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Redesigning an Ecosystem: Connection, Opportunity and Love in New Orleans

“After Katrina, I came back with a vengeance and knew I had to be a part of rebuilding what the business ecosystem was going to look like in New Orleans,” Adele London says.

Themes: Accelerate Collaboration, Prioritize Equity

By Sarah Trent

Listening to Adele London talk about her work with the Good Work Network – and her calling to fight for equity and inclusion at every level in her life-long home of New Orleans – feels like a long, warm hug.

And while you’re in that embrace of real, heartfelt love for her community and her place, you realize that the warmth comes in part from everyone else in that embrace with you: the hundreds of under-resourced microbusiness owners she’s helped start and grow businesses; the childcare center directors whose work was transformed post-Katrina by the support and training offered by Good Work Network (not to mention all the parents who could therefore return to work after the storm); the landscaping and construction contractors who won their first big contracts through the thoughtful, creative connections Good Work Network made with bigger companies and nonprofit developers working to restart both the city and its economy; and all the people and businesses Adele knows are still out there in need of connection, opportunity, capital, and support.

The full depth of this love sinks in when Adele admits that while she’s proud of all the work that’s been done, she feels incomplete. “Because,” she says, in a soft, tired voice, “my boat is so little and the ocean is so big. There’s so much left to do. So much. I’m trying to do my best.”

"“After Katrina, I came back with a vengeance and knew I had to be a part of rebuilding what the business ecocystem was going to look like in New Orleans,” says Adele London.

““After Katrina, I came back with a vengeance and knew I had to be a part of rebuilding what the business ecocystem was going to look like in New Orleans,” says Adele London.

The Key Ingredients

Adele’s entré into this work supporting businesses and creating opportunity for all was an early business of her own: the First Friday Community Development Association. There was a movement across the country, she said, of first Friday happy hours to promote African American businesses. “We had a different calling,” she said. “We wanted to do something bigger than that, wanted to do more than just help make money for that evening.” It was within a network of 20-somethings, she said, who saw how poorly resourced African American-owned businesses were in New Orleans, that Adele began her life’s work: “I had just finished law school, some had business degrees, and we realized we could actually pool our knowledge and wherewithal” to support these businesses beyond just promotional happy hours. She wanted to help these businesses by looking at how they were operating, what their marketing looked like, and management.

From there, Adele took a job with the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), where she worked with their Resident Loan Corporation helping residents of Section 8 public housing start businesses. Here she saw proof again that budding entrepreneurs need more than just help writing a business plan: the key ingredient  ̶  what really worked, over and over again  ̶  was the program’s model of providing entrepreneurial training, capacity building, and actual funding for their businesses. Their partner bank used to boast, she said, that the loan default rate of their participants was lower than their other business loans. Why? “When you stay connected to the business owner, you know before they’re actually tanking, before something really goes wrong.”

“It was doing that work for HANO that I really developed a passion for connecting people to opportunities,” she said. “I never would have left, but for Katrina.”

A City Obliterated

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans. According to The Data Center, 80 percent of the city was flooded, and more than a million people were displaced from the region. More than that, it laid bare an economic system sharply divided between powerful entities whose generational wealth was “predicated and built upon a slavery system,” Adele said, and the huge number of informal businesses and service workers whose livelihoods had never been recorded with the secretary of state. Before the storm, she said, the New Orleans economy was really driven by this informal economy of people doing work they’d done “forever and a day,” from pruning trees to hauling trash. “But if you don’t have a formalized business, and you have no financials, no returns to produce, then you can’t prove you’re in business, can’t prove you’ve lost income. They were absolutely cut off. Many businesses didn’t see a dime of recovery money.”

On top of that, Adele said, while the largest companies in the clean-up and levy-building effort received multimillion-dollar contracts for the work, the laborers actually moving the dirt saw a mere percentage point of those funds.

“The inequity in that is one of those things we’re really striving to change,” Adele said. “Looking at total desolation, where everything was totally wiped out, there was this ‘Aha!’ moment of: OK, let’s dare to dream of how we can rebuild this. Let’s dare to dream that actually we could rebuild this better than the dysfunctional system that we had before of haves and have-nots and that divide ever increasing.”

Redesigning an Ecosystem

“After Katrina, I came back with a vengeance and knew I had to be a part of rebuilding what the business ecosystem was going to look like in New Orleans,” Adele said. With the housing authority now focused almost entirely on housing, she left to join Good Work Network, whose work, she explains, is about connecting businesses – primarily minority- and women-owned – to the resources and opportunities they need.

Between 2001 and 2013, the organization – a 501(c)3 nonprofit – helped start or strengthen nearly 600 businesses, helped more than 3,700 individuals, and helped small businesses secure $2.5 million in funding and nearly $15 million in contracts.

Historically the organization has focused on microentrepreneurs: lifestyle businesses, salon owners, and small contractors; the self-employed and businesses that hire just a few people. Through this work, they were a catalyst in revitalizing Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in Central City. Originally called Dryades Street, it was the black Main Street of New Orleans from the 1800s through the 1960s: the Jim Crow era when African Americans were not allowed on Canal Street. Good Work Network restored a historic building on OC Haley, where they now run trainings as well as an incubator that co-houses and supports small businesses. Next door, they’re currently building a food court out of shipping containers that will incubate five food businesses. Adele has been a business advisor, directed business development and their market access program, ConnectWorks, and runs their Women’s Business Center in Baton Rouge.

And now, Adele said, in line with the “equity and inclusion theme of my life,” her work is shifting once again. There are billions of dollars coming to New Orleans for a number of projects, she said, including a half billion dollar project at the airport and $300 million for a World Trade Center.

“What the hell am I doing if I do not get the minority- and women-owned firms we work with – or haven’t worked with yet – connected to these contract opportunities? Yes, my heart is always with the mom-and-pops, but these are some game-changing projects that could actually move the dial for businesses in New Orleans,” she said. “We have to connect these firms to these opportunities. We have to.”

And there’s urgency. “Fifty two percent of African American males 18-25 are unemployed in New Orleans,” she said, “52 percent. We cannot forget that number.” If you meet a black male in that age group, she says, he is most likely to be not in college and not employed. By bringing contracts to African American-owned businesses – who are themselves most likely to hire or subcontract other African Americans from their own communities, these billion dollar projects could change the economic ecosystem of New Orleans.

“Shame on us” if we don’t do this, Adele said. “Shame on us, as a business development agency here in the city, if we see billions of dollars come into the city and not affect a bit of change in creating wealth or fortifying the middle class. Shame on us at that point, we just need to close up and go home! That’s a classic take from Malcom X: ‘We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock was landed on us.’ These projects land on us, with no game change at all.” But they don’t have to, she said, referencing Atlanta, where the airport was “a catalytic project that changed the history of that city.”

This is where the change is going to be made, she said, creating opportunities to build generational wealth in under-resourced communities by not importing businesses to do this work. “We’re going to do it here and hire the people here.”

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