2015

    Launch Pad describes itself as "a collaborative workspace and community of entrepreneurs, creative professionals, and freelancers--building businesses together. Sick of working at home or hanging out at coffee shops? Drop into Launch Pad and see what a joy a great workspace can be."

  • 20 /21 | Launch Pad

    Launch Pad offers educational as well as mentorship programs.

  • 21 /21 | Launch Pad

    The program also sponsors its own awards, "The Launchies."

Next week will mark the 10th anniversary of a dark chapter in New Orleans' long and storied history, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city and the surrounding area. Now, a growing startup community is hopeful the city will soon be known as a center for new and innovative businesses.

"I think, by 2018, there’s an opportunity for New Orleans to be viewed around the country, around the world, as a hub of entrepreneurship for the South," says Tim Williamson, the CEO and cofounder of incubator The Idea Village, referring to the year the city will celebrate its 300th anniversary.

That would have been hard to imagine in 2005, when the storm flooded 80% of the New Orleans and cut its population by more than half, while leading to the deaths of more than 1,800 people across the Gulf region.

But after the floodwaters receded, lifelong residents and newcomers from around the country organized to piece the city back together: rebuilding houses, clearing debris, and even restoring street signs, says Andrea Chen, executive director of New Orleans social entrepreneurship incubator Propeller.

Propeller

"I lived here before the storm, and there was just not a lot of energy around entrepreneurship and problem solving," she says. "A lot of that changed after the storm, and a lot of that was out of necessity."

As the city rebuilt, Chen and her cofounders sought to preserve that energy, creating what would become Propeller. Today, the incubator operates a 10,000-square-foot coworking space and offers an accelerator program for startups focusing on problems to do with food, health, education, and water management. It also offers a variety of Crescent City-focused tech programming, like a class on building Arduino-powered Mardi Gras costumes.

One Propeller-backed company, called Clear Health Analytics, uses statistical techniques to help people pick health insurance plans. Another, the VEGGI Farmers Cooperative, has helped fishermen from the city’s Vietnamese community shift to growing local vegetables after the 2010 BP oil spill contaminated the Gulf of Mexico.

"A lot of people already had outdoor gardens—it was something that was part of the culture," says Chen, explaining that members of the cooperative now sell produce to high-end restaurants around the city.

Launch Pad

But while those kinds of turnaround stories are now growing common, the years before Katrina had been marked by pessimism in New Orleans. Problems like crime, political corruption, and a slowly shrinking economy had just seemed intractable, and many talented residents felt they had no choice but to seek their fortunes elsewhere, says The Idea Village’s Williamson, a native of the city.

"In my lifetime, we grew up thinking we could never win," he says. "We could never succeed."

But as the city came together to rebuild, long-term residents and natives returned to help with rebuilding efforts began to feel more empowered to change the status quo, he says.

"Because of Katrina, people started to reframe about who we are and how we do things—maybe we can solve our own problems," he says.

At the same time, the rebuilding efforts brought newcomers to the city, including many with an entrepreneurial bent and a love of the city’s unique culture.

"After Katrina, New Orleans became the leading Teach for America city in the country, so you have a lot of very smart people moving down to become teachers through the Teach for America fellowship," says Chris Schultz, cofounder of the coworking space and startup community Launch Pad. "A number of them became entrepreneurs."

That’s led to a number of growing New Orleans startups in educational technology—like Kickboard, which builds analytics tools to track student performance and got its start at Launch Pad. Some Teach for America participants even went on to start companies in other fields, like Brian Bordainick, the founder of Dinner Lab, which puts together chefs, hosts, and diners for one-night pop-up restaurants around the country.

Dinner LabPhoto: Aaron Lyles

Bordainick says his company has benefitted from one advantage New Orleans has over more established startup hubs like New York and the Bay Area: significantly cheaper costs for housing and office space.

"The startup costs were a lot cheaper," he says. "We were able to make a pretty small investment last a long way."

Michael Hecht, the CEO of economic development nonprofit Greater New Orleans Inc., estimates a business can save 30% to 40% in overall costs by starting in New Orleans rather than New York or San Francisco. He's also seen housing cost savings help companies from startups to giants like General Electric woo new technical hires from out of state.

"it’s been our experience, that we’re pleased to see that if people from New York, from San Francisco, from Chicago are offered the chance to get a good job with a company in New Orleans where their dollar goes 30% further, and they can have a much greater quality of life in general, almost everybody says yes to that opportunity," he says.

Louisiana also offers tax incentives for angel investors and software businesses in the state, but many acknowledge raising larger levels of capital in New Orleans can still be harder than in Silicon Valley.

"I think that there’s no doubt that being in New Orleans as a CEO or [in] business development, you are going to need to be on a plane," says Schultz. "If you’re in San Francisco, you can kind of walk down the street, there are VCs everywhere, you can kind of take a lot of meetings very easily."

Photo: Ryan Green

Fundraising may become easier if and when New Orleans has a big enough tech company get acquired or go public, suggests Bordainick. That could create a class of millionaires looking for new startups to back, just as Microsoft's success helped make Seattle a tech hub, and Dell’s IPO helped establish Austin’s tech industry.

It’s unclear, though, if the city currently has the infrastructure to support a new employer on a Microsoft or Dell scale: Housing prices have already risen dramatically since Katrina, leading to widespread debate about gentrification. While rental prices are still significantly lower than in the big coastal cities, so are many paychecks outside tech and other high-salary industries, and public transit advocates continue to argue officials haven’t done enough to restore service cut after the storm.

Still, Hecht argues, a growth-driven housing crunch might be a better alternative to the slow stagnation he says the city saw not long ago.

"The fact that you’re going to have these growing pains is in some ways a good thing, because that means you’re actually growing," he says.

Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photo: Debby Wolvos, Food Stylist: Sarah Seddon; 02 / Photo: Brittany Purlee; 03 / Photo: Katie Bird Photography; 04 / Photo: Aaron Lyles, PIXELLAB; 05 / Photo: Mike Dawson; 08 / Photo: Katie Bird Photography; 09 / Photo: Ryan Green; 11 / Photo: Ryan Green; 12 / Photo: Aaron Lyles, PIXELLAB; 13 / Photo: Ryan Green; 18 / Photo: Craig Mulcahy;

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