Unapologetically New Orleans
The president and CEO of the New Orleans Business Alliance, Quentin Messer is not afraid to play favorites. In his second sit-down with Biz New Orleans, he shares how NOLABA is re-imagining economic development and what it’s going to take to secure New Orleans’ economic future.
It’s been a big year for the New Orleans Business Alliance and Quentin Messer.
Since he became president and CEO of the New Orleans Business Alliance—the official accredited economic development organization for Orleans Parish—on July 1, 2015, Messer’s job has been to lead a team in championing New Orleans to businesses around the globe. It’s something the organization has been doing since its founding in 2010, but over the past year, things have really been moving and shaking.
Amid a lot of staff changes—seven of the 29 professionals at NOLABA have been hired in the past year, including the state’s only biomedical economic developer and a developer focused on the food and music industries—the nonprofit launched a Workforce Leadership Academy with the Aspen Institute, created a Community Development Finance Certificate Program through a partnership with UNO, hosted 40 urban specialists from around the globe as they examined issues specific to the city and launched a new business growth initiative called InvestNOLA to accelerate the growth of businesses owned by people of color, to name just a few things.
NOLABA has also garnered some impressive accolades on the national scene. This past October, the International Economic Development Council (IEDC) named the organization the winner of a Gold Excellence in Economic Development Award for its New Orleans Health Innovators Challenge, and this past May, Messer was recognized as one of the Top Economic Developers for 2019, by Consultant Connect, in part because of his innovation in the field.
A lot has changed since we first sat down with Messer for the November 2016 issue of Biz New Orleans, so this month we asked Messer to join us again and share his views on the city’s future, including what, exactly, we should be learning from the Texans.
“New Orleans is sexy-smart. We’re never not going to be interesting. We’re never not going to be fun. But trust and believe we are deadly serious about getting the business of business done.”
Biz: How does NOLABA differ from organizations like JEDCO and GNO, Inc.?
QM: We’re actually pretty similar to JEDCO or St. Tammany Corporation, because JEDCO and Jerry [Bologna] and his team are focused only on Jefferson Parish and [Chris] Masingill over at St. Tammany Parish Corporation is focused on St. Tammany Parish. GNO, on the other hand, has to be agnostic across 10 parishes in Southeast Louisiana, so it can’t play favorites. It can’t favor Jefferson over Orleans over St. Tammany over St. Bernard over Washington, whereas we at the Business Alliance are exclusively, and I think everybody understands, unapologetically, ensuring that New Orleans has a seat at the table.
Biz: A lot has happened since NOLABA was founded in the post-Katrina landscape of 2010. How has the organization also changed?
QM: I think the biggest change is that we are now focused on economic development re-imagined. When we first came about, it was about traditional economic development focused on business attraction retention, perception management. Basically, about how people perceive the business environment here in New Orleans. Today, with economic development reimagined, we really look at the place, the individual. We try to think about how our work improves the lives of each one of our friends and neighbors here in Orleans Parish.
Biz: NOLABA currently focuses on four core areas: business attraction/retention, talent and workforce development, small business growth, and strategic neighborhood development. Why those specific work streams?
QM: I think over the past nine years the population everybody wants to win, the college-aged millennial population, has basically signaled to employers, to economic development organizations, that their decisions about where they’re going to take their talents, where they’re going to grow their careers, where they’re going to grow the next great companies is going to be based upon cities that engage their total self.
This means it’s not just sufficient to have great jobs, you’ve got to have an interesting place in which to live. You’ve got to have vibrant neighborhoods. You also have to have a community that cares about the least of its citizens. I think all of us, whether you’re a millennial or not, are sort of drafting off millennials and saying, ‘Hey, there’s more to life than just sort of work.’ Obviously, that’s critically important, but we’re looking at more of a holistic approach. We believe those four work streams when we execute them well, will make New Orleans much more competitive than it’s been in the past.
Biz: What are New Orleans’ biggest strengths, besides being a fun place to visit?
QM: I think there are three strengths. You alluded to one of them: People want to be here. New Orleans is one of the few cities where people will come without a job to live. People will come and take maybe a 15 to 20% discount on their salary desires just to be here. That is a rare commodity and should not be underappreciated.
Second, we are a brain magnet. I don’t think people fully appreciate that, so one of our opportunities is to talk more about the fact that we are a center of learning. We are an intellectual center. We have two medical schools physically in Orleans Parish proper, plus the Ochsner Queensland physician training right across the parish line. Plus, there are almost 30 to 40,000 young people pursuing an associate’s or bachelor’s degree here in Orleans Parish in an academic school year. We have two law schools, three business schools; I mean, that’s a lot of intellectual horsepower in a city. Companies’ capital tends to go places where there’s smart people and there are a lot of smart people in New Orleans.
Finally, in terms of looking at how the economy benefits everyone, I think there’s been undeniable economic progress over the past decade. Now, I think we’re all focused on how we make sure every New Orleanian feels that. There are very few cities that are consciously leaning in the way that we are in New Orleans and I think that’s highly attractive.
Biz: On that front, post-Katrina, there’s definitely areas that have not rebounded in the way that the rest of our city has. And I’m assuming that’s what you’re talking about—spreading that a little further?
