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Propelling New Orleans: A Mini Case Study

By Sarah Trent

This is the second in a three-part series featuring Local Economy Fellow Andrea Chen. Below, read a mini case study of her business accelerator, Propeller. The first installment features the story of Andrea, her place, and how she came to Localism. 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 other Localist leaders at BALLE’s next webinar: Creating a Thriving Local Ecosystem: Business Alliances, Incubators, & Accelerators.

Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation

2006: In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Andrea and Morgan Williams revive the volunteer-run Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans. “We were inspired by all the civic activity and social entrepreneurship and grassroots stuff that was happening on the ground,” Andrea said, “so we started this group because 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. This was a window of opportunity.”

2009: Propeller is founded and begins mobilizing people, telling their stories, and offering support to social entrepreneurs.

2011: Propeller launches its first accelerator program, supporting nine fellows making social and environmental impact.

2012: Propeller expands into a 10,000 square foot space, creating a co-working space for social entrepreneurs. Located at a “crossroads” intersection at the heart of the city, the space is part of a larger effort to breathe life back into an area that stagnated long before the hurricane hit. (Learn more about the Broadmoor redevelopment in this short video.)

2014: More than 80 organizations and 150 people work out of Propeller on a daily basis; their fourth accelerator class begins, bringing the total number of accelerated ventures to 50.

How Propeller Works

Propeller takes a sector approach to driving innovation in New Orleans. The four sectors they support are:

  • Healthy and Local Food Access
  • Water
  • Public Health
  • Education & Youth Development

Propeller’s strategy takes a three-stage approach:

  • First, they begin with a sector analysis and identify bottlenecks that are holding back innovation and opportunities for market-based solutions.
  • Second, they “build pipeline” by running a social innovation pitch competition, Pitch NOLA, in each target sector. “This is our opportunity to get to know new ideas that are sprouting up from the ground,” Andrea says.
  • Third, especially promising businesses join Propeller’s accelerator program.

The Accelerator

Propeller’s accelerator is typically a 10-month fellowship program. Occasionally, Andrea says, they offer a special 12-week program in a particular sector (such as an upcoming cohort focused on water issues).

The program offers:

  • Mentorship
  • Technical assistance
  • Paid consultants who work one on one with the fellows
  • Collaborative office space at no cost
  • A large pro bono network of over 200 professionals who provide services such as legal, accounting, graphic design, and photography
  • Access to networks and resources, including an executive mentor program that features business and policy leaders from a state senator to the board chair of Whole Foods.

Propeller also offers some level of targeted policy work, Andrea says, “because we find that sometimes our fellows bump up against policy challenges, so we help to mobilize policy makers and influencers to get something moved or changed.”

The Incubator

Propeller’s 10,000 square foot facility provides shared working space to social entrepreneurs and organizations, and is home to a diverse group of business owners, nonprofits, freelancers, and entrepreneurs working toward a better New Orleans.

What’s Possible Now That Wasn’t Before?

“I can’t say there couldn’t have been another alternative, another form, that would have also provided support to people,” Andrea says. “But now I can say that people have a place to go if they have an idea, and before they didn’t have a place if they just had an idea to make New Orleans better. Now you have a place to go if you’re a social entrepreneur and you want to be around other social entrepreneurs and collaborate. There’s a place for you that’s really, really affordable. Now we’re seeing lots of connections, in terms of entrepreneurs working together in a sector, and we’re able to influence policy because we have a critical mass of social entrepreneurs. When we got the benefit corporation legislation passed, we could point to all the social entrepreneurs that already existed in the Propeller community and in New Orleans.”

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