A comeback vision for New Orleans
A nonprofit is building a community of social entrepreneurs who are solving the Big Easy's most pressing problems
On Dec. 1, the Kauffman Foundation announced its nationwide Inclusion Challenge program grant would be awarded to Propeller to support women and minority entrepreneurs. The grant, $420,000 over two years, is one of 12 awarded from a selection of 376 applicants across the country. See kauffman.org for more information.
When I started Propeller, our focus was on harnessing the momentum of social and environmental progress in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The storm and its aftereffects laid bare issues that had existed long before the levees broke: failing schools and generational poverty, astonishing healthcare disparities between the rich and the poor, simultaneous obesity and food insecurity, all in a city so vulnerable to extreme weather events.
Since then, it has been our mission to support entrepreneurs solving those pressing challenges. We’ve graduated more than 100 social ventures from our programs, and through their hard work, we are starting to see positive change.
What we also acknowledge, now more than ever, is that at the core of each one of those “pressing challenges” is race. New Orleanians’ quality of life and opportunities for success are statistically divided along color lines. As we move forward in our work in food, water, health, and education, we are leaving people behind.
You can see it in every system where we work. Too often, the systems designed to address social and environmental issues are the same ones that fail and oppress New Orleans’ poor black communities. The achievement gap is only widening between black and white students. Communities of color are still the most likely to live in the lowest-lying areas that are most vulnerable to flooding. The life expectancy is 25 years lower in New Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods compared to our most affluent. These disparities aren’t accidental; they are the result of generational cycles of racial oppression and privilege.
We believe in the opportunity to go against the current—to lift up a powerful community of diverse entrepreneurs, who will be demographically reflective of the city where they live and dedicated to identifying and correcting the inequities that define it.
You can also see it in our city’s business and entrepreneurship communities. Post-Katrina New Orleans has seen an entrepreneurial renaissance, with entrepreneurial activity at 56 percent above the national average and the birth of a robust group of entrepreneurship support organizations like Propeller. That growth, however, has been far more exclusive than inclusive. Though 60 percent of New Orleanians are minorities, only 27 percent of the city’s firms are owned by minorities, and even more concerning, minority businesses receive less than 2 percent of receipts. With black male unemployment still near 50 percent, it’s clear to our team at Propeller that entrepreneurship risks becoming yet another system to further racism.
This reality exists on a national scale as well. Nationwide studies have found that 1 percent of venture capital-funded founders are black (12 percent are Asian and 87 percent are white). Only 8 percent are women. In a similar fashion, women and minorities also participate in business incubators and accelerators at far lower rates compared to their white, male counterparts.
Here in New Orleans, we have a choice. For Propeller, addressing systemic racism intentionally and holistically is now central to our work and our mission. We believe in the opportunity to go against the current—to lift up a powerful community of diverse entrepreneurs, who will be demographically reflective of the city where they live and dedicated to identifying and correcting the inequities that define it.
In recent months, we have begun the hard work of reassessing, revising, and expanding our programming. With the help of organizations like the People’s Institute, we are starting to incorporate racial equity, analysis, and history curriculum into our current Accelerator programming. We are starting to share those same learnings beyond our walls by co-hosting trainings with other influential players in the future of New Orleans entrepreneurship and economic development, in discussions led by the Racial Equity Institute about systemic racism’s effects on equitable access to food, water, health, and education in our city.
A recent grant from the Kauffman Foundation’s Inclusion Challenge will allow us to expand on these efforts, while also undertaking new work in the neighborhood immediately surrounding Propeller.
Over the next several months, we will revise our sector strategies with the help of focus groups made up of community members who demographically represent the City of New Orleans. Our goal is to ensure our recruitment processes are intentionally inclusive, targeting high-potential minority-led businesses that have received little investment historically.
In a new initiative that we announced in December with Kauffman’s support, we are beginning a neighborhood-based consulting program for businesses along the Washington and Broad commercial corridor. With the help of local neighborhood organizations and community leaders, our focus will be on identifying and supporting brick and mortar businesses like corner stores, fruit stands, and daycare centers with the potential to significantly enrich their own Central City, Zion City, and Broadmoor communities.
We envision New Orleans as a city not only known for its entrepreneurship and its comeback in the wake of disaster, but also for social justice to right our country’s greatest wrongs, and for economic empowerment that creates equitable and inclusive growth.
It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen without intentional, hard work and tough conversations. It has taken generations to build racism and oppression into our city’s (and our country’s) many systems and institutions, and it will take generations to fix them. With the support of national leaders like Kauffman, we can begin to do our part to contribute to a city where a person’s success can no longer be predicted by his or her skin color.
Our first step is to call out these inequities, which we do today. Our next step is to listen openly and humbly, which we will do with open hearts. From there, we hope to work alongside our neighbors to dismantle discriminatory social and economic systems through entrepreneurship, while also addressing the persistent challenges that have emerged as their symptoms.
As we begin, we want to thank the Kauffman Foundation for making this work possible, and we invite all New Orleanians to share your perspectives with us.