Propelling New Orleans: Innovation out of Necessity

This is the first in a three-part series featuring Local Economy Fellow Andrea Chen. Below, read the story of Andrea, her community, and what drives her. 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 struck.

“It was a really big wake-up moment,” Andrea said, “and I knew I could’t turn my back on this city, this society, this economic system…  I knew what had happened wasn’t OK and that there were so many factors that fed 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. 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 everywhere. “We had no other choice, we could either fall apart or we could try to innovate and see what was necessary to get moving again.”

“That people still want to try, that’s the biggest thing, and New Orleans has that,” she said. “Not everyone’s going to be successful, but the more people who try, the more successes we’re going to have. Year over year our Pitch NOLA competition grows; year over year we get more applicants to our accelerator program. People see successful social entrepreneurs as in our community 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, and Propeller traveled to Japan to teach local entrepreneurs how to start an accelerator, run a pitch competition, and build partnerships with their own cities to reactivate vacant land. In essence, they taught how to create innovation out of tragedy.

“It’s nice to show people that anyone can do this,” Andrea said.

Anyone, that is, with the motivation to see it through.

Every social entrepreneur Andrea works with has a personal story, she said, and, like hers, it’s often a story of loss or trauma, 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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