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Propelling New Orleans: Innovation out of Necessity

By Sarah Trent

This is the first in a three-part series featuring Local Economy Fellow Andrea Chen. Below, read the story of Andrea, her place, and how she came to Localism. The second installment features a mini case study of her business accelerator, Propeller. The third takes a look at five Propeller businesses that Andrea believes are innovating in especially new and unexpected ways. December 4, join Andrea and others at BALLE’s next webinar: Creating a Thriving Local Ecosystem: Business Alliances, Incubators, & Accelerators.

Andrea Chen came to New Orleans in 2004 as a high school English teacher. She fell in love with the community feel of the city and the quirky, warm people there: she found a neighborliness in New Orleans that stood in contrast to what she’d grown up with. She’d found the place where she fit.

And then tragedy hit.

“It was a really big wakeup moment,” Andrea said. “It was a moment of ‘I can’t turn my back on this:’ this situation, this society, this economic system… I had a moment of ‘This isn’t OK and there are so many things that feed into it.'”

It wasn’t the oil spill, it wasn’t the hurricane: one of her students, a young black male, had been shot. She felt motivated in that moment to become a better teacher. “I have to be part of the solution,” she told herself, rather than part of perpetuating or ignoring the problems.

Two years later, when Hurricane Katrina rocked this already hard-hit city, she found herself motivated once again in the aftermath of tragedy.

This time, she felt inspired by the grassroots work, social entrepreneurship, and DIY grit she saw taking hold across the city as entrenched hierarchies and social structures were upended by the chaos. She and a group of friends saw their window of opportunity to support that movement, and started the volunteer-run Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans.

“We wanted to make sure that this energy didn’t fizzle out in 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, but that it actually grew stronger,” she said.

Those early efforts to support entrepreneurship turned into an accelerator program working with nine fellows making social and environmental impact; then it grew to include a 10,000 square foot co-working space. Today, Propeller is truly, as its tagline claims, “a force for social innovation.” More than 80 organizations and 150 people work out of the space on a daily basis; their fourth accelerator class this year brought the total number of supported social ventures to 50, with collective revenues and financing of $20 million.

Innovation for Good

“Innovation here is born out of necessity,” Andrea said. She sees this in her own work, in the work of the fellows and businesses Propeller supports, and in people and organizations outside of Propeller and even outside of New Orleans. “We had no other choice, we could either fall apart or we could try to innovate and see what was necessary to get back in.”

“That people still want to try, that’s the biggest thing,” she said. “How do you create that? [New Orleans is] lucky in that we have that: people are still interested in trying. Not everyone’s going to be successful, but the more people we have trying, I think the more successes we’re going to end up having. Year over year our Pitch NOLA competition grows; year over year we get more applicants to our accelerator program. And people see successful social entrepreneurs, and they’re role models in our community. They see that, and think ‘Oh, I could do that too.'”

After the tsunami hit Japan in 2011, leaders from the affected provinces visited Propeller looking for inspiration and solutions. They found what they were looking for: Propeller was brought back to Japan to teach local entrepreneurs how to start an accelerator, run a pitch competition, and how to build partnerships with their own cities to reactivate vacant land and create innovation out of tragedy.

“We did most of [the work developing Propeller] in three years,” Andrea said. “It’s nice to be able to show people that it’s doable, that anyone can do it.”

Anyone, that is, with the reason and the drive to see it through. Every social entrepreneur Andrea works with has a personal story, she said, and it’s often a story of loss or trauma, a journey learning how to navigate the system, and then working toward a solution.

“That kind of story, that’s the New Orleans story,” she said. “It usually starts with something painful and unjust about the world, and that’s the grit, that driving factor that keeps them going.”

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