The New NOEW

After years focused on helping entrepreneurs take their ideas to the next level, Idea Village and Tulane’s A.B. Freeman School of Business are now collaborating to do the same with New Orleans Entrepreneur Week.


2009, the last week of March in New Orleans has operated as the entrepreneurial equivalent of the Super Bowl and Olympics rolled into one. Packed with various events, workshops, networking opportunities, speakers and pitch competitions offering up between $15,000 and $100,000 at a time, New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW), presented by J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., was created by the nonprofit Idea Village as a premier event that celebrates the entrepreneurial spirit of New Orleans and showcases emerging trends in innovations designed to help strengthen our region’s ties to the global community. This year the event runs from March 25-29 at locations throughout the city.

In those 10 years, NOEW has engaged over 760 startups and Jon Atkinson, who took over as CEO of Idea Village last June, notes that Idea Village alumni now generate over $250 million a year in annual economic impact for the region.

After running the event since its inception, Idea Village announced this past December that it was taking on a partner — this year’s 11th NOEW will be the first result of a collaboration between Idea Village and Tulane University’s A.B. Freeman School of Business. Rob Lalka, executive director of Freeman’s Lepage Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation since February 2017, will be leading this initiative on the university’s side.

This is not Atkinson and Lalka’s first collaboration. The two met co-teaching a class on Lead Launchpad at Loyola in 2015, a national best practice on how to build early-stage startups. Through the class, they formed a partnership in which patents developed by NASA were put into students’ hands. Students were then challenged to build a business that brought that technology to domestic commercial use.

“Jon and I were working with the business community throughout this class, and that flipped classroom approach that we used throughout it is still so incorporated into what we both do now,” said Lalka. “So, once Jon started at Idea Village we started talking about, OK, how do we make sure we work together?”

Recently, Biz New Orleans got to sit down with both Lalka and Atkinson to talk about what people can expect from the new NOEW.


Jon, after a decade of running NOEW, why partner with Tulane, and why now?

Jon Atkinson: I think we started, from the get-go, with an idea that this change in leadership, in a lot of ways, was a real opportunity to bring some greater alignment around the ecosystem and to really get the resources aligned around a funnel that creates new economic activity — new startups, new innovations and sort of puts the pieces of the puzzle together.

Rob Lalka: Yeah, that’s right. One key point is that Tulane helped to fund Idea Village in the very earliest of days, before Katrina. Tulane was sort of an angel investor in Idea Village so to speak. It was a small grant, but I think it was a meaningful one at that point. Tulanians have been involved in the ecosystem, and especially in Idea Village, all throughout. Now we get to do that in a way that’s much more strategic and intentional.

For instance, I’m aligning all of the entrepreneurial classes that I’m teaching in all of our student venture creations toward this week. The Tulane Business Model Competition, now in its 19th year, will be happening during the New Orleans Entrepreneur Week and will be completely aligned with the programming. Our students will be mentored by angel investors locally and then venture capitalists that are coming from the outside, in one-on-one sessions that we’ll be setting up.

And what’s really profound is that the average Tulane undergraduate comes from over 900 miles away. They’re coming to New Orleans because they see it as a destination city, where they want a great education, but they also really believe in what the city is all about. And so, the tag line of “Connect in a city like no other” truly is the reason why they’re here and it’s part of the education that we want to give them. Having the business community and the educational community completely aligned and around entrepreneurship, it’s a really beautiful thing.  


What are we going to see in year one of this new partnership?

Rob Lalka: There are two key themes that we’re hoping to weave throughout all of the work that we’re discussing this year, and, if it works, we’re going to have themes in future years that continue to keep New Orleans at the front edge of trends that are happening nationally and internationally. This year’s themes are around big data and entrepreneurial hospitality — two key areas that Freeman’s invested a lot of resources in.

So, hospitality’s a no-brainer, but can you talk a little bit about the big data focus?

Rob Lalka: Sure. If you look at Lucid and Zlien, just to name two, these companies are built off the fact that they’re working in a data-fueled economy. Some people say that data is the new oil, and I think that’s an interesting analogy for this region. We’ve seen companies that have been able to grow from zero to millions and millions of dollars of revenue with data as the source of their growth. Block chain, artificial intelligence, augmented reality — all of those new technologies that are emerging rely on a keen understanding of data. And even if you’re not going to be a data company first, you do need to be conversant in how data is going to affect your business.

Jon Atkinson: Yeah, I think the idea behind the focus areas is to explore a frontier, right? We see opportunities in these frontiers. We see opportunities in entrepreneurial hospitality. We see opportunities in big data and we feel like we can connect those opportunities to our core assets as a region, whether those be at Tulane or out in the business community. And so, we’re trying to actively catalyze activity in those areas.

