Camelback Rises Above
A local startup receives national recognition for its company culture.
"Genius is equally distributed; opportunity is not.”
This universal truth — and the desire to address it — is the premise behind a local enterprise called Camelback Ventures that focuses on developing entrepreneurs. In just its third full year of existence, Camelback has served more than 30 individuals, and been recognized nationally for its own success.
“The motivation for me was to create a place and a platform for entrepreneurs who are often on the sideline but who should be on the field,” explained Camelback founder and CEO Aaron Walker. A lawyer and teacher in previous career incarnations, Walker observed that not only is it a lot more difficult for entrepreneurs of color to get access to resources they need, but also “a lot of times their ideas are in service of communities of color.”
Camelback responds to these inequities by providing coaching, capital and connections to under-represented entrepreneurs. The primary mechanism used to tackle these issues is a fellowship program where the focus is on entrepreneurs whose business vision includes a social benefit component, especially those related to education.
“Education entrepreneurship is a top priority for us, especially in New Orleans,” said Walker. Examples of ventures Camelback has supported in this field include Brothers Empowered to Teach, which seeks to increase the number of African-American male teachers in public schools, and Rooted Schools, whose objective is to prepare students in public schools for careers in digital media.
The firm’s name comes from an innovation developed by free people of color following the Civil War. With land inside the city limited, this community began adding second stories to the back parts of their shotgun homes, an architectural style known as a “camelback” that is still visible and popular in New Orleans today. Camelback Ventures saw in this an inspiring example of using ingenuity to lift up communities both literally and figuratively.
The organization’s own ingenuity was recognized this past May with a Gusto Extra Mile Award, presented to small businesses that make extra efforts to treat their employees well. From a pool of some 40,000 small businesses, Camelback was one of only 11 winners selected nationwide.
“The most valuable asset we have is our people,” noted Walker. “As a startup, we had to be creative as to how we go above and beyond for them.”
In addition to individual respect and a good working environment, Camelback gives its employees one five-hour workday per week, freeing employees to run personal errands, see doctors, or simply have a little extra time to enjoy life.
“It’s not about how much time people work but the quality of that time,” Walker said. “Many of our employees report feeling extra energized when they come in the next day.”
While the Gusto award was appreciated, clearly what energizes Walker is the opportunity to strengthen individuals and communities frequently struggling to catch up. The organization’s intersection of education and entrepreneurship provides an ideal focal point for this.
The Camelback Fellowship program lasts six months and focuses on both the entrepreneur and the venture itself. Virtually all participants are women and/or people of color, and virtually all are launching enterprises that seek to improve education and economic opportunity in their local communities and cities.
There are few societal problems that will not be at least partly solved by better education and wider economic opportunity. Linking these in an entrepreneurial setting provides opportunities of many kinds — an ingenious approach that those post-Civil War creative thinkers would certainly appreciate here in the 21st century.
For more information on the Camelback Fellowship program, visit CamelbackVentures.org.
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.