Building Forward Momentum
Andrea Chen, executive director of the startup incubator Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation, is taking on New Orleans’ biggest problems, one venture at a time.
Andrea Chen founded Propeller in 2009. Since 2011, the organization has incubated 50 ventures relating to water, health, education and healthy food access.
Stanford-educated California native, Andrea Chen arrived in New Orleans as part of the Teach for America program shortly before Hurricane Katrina. It wasn’t long before she witnessed firsthand a city in the wake of devastation slowly being brought back to life by the painstaking efforts of passionate residents and volunteers.
Ten years later, Chen is helping to bring the city into the future in her role as the executive director of Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation, a local nonprofit that has been incubating and launching socially minded ventures since its founding in 2009.
By linking professionals from different fields together through a common workplace, Propeller aims to develop and implement solutions to both short- and long-term problems that plague New Orleans.
Biz: Tell us a bit more about the goal for Propeller.
AC: Our goal is to build a critical mass of entrepreneurs in four key sectors that we think could foster the most change and benefit our city the most — water, health, education and healthy food access. We have found that the city’s biggest environmental and social challenges fall into these four key sectors.
Biz: How did the idea for Propeller come about?
AC: It started out as a failed book club: Only one person showed up for the first meeting, and instead of talking about the book, which he did not even read, we ended up talking about how to keep the momentum going in the aftermath of Katrina in regard to the social environment and the grass roots movement that was evolving. During that time, everyone in the city had a sense of responsibility and was vested in bringing the city back. Even though the book club didn’t work out, some friends and I began meeting frequently in the back room of the now defunct Bridge Lounge, exchanging ideas that we felt could nurture and support social entrepreneurism in the city by mobilizing people, identifying problems and offering support to social change.
Biz: How does Propeller work?
AC: We believe that there are market-based opportunities that can bring about social change. Propeller provides entrepreneurs with the tools they need to drive progress in our city. Every day our city faces big problems like coastal erosion and healthy school food, and these problems require solutions. We want to facilitate collaboration between entrepreneurs, mentors who are established professionals in their respective industries, consultants and volunteers. At the heart of Propeller is our Social Venture Accelerator, which supports early-stage social ventures in achieving economic sustainability and social impact. The Accelerator is a 10-month program that supports entrepreneurs throughout the business lifecycle, from start up to operational. Propeller matches professional consultants with founders of socially-minded enterprises to help them establish financial goals and map out how many people they hope to reach.
Biz: With so many viable and worthwhile entrepreneurs out there, how does Propeller choose whom to work with?
AC: The selection team at Propeller looks for entrepreneurs that have the greatest potential for social and environmental impact, financial sustainability and entrepreneurial leadership. We want ventures that can really move the needle and make a difference in New Orleans.
Biz: Why would a new business want to work with Propeller?
AC: There are many reasons. Everything a startup needs we provide, including one-on-one interaction with mentors who are successful in their fields. These mentors provide guidance, along with access to a huge network of pro bono resources including lawyers, accounting firms, graphic designers, and social media experts, as well as use of office space equipped with computers and conference rooms. We try to decrease the amount of time startups spend at the setup level so that they can get up and running faster and solve problems quicker. Entrepreneurs benefit from the stability they get from Propeller.
Biz: Tell me about the success Propeller has had.
AC: We have a proven track record of collectively generating $20 million in revenue that has impacted the lives of thousands of New Orleanians. We have accelerated 60 new ventures including community farms, a food hub, a wetlands kayaking tour company and a maternal healthcare collective. More than 80 organizations and 150 people work out of the Propeller offices daily and we are about to graduate our fourth Accelerator class. Also, we have created more than 100 full- and part-time jobs.
Biz: With the success, how have you grown?
AC: In 2012, we expanded our operations into a 10,000-square-foot office space on Washington Avenue near South Broad Street in Central City. In additional to providing space for our Accelerator fellows and graduates to meet, we also rent inexpensive office space to social entrepreneurs who want to take advantage of both the communal working environment and our consulting services.
More than 80 organizations and 150 people work out of the Propeller offices.
Biz: What’s new?