QM: I agree with you. I would only phrase it slightly different. I believe everyone, if you sat objectively, has benefited post-Katrina. I think when you start talking about relative benefit is when I think you begin to realize that while nothing is ever going to be 100%, if you’re in Algiers or New Orleans East or Gentilly, you may feel that some of the amenities that were here pre-Katrina have not returned to your neighborhood. One of the things that we are very cognizant of today are some of the non-skill challenges, like public transportation, that prevent people from fully participating in the economy as they would like to.
I am unapologetically optimistic about the future in New Orleans. We are on a undeniable, upward trajectory. Now it’s just about how we make sure that we get everybody on the field. I mean, I’m a big sports fan and I think for too long, New Orleans was playing 7 and 11 when we got to the field of economic play, and that we can’t continue to do. I think everybody gets that.
Biz: When you say economic development reimagined, what are you talking about?
QM: On January 1, 2018, we integrated the former network for economic opportunity, and we brought over greater capacity in talent and workforce development and in-place strategic neighborhood development. When that happened, that began sort of re-imagining what it meant to be an economic development organization, and I think over the course of 2018, and maybe the first quarter of 2019, we began to say, ‘Wait a second, we’ve got four work streams—business attraction retention, talent and workforce development, small-business growth and development, and strategic neighborhood development—and if we can be effective across all four of those work streams, and realize that all four of them are critically important in order to grow the economy, in order to enhance the economic security of all New Orleanians, then that’s really a different type of economic development.’
That’s really reimagining what it means to do economic development. We’re still unapologetically focused on attracting capital, financial human capital. We believe in the power of capitalism, we believe in the power of entrepreneurialism, but we are also in a city that’s majority person of color and female and the entrepreneurial class has to reflect the demographics. We believe you can do that without compromising quality, without compromising adherence to free market principles. You just have to be much more creative about getting everybody on the table.
Biz: What are some of the things NOLABA has been doing recently to bring different groups to the table?
QM: We are doing things in each of our four work streams. We had an event with NASA, rocketing new revenue; that was tremendously successful and really focused on two work streams —small business and business attraction/retention. NASA’s presence at Michoud is one of those tremendous assets that I don’t think that we have fully leveraged, and one of the things that we’ve dedicated ourselves to for the remainder of this calendar year and into the future is how to do that.
We also just completed the second year of the New Orleans Health Innovators Challenge, which encourages digital health startups to bring their solutions to New Orleans. [This year’s winner, a California-based company called MedAux, has since said it is considering New Orleans as a headquarters.] Not only is doing an event like this good for diversifying our local economy, it’s also good for just the life of our city. We lose a lot of productivity from the fact that people are not able to fully give their best selves at work because they’re dealing with conditions that could be wholly treatable or monitored with advances in digital health and medical technology. So, not only does focusing on this area make good business sense, it makes good sense in changing people’s lives.
Biz: There’s a lot of focus on big companies coming in, which is wonderful, but NOLABA also focuses a lot on small business. How big is small business?
QM: Small business is the biggest single employment engine for the local economy. Most people employed in New Orleans are employed by small- and medium-sized businesses. Every Google, every DXC Technology, every Amazon started as a small business. So, if you want to be successful, if you want to have a thriving economy, if you want to have greater local spending, you have to be focused on small business. That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to go out and try to compete and try to get more DXC Technologys or more GE Digitals, we certainly are. But we believe that whether it’s Lucid, whether its Taurus, whether it’s Turbo Squid, whether it’s, you know, Lawn Doctors; there are a lot of great businesses who are on the precipice of becoming $50, $100, $200, $300 million companies.
We’ve got to make sure that we provide them with access to management expertise, financial capital, as well as market intelligence. And that’s some of what we announced when we announced the Small Business Tool Boxes. It’s not just a small business tool box, but it’s a tool box of resources that could be beneficial a business of any size.
Biz: Let’s talk a little bit more about these Small Business Tool Boxes, which launched during your last annual meeting this past June. What types of things do they help with?
QM: We have three free online tools. The first is the Business Insight Tool, which is a comprehensive business information resource. We’re one of only two American cities—the other is Seattle—that has a tool of this robustness and capability.
The second tool is the Crescent City Biz Connector—a mapping tool that categorizes resources for services that help small businesses identify technical assistance providers appropriate for them. For instance, a small-business owner may be great at marketing, but not the best at financial book keeping. You may be great at customer service, but you may not be as fluent with how to go out and get new business. We want to make it easier for companies to find those technical assistance providers that can be most beneficial to them.
The third tool is the Opportunity Portal. This tool helps entrepreneurs of color and women identify opportunities for procurement with the city’s office of small business, including supplier diversity as well as procurement programs from Orleans Parish School Board, to the Port of New Orleans, to Woodward Design Build, to New Orleans and Co., to the Morial Convention Center, to companies like Entergy. It basically says, ‘Here’s what you need to do in order to be ready to take advantage of these procurement opportunities.’
Essentially, if you can demystify the playbook of what it takes to be successful as an entrepreneur, successful in the free market, then you can allow people to be incredibly competitive and thrive.
