Fifteen years ago, five technology competitors had a mutual desire to revitalize the city of New Orleans by appealing to innovative minds. That aspiration turned into The Idea Village, an organization centered on driving a culture of entrepreneurship in the city. Tim Williamson, co-founder and CEO of The Idea Village, sat down with us to tell the story of how their dream became a successful platform for change.
How did five rivals come together on this project?
TW: We’re all New Orleans natives, who left in the mid-eighties and returned over a decade later to start technology companies. This city was founded by innovators and entrepreneurs, but by the time we were born, that history had long been forgotten. Our New Orleans had the worst education system in the country, the political system was corrupt, and to top it all off the Saints were known as the Aint’s. The five of us were part of the first generation of kids told — by our parents, no less — to get out of New Orleans. We did, but the city called us back.
Even though we were competitors, we loved New Orleans and shared the belief that if we could find budding entrepreneurs, support them (through capital and strategic guidance), and ultimately keep them here, they would revitalize the city. Entrepreneurs come up with ideas, raise money, and hire talented employees. Job creation results in revenue, which can inspire and in turn change New Orleans.
The Idea Village’s Entrepreneur SeasonTM has become very popular. Tell us about that effort?
TW: The Entrepreneur SeasonTM is an annual cycle of programs and events that drive community connectivity. The Season begins each July and culminates in March with New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW), the business festival celebrating innovation, entrepreneurship, and new thinking.
We launched the Season concept in 2009, and today it’s woven into the culture of the city, just like Mardi Gras season and football season. NOEW is a great way to measure the growth and progress of the movement. This year, NOEW attendance grew to 13,216 which represents a 24.9% increase compared to NOEW 2015. From March 11 to 18, 2016, 119 sanctioned events hosted in collaboration with 55 strategic partners engaged entrepreneurs, investors, professionals, students and community members over 8 days of discussion, debate, education, competition and celebration.
Since 2002, The Idea Village has provided direct support to more than 5,794 entrepreneurs, 202 of which were chosen to be part of our accelerator programs. Of those selected for the accelerators, 81% are still in business and have collectively raised around $109 million in capital and created 2,812 jobs. Some have even invested in new companies, continuing the cycle of success. But what’s even more important than these statistics is the new mindset of the city. Parents are now telling their kids to come home; they see new opportunities and a promising future for a beloved town.
How did you get The Idea Village off the ground?
TW: We fought tirelessly for openness and adoption, despite hearing over and over, “I like your idea, but it’s never going to work.” We knew we were onto something, but we needed support from people who understood the core needs of the community and believed in our vision of creating a destination for entrepreneurs. JPMorgan Chase provided that support. They believed in us when others didn’t understand and have continued their support through ongoing grants, and the engagement of local employees each Season.
Yes, our entrepreneurial ecosystem has been validated, thanks in large part to partners like JPMorgan Chase, but we still have work to do. By 2018, New Orleans’ 300th birthday, I hope that our kids will be able to say they live in New Orleans, the hub of entrepreneurship in the South.
To learn more about The Idea Village, visit: www.ideavillage.org