We Can’t Get Complacent

Entrepreneurism has been embraced over the past five years, but this region still has challenges that need to be addressed.

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.


 

Hard to believe that it has been five years since Biz New Orleans, and this column, were startup enterprises!

Given the average survival length of new ventures, we’ve both managed to achieve some measure of success, and it has certainly been an interesting five years.

In the column, we have considered entrepreneurial incubators and advice from startup experts; highlighted some interesting success stories; reviewed some of history’s greatest entrepreneurs and their big inventions and ideas; and looked at some of the challenges and barriers that entrepreneurs face, especially women and people of color. Your humble columnist hopes that these musings have been interesting, helpful, sometimes illuminating and occasionally amusing.

There have been a lot of successful new businesses established in the Greater New Orleans area over the past five years. Many others have expanded, increased sales, opened new and larger locations, even franchised into other cities. Meanwhile, the number of new business resources has also continued to grow — there are more accelerators, entrepreneurial contests, mentor programs and funding sources available than ever.

Something I find particularly promising is that the percentage of new startups founded by women and minorities has increased significantly in the last five years. We are still a long way from having that statistic mirror our actual population, but we are doing much better than many other parts of the country.

Of course, nothing showcases the upside of local entrepreneurism better than New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, which itself has grown and evolved considerably over these years.

All of which brings us to today — and I wonder if there are not some gathering clouds threatening this sunny landscape.

The general environment today looks a good bit different than five years ago. We have new leadership both locally and nationally, and without taking political sides, decisions made by our leaders have impacted the business climate. Unquestionably, the short-term effects of the ongoing trade wars have been harmful to Louisiana, especially farmers and shipping interests. The recent property tax increases in New Orleans are bound to impact the business environment, from possibly reducing consumer spending to increasing business expenses.

The population of the city and immediate suburbs has leveled out over the last three years, and population has actually declined statewide. Fewer customers mean fewer business opportunities. This data also implies that many people do not find our region and state an attractive place to live, raise families and/or do business. It does not help that some other key indicators have also flatlined, including school and student performance scores and poverty/wealth indicators.

It also doesn’t help that these indicators have flatlined while we still rank very low in many national comparisons.

Consequently, there have been some high-profile business closings in recent months, such as the historic Circle Foods Store and the much newer Dryades Market. Each closure has been accompanied by certain specific factors that hampered the individual business; that said, we definitely do not want to see this develop into a larger trend.

Do I think we are staring at some terrible entrepreneurial precipice? Absolutely not. But we do have a history here of achieving national and even international leadership in a field — aviation, banking and water management are three prominent examples — then sitting back complacently while other localities surpass us.

New Orleans has, in these five years, achieved pretty high status in the entrepreneurial world, having ranked among the top cities for new businesses many times by many sources. But even that buzz has abated slightly in the last year or two.

Our gifts, our skills, our entrepreneurial spirit are as great as ever, and as great as anywhere in the world, but we have to acknowledge and address our shortcomings — like education and equitable economic access — and we have to stay focused on innovation, dynamism and opportunity for all. Success is a journey, not a destination. I look forward to continuing to chronicle this journey for another five years.

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