Biz: When you spoke with us a few years ago, you said one of the biggest issues that New Orleans has is a perception problem. Can you talk a little bit more about that? Have things changed at all?
QM: I think it’s improved tremendously, but you know, perception lacks reality. I think perception is two-fold: there’s external perception and there’s self-perception. Externally, we have made strides in getting people to realize that New Orleans is business-friendly. We’re open to business. We’re committed to the free market. We’re committed to making sure that’s it’s an easy and open place for capital. And that matters for small businesses too—it’s not just big companies that are looking for places that have business-friendly policies.
I still think our biggest opportunity for improvement on perception, however, is with our self-perception. If you’ve ever sat next to a Texan on an airplane and you don’t have on noise-canceling headphones, they’re going to try to convince you to move to Texas. They just are evangelistic about the wonders of Texas. No knock against Texas, they have done a tremendous job, but we are a city that’s given birth to jazz, to Creole cuisine. We are a city that has a wonderful time celebrating family, faith, spirituality. We have a vibrant entrepreneurial scene. We have a tremendous higher-ed community. I can’t think of another city that has all of this and is also walkable, where you don’t have to sit in traffic for an hour and 15 minutes.
New Orleanians are very humble, but there comes a point where you have to own and tell your own story. Each and every one of us has to be an ambassador for our city. Folks in Texas do it all the time. And you may say well, that’s just corny, but there’s tangible proof that Texans have said this so much that the rest of the world believes there’s something magical happening in Texas. Look at the population trends. Look at the migration of capital to Texas and I’m not just talking about one part of Texas.
It is a part of the psyche. I think that we have to feel the same way and I think we will. I think increasingly we will.
Biz: What is NOLABA doing in terms of battling this perception problem?
QM: One of the things is that we’ve created something called the Economic Development Ambassadors Program, where we’re providing information to folks so they feel more comfortable telling the full story of who we are as it relates to the economy and the opportunity that exists for people to realize their entrepreneurial dreams in this city.
Another thing we’re doing relates to something I like to say, and that is New Orleans is sexy-smart. We’re never not going to be interesting. We’re never not going to fun. But trust and believe we are deadly serious about getting the business of business done.
On that note, New Orleans in the Center is a programming that we do with Aspen Institute—one of the most highly esteemed think tanks and thought leaders globally on multiple issues—where Aspen comes to New Orleans every year. Last year, they looked at the changing nature of work and what automation would mean toward the workplace of the future. Both local thought leaders and leaders from all over the world come and discuss these ideas and help us as a business alliance think about what this means for our work. We think that’s just only a small way of sort of beginning to get people to see New Orleans in its full richness in 3D, rather than in sort of flat 2D image that we sometimes have nationally and internationally.
Biz: Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
QM: There are no silver bullets. You’re not going to do a quick hit. You have to be about the business and about the grind and about sort of trying to move the needle forward day after day, month after month, year after year, generation after generation.
I remember growing up when the state of North Carolina was just tobacco and maybe people went to the beach at Wilmington and Cape Hatteras. Now, it’s about financial institutions. It’s about the Research Triangle. It’s about innovation. That started in 1959—60 years ago. You look at Nashville, Nashville has become a tremendous healthcare, IT and health mecca, but that work started in the ’70s.
In New Orleans what we’ve been embarking on started you know when folks like Matt Wisdom at Turbo Squid and Patrick Comer of Lucid said, “Hey, we’re going to grow a great technology company here in New Orleans.” That started in the 2000s. It hasn’t even been 20 years yet. But they have been at it, they weathered the storm and they inspired others to take a leap of faith. And I think that that’s critically important—getting people to buy into something that’s going to last across political administrations. We may not be the full beneficiaries, but it’s about getting people to understand the need for collective investment in our future.
At NOLABA we think we can be an important voice, but certainly not the only voice, in help making that happen.
Can I only name one? “Giovanni’s Room” by James Baldwin. If I had a second, it would be Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”
Favorite TV Show?
Can I only name one? “Meet the Press.” If I had a second, it would be “Cuomo Prime Time.”
Who do you look up to?
My father, Quentin Sr. He is no longer physically present with our family, but he was a tremendous human being and I will never measure up to him.
Biggest life lesson learned?
From my wife, Dr. Kenya LeNoir Messer: Speak life into every situation, and consider the timing of everything that you say (meaning, does it need to be said then and there?)
Best advice ever received?
From my mom, from “Hamlet”: Always remember, “To thy own self be true.”
Sadly, none in the traditional sense. A lot of interests but nothing outside of faith, family and work in which I have invested consistently time, talent and treasure.
Reading the Bible, WSJ, Politico.com, Biz New Orleans, Nola.com and ESPN.com and listening to an up-tempo song prior to starting my day.
Throwing folks under the bus. Pass the credit [but] shoulder the blame alone.
What are you most looking forward to in the next year?
Having a Super Bowl parade! From an economic development perspective, demonstrating real, tangible financial benefits from reimagining economic development (e.g., more small businesses showing increased profit and revenue growth, higher labor force participation rates and announcements for new capital investment in our city).