Opportunity for All

Female- and minority-owned businesses are learning to leverage opportunity zones thanks to a new effort by the New Orleans Startup Fund

Illustration by Tony Healey

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.


 

In theory, entrepreneurism is an opportunity open to anyone with a good idea and the energy to back it up. Regardless of background, I think we can all agree that whomever builds the proverbial better mousetrap should have an open path to success.

Reality, however, is a different story. Looking at national entrepreneurism data, women and people of color remain discouragingly underrepresented. This column has looked at some of the reasons before  — which range from reduced access to capital, to smaller, lower-capacity networks, to simple bias.

New Orleans, however, is increasingly reversing this trend. A number of entities and factors are contributing to this very positive development and one of them is the New Orleans Startup Fund’s PowerMoves.NOLA program, designed to help local minority-owned businesses tap into the federal Opportunity Zones program.

Opportunity Zones were established by Congress in 2017. In the words of Jimmy Roussel, CEO of the Startup Fund, they are “aimed at revitalizing certain underdeveloped communities across the United States by investing in local businesses and real estate. The idea is to unlock capital to redevelop those areas.”

Basically, the program allows investors with capital gains to invest in the zones. If they maintain those investments for 10 years, the capital gains tax is eliminated. Large portions of New Orleans and the surrounding region are designated as Opportunity Zones.

PowerMoves.NOLA was initially established as an outreach program to bring more entrepreneurs of color into the Startup Fund’s various programs. This was soon followed by some capital investments in these entrepreneurs and efforts to prepare them to attract further investments.

“The Opportunity Zones present a unique situation,” said Roussel. “They attract different sources of capital, like insurance companies, pension funds and private equity firms. Now we want to position our entrepreneurs as attractive to these investors.”

To achieve this, the Startup Fund recently completed a series of four workshops about the Opportunity Zones and how to take advantage of business opportunities within them. More than 125 entrepreneurs participated, virtually all of them women and/or minority-owned businesses. Outreach for the workshops was done in collaboration with the Black Chamber of Commerce, Goodwork Network and Strive NOLA.

Roussel was very optimistic about New Orleans’ ongoing leadership in providing opportunities to these business owners. Currently, the Startup Fund’s portfolio includes 45 companies, of which about 50% are minority-owned and 40% are women-owned. These far exceed national averages.

“We’ve already had some businesses we worked with that have gone through the cycle, sold their initial business and are now starting a second company,” Roussel said. “Also, we have had five or six companies move from Silicon Valley to New Orleans so they can participate in our programs.”

He added that PowerMoves is in the process of expanding to become a national organization in an effort to replicate the New Orleans approach in cities across the country. “It’s really rewarding to see New Orleans be a leader in this way,” he added.

The Opportunity Zones program is just one of a variety offered by the Startup Fund and PowerMoves.NOLA, all in the service of expanding business and employment opportunities and increasing wealth in local communities of color.

Individuals interested in plugging into these programs should visit neworleansstartupfund.org, and complete the online submission form. This will be followed by a personal interview to gauge the applicant’s readiness to participate in the programs.

While Roussel noted that “eight out of 10 applicants are not really ready for us yet,” the Startup Fund does work with everyone who shows an interest to point them in the right direction. “If we can’t help them directly, we will connect them with someone who can.”

Creating a more equitable entrepreneurial landscape is vital to creating a more economically equitable New Orleans. By connecting business people of color to major programs like the Opportunity Zones, PowerMoves.NOLA is kicking the whole game up a big notch.