Short on Solutions

My notes on NOEW 2019
Illustration by Tony Healey

 

This was the second year of the new New Orleans Entrepreneur Week format. Again, events over the first three days were spread out around the city, and the final two days of “summit” were conducted in a single venue. The move to the Ace Hotel worked well, and energy during the summit phase was considerably higher than last year. The goal of being more inclusive of community remains a good one, and that goal seems to have been more successfully realized this year.

New this year was the presence of the Tulane University’s A.B. Freeman School of Business as a full partner with the Idea Village in presenting NOEW. This seems like a logical collaboration and will hopefully continue going forward.

Issues of race and gender equity in the entrepreneurial world were front and center throughout NOEW, something the producers should get a lot of credit for emphasizing. While the number of women- and minority-owned businesses in our region has increased significantly in recent years (though still not representative of regional demographics), revenues accruing to these enterprises as a percentage of overall sales have barely budged. In some ways this is actually discouraging, as it means more DBEs (Disadvantaged Business Enterprise certification) are basically sharing the same tiny slice of the pie.

This is just one opinion, but the panels I went to seemed clear and open about the nature of the problem, but very short on solutions. Andrea Chen of Propeller made the excellent point that “race-based problems cannot be solved by race-neutral solutions” in a discussion on “Becoming an Anti-Racist Organization.” She and her Propeller colleague Krystal Allen had some good recommendations relating to business hiring practices, such as providing job candidates with practical exercises rather than focusing so much attention on their resumes. They accurately pointed out the racial and cultural biases that are inherent in everything from college admissions practices to typical performance review mechanisms, and that while the talent pool of people of color is strong and deep, it requires more work by potential employers to access and evaluate candidates from this pool.

However, while greater workforce diversity — especially in entrepreneurial businesses — may ultimately lead to more entrepreneurial diversity, this does not directly address the current problems.

I found another variation on this theme in a panel entitled “Creative Tribe: Metrics of Success.” The panel featured a diverse panel of “local” female entrepreneurs. The reason for my quotation marks is that only one of the panelists, Kelli Saulny, director of strategic partnerships for Camelback Ventures, was actually a native New Orleanian; the others have all been here seven years or less.

Saulny’s observation that “genius is equally distributed, opportunity is not” seemed even more piquant in this context. The issues of gentrification that are problematic in our neighborhoods have the potential to be just as problematic in the entrepreneurial world. We are of course a welcoming city, and most certainly are happy to see talented, enterprising people bringing their visions and skills to New Orleans, but it is fair to ask whether they are creating further challenges for our home-bred talent.

This panel, too, looked at the hiring process as a path to a solution, recommending that business owners make an extra effort to hire natives and longtime residents. Again, providing business experience and an income that allows an individual to consider fulfilling his/her dreams is beneficial, but does not address underlying issues of access and equity.

Nevertheless, surfacing these issues is definitely a prerequisite to finding and implementing solutions, and every panelist I heard was genuinely open and honest about the need to create a more equitable entrepreneurial landscape here. Combined with the renewed energy and spirit of the 2019 version of NOEW across the board, it suggests that more direct, tangible solutions may well be germinating in the fertile minds of our amazing local entrepreneurs.

 


 

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