New Orleans is also good at building and has opportunities to build companies that are really in unsexy areas, right? So, if you look at our areas where we have startup density, they tend to be business-to-business focused companies. They tend to be innovating stodgy processes and things like civic technology, industrials, health, education. They’re solving core technology problems. If we can bring those companies in and be a leader as a community in these emerging areas, I think that’s a real opportunity for our region.


So, the goal with these focus areas is to look at some our strengths as a region and take them into the future, to the next level.

Jon Atkinson: That’s exactly right.

Rob Lalka: Yeah, and the key is to jump at it really well by saying these are frontier areas. Our goal is not to talk about what we’re already doing, but what’s next. And to help inform the conversation with real depth of research and rigor that comes with an academic institution like Tulane.

It’s about being able to bring that level of thought and not just the faculty, as important as the faculty will be to this conversation, but the alumni and the students who have gone off and been successful, as well as the students who are researching this work right now. All of that will come together in a way which is going to be tangibly different. And that’s exciting for us.

Jon Atkinson: What we’re focused on the rest of the year is really how do we support companies through those critical stages in their growth, through our accelerator program, to get them off the ground and set them up for rapid growth. With the wind at their back, so to speak, by solving problems that are unsolved in areas of opportunity. We’re really excited about being able to explore those topics at NOEW. And we’re excited about being able to catalyze activity in those areas year-round.


Tim Williamson, the founder and past CEO of Idea Village, has spoken about how New Orleans is great for startup ventures but has struggled when it comes to taking those companies to the next level. What are those challenges that we’re facing here, and how do we conquer them? Is it a financing issue? A mentorship issue? Both?

Jon Atkinson: I think it’s all of the above. It’s finding the people that have done this, through our local networks, the Tulane networks, other connections outside of the city. It’s getting those folks engaged in working with startups here locally, year-round. It’s addressing the serious gap from a capital perspective. Our capital ecosystem has matured a lot in the last five to 10 years. We have a much more robust angel investment community than we used to. I tell entrepreneurs if you’ve got traction, if you’ve got a great idea, if you’ve got a built team, you can more than likely finance seeder or early series up to a million dollars.

But, beyond that, we don’t have a ton of infrastructure in the venture capital community and you’re going to have to find that money from the outside. And so, you know, how do we address that? How do we build those resources locally?

Rob Lalka: I think the key piece is the great Wayne Gretzky quote about skating not to where the puck is, but where it’s going. Where I see the puck going is, you have a company like Chris Meaux’s WAITR, that exits for well over $300 million — he’s speaking at NOEW this year —and that’s going to be exciting for people to hear what success really looks like and what that journey has meant to him.
Patrick Comer, with Lucid, who is Jon’s board chair and who was our Entrepreneur of the Year last year at Tulane, is someone else who has done it — has built a company that is truly leading a growing market, which is phenomenal for New Orleans to be able to say. Especially because his investor, and his most recent investor in the B round, were from Boston.

Capital will always be a concern, but these folks who have done it are role models that we can look to. And then, frankly, that also helps to solve our problem longer term, because as they exit and as they continue to have success upon success, that does bring more capital from people who are used to early stage B venture-building and risk-taking. When we look ahead five, 10, 15 years from now, that capital should be at work in our ecosystem.

Jon Atkinson: NOEW is an opportunity to showcase those success stories, and to keep ourselves as a community on the radar of folks nationally, that are interested in this space. And that can bring resources into our ecosystem, and it gives us a really valuable engagement point to bring those folks back here, year after year. To get them excited about what’s happening in New Orleans. And to really build meaningful ties with the broader global community.


What would you say to those that haven’t been to NOEW before?

Jon Atkinson: I would say this is the starting point. If you’re interested in getting involved in startups and entrepreneurship and innovation in New Orleans, NOEW is where you start. It’s a place to connect with all the people in New Orleans that care about helping startups, that care about innovation, and it’s an opportunity to learn what that process is like. It’s also an opportunity to be inspired.

Rob Lalka: And this year, for the first time, NOEW will be hosted at the Ace Hotel, so we’re not worried about it being a fun event. We know that it’s going to be an absolute blast.


The events are Monday through Wednesday and then Thursday and Friday are a two-day summit, and all of this is free, right?

Rob Lalka:Yes. The fact that NOEW is free is a tremendous asset for our entrepreneurial community. When you look at other conferences across the country that are focused around innovation, it’s something that people are willing to pay for and they do pay for, quite a bit. We put this on for free because we want to make sure that that front door to innovation is wide open.

Jon Atkinson: And I would say we are able to make that free because of the generosity of our sponsors. Title sponsor J.P. Morgan Chase has really stepped up to help keep this critical front door open to our community. And, you know, from a personal perspective, both Rob and I in a lot of ways got our start at NOEW, so we really feel a critical obligation to pay this forward, not just this year, but into the future.


