A Year of Extremes
2021 featured enormous entrepreneurial successes…and challenges
Keith Twitchell spent 16 years running his own business before becoming president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans. He has observed, supported and participated in entrepreneurial ventures at the street, neighborhood, nonprofit, micro- and macro-business levels.
As we enter the final month of 2021, it’s a good time to remember the biggest entrepreneurial stories of a year that most of us want to forget quickly. Between Ida, the delta variant and everything else, perhaps the biggest story of the year is that we all survived!
One bright spot in 2021 was the “Silicon Bayou.” Levelset, a New Orleans software firm, sold for a local record $500 million to a California tech company. Progress in establishing our region as tech hub has been inconsistent, and this event is a potential accelerant for opportunity and investment in the sector.
Video game development retained its leading role in the local tech industry, with established firms such as inXile, Testronic and Turbosquid continuing to thrive. In October, nationally known video game developer Jeff Strain announced that he would be launching his next venture, Possibility Space, in downtown New Orleans.
While opportunities for entrepreneurs of color and female entrepreneurs still lagged in general, the gap in New Orleans is less than many other cities, and success stories including Nelson Burton, Keiana Cave and Troy Henry (whose team was recently selected to develop the former Six Flags site) helped demonstrate the diversity of opportunities here. Taking this one step further, Dr. Calvin Mackie, founder of STEM NOLA, began expanding his innovative methods of bringing STEM education for young people of color to other cities, while also launching a community technology hub in New Orleans East.
Another sector experiencing notable expansion in 2021 was hotel/motel, with everything from national chains to local boutique hotels opening their doors. With the hospitality industry still struggling considerably, each new venture represents a strong statement about the future of tourism in New Orleans.
One major challenge confronting hospitality and many other sectors continues to be staffing shortages. A recurring story throughout the year was workers who used forced time off during the pandemic to explore better employment opportunities. In addition, some of the workforce continued to stay home rather than face COVID-19 exposure. For many restaurants, retail operations and other lower-wage businesses, the resulting worker shortages have led to curtailing of hours and even outright closures.
Compounding this was Hurricane Ida, which displaced many people for weeks – with some still unable to return home – and interrupted cash flow for many operations that were already teetering on the brink. Unfortunately, businesses across all sectors found Ida to be the last straw and have announced that they will not reopen. Micro-entrepreneurs appear to have been particularly impacted by the storm. Ironically, this may help alleviate workforce issues for businesses that do survive, as employees and owners alike find new jobs.
Hurricane Ida also put a glaring spotlight on infrastructure issues that plague the region, particularly the power grid. While the storm devastated areas west of the city, the immediate metro area did not suffer grave damage, and the big story was power remaining out for a week or longer in many places. For companies with national clients and connections, from investment firms to manufacturers, this kind of interruption is more than just a hardship.
Indeed, going back to where we started, when asked whether Levelset would continue to maintain its headquarters in New Orleans, founder Scott Wolfe made it clear that such would be his preference. But he cautioned that an unreliable infrastructure could force the company to reconsider.
How the infrastructure issue is addressed will be one of the biggest stories of the next few years. The good news is that the rebuilt levee system held. Progress seems to be occurring, albeit slowly, at the Sewerage and Water Board. However, despite increasing calls to strengthen the electrical grid – particularly by moving more of the power lines underground – Entergy has yet to announce any specific plans, and has previously indicated that it considers underground lines prohibitively expensive.
The creativity and perseverance of entrepreneurs in metro New Orleans continues to be tested, and so many still manage to follow their dreams and inspirations. We can all hope that 2022 will bring fewer obstacles and far more success stories.