A Grand Experiment With Mixed Results
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.
Any time an organization is willing to take something successful and risk making substantial changes to it, they deserve a world of credit. When the purpose of the change is to engage more and different people, even greater credit is due.
As every entrepreneur knows, there is no success without taking risks, but taking risks is no guarantee of success. Which leads us to the latest version of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW).
For 2018, the Idea Village made a very conscious and laudable effort to make NOEW more of a community event. Instead of having most activities take place around a central location, this year NOEW events were scattered over eight different neighborhoods. In particular, most of the pitch contests were spread far and wide.
“Entrepreneurship doesn’t just take place downtown, it happens in neighborhoods all over our community,” said NOEW executive producer Victoria Adams Phipps earlier this year, “so we are really trying to embody that, and allow you to attend NOEW in your neighborhood.”
A more worthwhile goal is hard to imagine. The results, however, were mixed.
According to data from the Idea Village, total attendance saw a precipitous decline and so did cash and in-kind prizes, which amounted to $482,975 last year while this year’s press release announced that “$330,000 in funding and services was awarded.”
From an experiential standpoint, the energy levels at much of NOEW were down. In particular, when activity did re-centralize at the “NOEW Summit” at the Contemporary Arts Center for the last two days, the networking, conversations, stimulation and excitement that have characterized NOEW in the recent past just never really materialized.
There were exceptions; one attendee at the Water Challenge pitch at Propeller described it as “a full and enthusiastic house of people engaged in the green and water sectors.” However, the energy at this specialized event did not translate to Entrepreneur Week in general
Clearly, there has to be a critical mass of people, events and activities to generate that entrepreneurial vibe that has made NOEW as a whole so unique and wonderful. Such a mass was not truly attained this year.
Equally clearly, there were positive outcomes. According to the Idea Village, 47 percent of the companies that participated in NOEW 2018 were women-owned businesses. Observing attendees at some of the community-based events, a greater variety of people definitely were engaged. By no means was the experiment some terrible failure.
What does this mean for NOEW going forward? The goals of diversity and inclusion are key to making New Orleans a more equitable city, and the Idea Village should be supported 100 percent in striving for them. Executive producer Phipps indicated that the organization may move toward having NOEW-type activities in satellite locations throughout the year; perhaps this approach should be accelerated. Engagement and participation around multiple communities over a period of months could channel energy and people toward NOEW. As one community partner put it, “More promotions within the neighborhoods would go a long way.”
Speaking for myself, I would definitely encourage at least a partial return to the more centralized approach. There is just no substitute for bringing large numbers of people together in a stimulating, thought-provoking environment with opportunity in the air and a focus on entrepreneurism in its many forms. Rather than fanning events out around the city, there could be an investment in bringing community members engaged throughout the year to the central NOEW location and activities.
The Idea Village truly should be applauded for its willingness to take a risk. Something else every entrepreneur knows is that the path to success has many steps; hopefully NOEW 2018 will prove to be a step to future entrepreneur weeks that are both vibrant and inclusive.