So, how do we compare nationally with, like you said Rob, other events like NOEW?

Rob Lalka: I think that having Tulane involved in the partnership will help us to have a unique flavor to what we’re going to be doing. Some of these other events have just simply not designed themselves around that orientation. If you look at other conferences, like South By Southwest and a number of conferences in the Bay Area and up and down the East Coast in financial technology and early-stage venture capital, I would say that the key for us is we want to make sure that we are building around the themes where we know we can add value.

Jon Atkinson: I think the other critical differentiating factor for New Orleans Entrepreneur Week is the New Orleans part, right?

Rob Lalka: Right.

Jon Atkinson: We are not purely a tech conference, which is what some of the other examples that Rob just mentioned are about. This is an event that is fundamentally about New Orleans and our region, our ecosystem and bringing the people in our ecosystem and our community together. This is something that has to be uniquely New Orleans. You talk about connecting in a city like no other, that’s a mission statement, in a lot of ways, for what we can be.


So, ultimate big picture. What are you guys seeing?

Jon Atkinson: $500 million companies built in New Orleans.

Rob Lalka: Yeah, and Jon and I talk about this often. I won’t rest, and I’m sure you won’t rest until we have not just a few success stories that we can point to and put on the stage at NOEW, but so many of them that we can’t put them all on the stage. That’s our goal. Net new jobs come from brand new companies and that is important for our economy. It’s important to keep students who come here, who want to stay here, get jobs here. It’s important for people who have moved away and want to come back home, to have that chance.

Jon Atkinson: And to have a new model for inclusive entrepreneurship that really leverages all of the assets across our community.

Rob Lalka: That’s right.

Jon Atkinson: I think we have a really unique opportunity to build that in New Orleans, and it starts at NOEW, so we want everybody to come. We want them to be educated. We want them to learn something new. We want them to be inspired. And we want them to say, “Wow, this is a really amazing experience. And something that could only happen in New Orleans.”


Jon Atkinson

CEO of Idea Village
Native of Los Angeles

Holds a degree in economics from Davidson College and an MBA from Tulane University Freeman School of Business

Background in finance — started in commercial banking

Previously served as the first director of the Center for Entrepreneurship and Community Development at Loyola University

Co-founder of the Changemaker Institute at Tulane University.

Currently serves as co-founder of local angel investment fund Lagniappe Angels

Volunteer member of the Investment Committee of the New Orleans Startup Fund  

Favorite book? “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho

Pet peeve(s)? Inefficiency.

Daily habits? Do one thing that scares you every day.

Hobbies? I am a former collegiate rower and proud member of New Orleans Rowing Club

Best advice ever received? Bring two facts for every one of their opinions.

Who do you look up to? Steve Blank

What are you most looking forward to in the next year? Seeing the companies in our 2019 cohort take their game to the next level.

Biggest life lesson learned? Never stop learning.

Favorite TV Show? “Star Trek the Next Generation”


Rob Lalka

Professor of practice and executive director of the Albert Lepage Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the A.B. Freeman School of Business at Tulane University

Native of Roanoke, Virginia

Undergraduate degree from Yale and a master’s degree in global public policy from Duke University

Served in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Global Partnerships and was on the Secretary of State’s policy planning staff

Worked as a director at a venture capital firm called Village Capital

Was a senior advisor at the Howard G. Buffett Foundation

Moved to New Orleans with AmeriCorps after Hurricane Katrina

Worked on Mitch Landrieu’s campaign against Ray Nagin

Former director of strategy and partnership with Propeller.

Former adjunct professor at Loyola

Favorite book? My favorite book of all-time is Robert Penn Warren’s “All The King’s Men;” a great recent read was Ben Sasse’s “Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal.”

Daily habits? An early morning run with my Boykin spaniel, Beau. Bedtime reading with my 2-year-old son, Tice. 

Who do you look up to? My mom. As a public-school teacher, busy caregiver for her parents, and single parent to me, she still always made time for a neighbor, friend or stranger in need.  She’s lived her life for others and taught me to do the same.

Pet peeve(s)? Roger Goodell, Bill Vinovich, Nickell Robey-Coleman

Best advice ever received? “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

What are you most looking forward to in the next year? The first time Tice hits that big plastic ball with that big plastic bat without also clobbering the tee.

Hobbies? Seeking out adventures big and small with my wife, Lynn, who loves me enough to put up with my adventurousness.

Biggest life lesson learned? Everything is a phase. If it’s good, it won’t last, so you should enjoy it. If it’s bad, it won’t last and you should learn from it. But don’t miss out on what every season teaches and be grateful for what each has to offer.

Favorite TV Show? “Black Mirror,” but I can usually only watch one episode before switching to something more lighthearted. And I’ve learned the hard way never to watch it before bed.