An Interview with New Orleans Entrepreneur Week’s Victoria Adams Phipps
In honor of the 10th anniversary of the Idea Village’s New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW), we spoke with Executive Producer Victoria Adams Phipps about how this year’s event goes further than any that have come before.
New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW) has grown from a small, post-Katrina gathering to a massive annual festival of entrepreneurship. NOEW 2018, to be held March 19 to 23, will be the 10th edition of this nationally recognized event, and The Idea Village, producer of NOEW, is celebrating the anniversary by implementing some new features.
Over the last several years, NOEW has made a substantial effort to involve more of the New Orleans community. Making NOEW a community event rather than simply a business event has been a major objective for Victoria Adams Phipps, the executive producer of NOEW.
Biz New Orleans recently had the chance to sit down with Phipps in the Idea Village’s new home at The Shop, the new co-working space on the third and fourth floors of the Contemporary Arts Center. During the conversation, Phipps shared the humble beginnings of the largest entrepreneurism event in the city, what it takes to run NOEW and her team’s ambitious plans for the future.
How did NOEW get started?
We never actually set out to start a festival. New Orleans Entrepreneur Week grew out of recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina. We were getting phone calls from MBA students from around the country who wanted to come to New Orleans and contribute to the recovery efforts, but they didn’t necessarily want to rebuild a roof or gut a house; they wanted to leverage the skill sets they were building in business school and apply those to local companies. They didn’t just want to meet companies, they wanted to talk to the mayor, they wanted to meet other young professionals, they wanted to find a great place to get crawfish.
We were [facilitating these meetings] around the clock and it was massively inefficient, so we decided to organize something around spring break — craft it as an experiential learning opportunity and get all these students to descend on New Orleans in one week.
We did that for about two years, and then we realized there was some magic in bringing people together to support local companies. At that point, we decided to flip that experience on its head, not make it micro about students and companies, but broaden it to bring the whole community into supporting local entrepreneurs, learning about entrepreneurship and finding ways that entrepreneurship transforms the community. We became New Orleans Entrepreneur Week in 2009. Fast-forward to today, and you have a massive experience that engages thousands of people from all across the community, and really all across the region.
What are a couple of the biggest ideas that have been launched out of NOEW?
Launch, for NOEW, is an interesting term because we view ourselves as more of a platform. The vast majority of companies that are featured at NOEW have launched at some point earlier in the year and are now showcasing themselves at Entrepreneur Week.
That said, we’ve had a few really cool ones come through our doors. One that I really love is Your Nutrition Delivered by Erik Frank. They’re a nutrition/wellness company that delivers healthy delicious meals to corporations, hospitals and so forth. Erik attended New Orleans Entrepreneur Week in 2012. He came to The Big Idea, our large, culminating event, and he said, “I’m going to be on that stage.” In 2013 Erik was on that stage and won the grand prize. I love that 360 of someone standing in the audience and envisioning themselves actually being able to achieve that.
AxoSim is another great one. They are a nerve-on-a-chip platform that is really changing the way drugs are tested, using engineered human nerve tissue. Basically, these chips look and function like real human nerves, which allows pharmaceutical companies to develop safer and more effective drugs before they even do clinical trials. The company recently raised $1.7 million from the National Institutes of Health, which is a huge win for AxoSim and for the community as well. It speaks to the type of companies that grow here.
The last one I’ll mention is Where Y’Art, a great online gallery where you can meet hundreds of New Orleans artists — from painters to sculptors to craftsmen and jewelry designers. It’s a 24-hour meeting place where the artist is always present. They pitched at The Big Idea, they pitched at Demo Day in 2015, and they’re now partnering with the “300 for 300” campaign at NOLA.com, and issuing all the portraits for all those significant New Orleanians. It’s very cool to watch these companies go from a small seed idea to something that is reverberating all across our community.
You said that there are some new and exciting things coming this year. What are a couple of the highlights?
This will be the 10th New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, which is a major milestone for us — to come from a gathering of a bunch of students and local startups to having engaged over 50,000 attendees in that time. We're excited to welcome JPMorgan Chase & Co. — one of our longest standing corporate partners — as our presenting sponsor this year. The biggest change is that this year many of our events will actually spread out across the city. Entrepreneurship doesn’t just take place downtown, it happens in neighborhoods all over our community, so we are really trying to embody that, and allow people to attend NOEW in their own neighborhood.
We are working with our partner organizations — Propeller, Tulane, Loyola and LaunchNOLA — to execute their events around the community and building a dynamic calendar that is truly accessible. We’ll still be anchoring our core programs here at the Contemporary Arts Center, and at The Shop, but that will be a smaller, streamlined run of core educational programs. We’ll still have our keynote speakers, our networking events, our panels and education summits, but our pitch competitions — the featuring of local entrepreneurs — we’re spreading that love far and wide.