AC: We have restructured our core Accelerator program so that we can serve twice as many social entrepreneurs, and we are looking to deepen our sector impact from 10 to 50 companies. Our Impact Accelerator will encompass two intensive tracks – a three-month Startup Accelerator designed to accommodate 10 idea-stage ventures and a five-month Growth Accelerator that will support 10 to 20 ventures with proven business models to bring their ideas to reality. Participants in this new two-track model will benefit from our newly added business experts in the water and healthcare (and) food security sectors. We are excited to be working with Mike Eckert, the former CEO of the Weather Channel, and Neil Gibbons, the co-founder and COO of Better Digestive Health. They will bring another layer of expertise and support to the program that will really benefit our fellows.
Biz: How has Propeller impacted the city of New Orleans?
AC: One example of how we have moved the needle is in the food security sector. Our fellows work collaboratively to bring about change in this sector. One of our graduates, food-distribution entrepreneur Jack and Jake’s, was awarded a contract to distribute local foods and produce to another one of our graduates, the Healthy Food Collaborative, after the Collaborative was awarded contracts for 48 percent of the New Orleans public schools. These companies are working together to get healthy food on the table for the city’s schoolchildren and to impact how kids are eating. The schools that our graduates are working with are receiving fresh foods – nothing canned or fried — as well as milk that does not contain hormones.
We have also effected policy changes at the state level. We needed to get permission at that level to change the way schools serve food. We wrote guidelines for healthy school food and a local procurement clause for school food to enable our fellows to work together. We ended up presenting a model to the state that they have never seen before.
Biz: What does the future hold for Propeller?
AC: We plan to continue to address specific problems in the city that need to be solved and to actively look for ventures that can solve these problems.
We recognize that the problems the city faces evolve as the city grows, but some long-term issues like coastal restoration are prevalent, and we are committed to being part of the solution through our Urban Water Retention sector. We also plan to continue to work toward solving the issue of our healthy food access disparity.
Each of the sectors we have identified encompass issues that need to be addressed if we are going to build a vibrant, viable and equitable New Orleans.
Farmers at work at VEGGI Farmers’ Coop, a Propeller venture. VEGGI incubates new farmers and teaches sustainable urban agriculture to former Vietnamese fishermen in New Orleans East who lost their livelihoods as a result of the BP oil spill.
Propeller’s Big Wins
Every year since 2011, Propeller has graduated a class of fellows from its Social Venture Accelerator program. The following are some of the impacts these startups have made.
This year’s 15 ventures (graduated last month) collectively generated over $1 million in total earned revenue and financing. Their successes include:
• Securing nearly 1,000 acres of wetlands for restoration and permanent protection
• Enabling over 4,000 elementary schoolchildren to receive medical screenings in order to decrease absenteeism in school
• Opening a youth summer camp focused on leadership development. The camp will offer four sessions in June and July.
• Redirecting 9,500 fresh meals that would have been thrown away to receiving agencies like shelters, food pantries and soup kitchens.
• Farm City Initiative facilitated over 120 agriculture redevelopment projects throughout New Orleans.
• Griffin Law Group won over $300,000 in benefits for disabled children, serving over 150 families.
• TrueSchool used design thinking to reach over 200 teachers through its innovative studios, which will impact over 6,000 students.
• The Healthy School Food Collaborative generated $9.8 million in revenue and was awarded contracts for 48 percent of all NOLA public schools.
• Birthmark Doula Collective trained 18 doulas and served 185 clients, half of whom received free services through Birthmark’s 1-to-1 program.
• The Justice & Accountability Center worked with more than 1,500 clients with nonviolent criminal records to help them find jobs.
• Jack and Jake’s local food hub became operational, aggregated produce from local farmers within a 500-mile radius and distributed to New Orleans public schools.
• Youth Rebuilding New Orleans purchased blighted buildings, renovated them with volunteer support, and sold them back at an affordable price to community members and teachers who could otherwise not afford them.
• Matter, Inc. scales The Bird Project bird soaps to raise over $21,000 for BP oil spill cleanup.
A Propeller fellow in the sector of water management, Louisiana Lost Lands Environmental Tours provides kayak tours that educate people about Louisiana’s critical coastal and wetland loss.
Propeller’s Economic Impact since 2011
• 50 incubated ventures
• Over 100 full- and part-time jobs created
• More than $20 million in external financing, revenues and grants