Essence Fest Empowers Entrepreneurs

Startups and star power collide at this year’s festival.
Cheryl Gerber

Celebrating July 4 isn’t just about grilling and fireworks. In New Orleans, it’s about Essence Festival.

The annual weekend organized by Essence Magazine, a groundbreaking publication created specifically for African-American women, this year includes can’t-miss entertainers like Mary J. Blige, Usher and Kevin Hart, along with motivational speakers such as Donna Brazile and Deepak Chopra.

The festival takes place July 2-5 at two primary locations in Downtown New Orleans. During the day, the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center hosts empowerment seminars and a marketplace featuring art and items from across the African diaspora. In the evenings, concerts take over the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, both on the main stage and in four additional “super lounges,” featuring DJs and other acts.  

Now in its 21st year, Essence Festival has become a critical part of New Orleans’ annual festival calendar. While the living may be easy here in the summertime, tourism tends to slow down. Essence Fest brings visitors from across the country each July, which is good news for our hospitality and tourism industry.

Each year Essence features partner hotels on its festival website. One such partnership is with Valentino New Orleans Hotels, which manages five different properties, including Hotel St. Marie and the Place d’Armes Hotel. “We hold room blocks at each property in partnership with Essence Fest,” says the reservations manager for both hotels, Lenny Labrousse. “The Festival helps the hotel industry for hotel rates and occupancy by being a solid, sold-out event every year.”

By drawing over 500,000 attendees, the festival creates other opportunities as well. One local organization that seized upon the weekend’s potential is PowerMoves.NOLA. Run as an initiative of the New Orleans Startup Fund, the nonprofit focuses on diversifying the entrepreneurial and venture capital ecosystems in cities and ensuring there are more founders of color who are growing and running high-tech and high-growth businesses.  

PowerMoves.NOLA will stage its second national conference at the convention center alongside the festival.  

“We provide Essence with entrepreneurial content for their festivalgoers, who are focused on small business,” says Earl Robinson, CEO of PowerMoves.NOLA and the New Orleans Startup Fund. “In turn, they provide us with a wonderful platform and access to their audience.”

Robinson says last year Essence allowed PowerMoves.NOLA to hold a Power Pitch Competition on the main stage. This year they’ll do the same, awarding cash prizes and providing opportunities for minority-founded startups to meet with potential investors and mentors, including Carla Harris, vice chairman of Morgan Stanley, who will MC the pitch competition.  

Robinson notes that it is this type of synergy that helps small businesses get the attention they need. “Being linked to a large, national event gives us a large platform and a large voice so that entrepreneurs of color, African-American women especially, hear that voice. We want to make sure that NOLA is thought of as a city of entrepreneurs and startups, in addition to entertainment and food. The alignment is perfect.”

Jennifer Gibson Schecter was once a tourist in New Orleans herself and is now proud to call NOLA home. Prior to New Orleans, she wrote for publications in the Midwest and New York City. She advises travelers to ask their cab/pedicab/gondola driver for their favorite restaurant and taking a chance.



Categories: The Magazine