Now that the event is going to the community, what are you doing to connect the community to the event?
We’ve spent the last couple of months talking to our attendees, talking to our partners and understanding what the community really needs, and the one thing we have heard loud and clear is that strengthening our focus on the founders is key, regardless of what that founder looks like. You might have the founder of a hair salon or the founder of a massive tech company, but either way it’s focusing on that business owner, and tailoring our programs to align with that founder need.
As it relates to broadening our reach, it’s just getting more of the community to know us and realize there is something for them at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. Our team has a renewed focus on being out in the community and hopefully finding some synergies in the programs we are offering.
Let’s talk about you and your role in all this. What attracted you to be part of all this to begin with?
Prior to working for the Idea Village, I worked in the music industry. I’m originally from Miami, Florida. I went to Loyola and graduated from their music industry program. Hurricane Katrina was my freshman year, and in my four years at Loyola I developed a deep commitment to this city, so upon graduation, I knew I wanted to stay in New Orleans. I went to work for a local record company, doing artist and tour management, but doing tour management meant that I was traveling pretty heavily. I came off this long tour and realized I was spending very little time in New Orleans, which was the city I had committed myself to, and I said there’s something messed up about this. So I started looking for a transition, and at that time the Idea Village was hiring a contractor to aid with New Orleans Entrepreneur Week 2011.
That was the first year that they offered programs broadly to the public and they were looking for someone to wrangle that. So I came on board for a three-month stint that turned into six months, and fast forward to today, I’ve been here for seven years. I originally joined the team as a program manager, helping on the direct service side with some of our vendors, but that quickly evolved into getting involved with some of our core programming, expanding our workshop series and eventually growing to manage all of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, which is what I do today.
Can you talk a little bit about the team that makes NOEW happen?
The NOEW team is the Idea Village team; we are one and the same. We are a diverse group of passionate people, all of whom are committed to New Orleans. Many of us are not originally from here, but in some way, shape or form found our way to the city and made it our adopted home. Some of us came from the startup world, some come from big corporations like Google or Whole Foods Market, but everyone who works on New Orleans Entrepreneur Week has a commitment to contributing to their community. That’s the thread that ties us all together and keeps us moving forward.
When do you start the planning for the next NOEW?
(laughs) Immediately following the end of NOEW! As soon as NOEW is over, we send out a series of surveys to our attendees, our speakers and our partners. We spend the next month understanding that data — what worked, what didn’t, what could we improve, what could we revamp. We take about a week to do some strategic planning, then it’s off to the races! In the past, NOEW has had over 100 events and over 50 partners. Managing that takes time, so we start pretty early.
What’s the hardest part about the job?
The hardest part is whittling down all the great ideas that we get. This past year we received over 200 submissions for roughly 20 speaker slots. So it’s not an easy job, and when you look at the growth of New Orleans over the last couple of decades, there’s so much talent in this city and really in the region, so figuring out how to whittle all that down into one concise, final package is always the hardest part.
What’s the most fun part of the job?
The most fun is seeing it all come to life. You spend this full year working on something, putting your blood, sweat and tears into it, chugging coffee, staying up late trying to make it work, then you have that magical moment when the lights turn on, and the signs are in place, and that keynote that you busted your ass to get is finally hitting the stage. That’s the best moment, the moment that it’s all worth it.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from doing NOEW?
Start as early as possible! (laughs)
What are you most excited about for this year?
Hitting that 10 year benchmark in and of itself is something I’m very excited about. I’m excited that we’re making this transition to hosting the event citywide; it’s really important to reach people where they’re at, to get out into the community, to make things accessible in a true way, not just hosting a free event, but hosting a free event that is across the city, in different neighborhoods, in different locations, and features different levels of business owners. I’m really excited to add a new layer to that accessibility this year.
Are there any goals you still have for NOEW?
I think any large event has room to improve; you always want to deepen your impact and expand your value. But the big goal that is looming out there in the distance is translating New Orleans Entrepreneur Week into a year-round experience. We will always have the week in March and dedicated programs that are taking place that week, but moving our content toward something that’s annual — doing industry-specific summits that might happen quarterly, focusing on some of those industries that we have a competitive advantage in, using those moments to catalyze activity that can then culminate in New Orleans Entrepreneur Week in March — that’s the big goal that our team is starting to hustle toward.
NOEW 2017 Facts
panelists and moderators
startup businesses highlighted
in-cash and in-kind prizes awarded