Last month I had the wonderful opportunity granted by Forward Cities to visit NOLA to attend New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW) and visit with local entrepreneurs and members of its innovation team and council. I mapped out my visit in advance: which panels I wanted to attend, the neighborhoods I wanted to visit and the local leaders with whom I hoped to meet. But I was also cognizant of leaving enough space for spontaneity, because this is where I believe true magic and discovery happens. Denise Byrne was gracious enough to make introductions and provide recommendations about must do’s while in NOLA in advance of my visit and I was able to use this information to inform and guide my visit.
I first visited NOLA in May 2014 separate from Forward Cities and then again in December 2014 for the Forward Cities kickoff convening. After my last visit, I vowed to see as many places and people and to experience as much as possible that makes NOLA and its people so unique. This time, that is precisely what I set out to do. The only thing that appeared to be a downside to my trip is that I learned my bags were lost upon landing in Detroit on my return. But, there is a silver lining – and I’ll come back to that a bit later.
Fifteen months had passed since the Forward Cities kick-off in December 2014 and I found New Orleans to be buzzing with even more entrepreneurial activity and economic revitalization. Those with whom I previously met appeared to have laser focus and determination about the mission and the road ahead. Some of those I met at the kick-off in Dec 2014 had since transitioned into other roles.
I suppose my visit could be divided into two distinct tracks, both equally relevant and important. The first and anchor track consisted of participating in NOEW and attending its panel discussions and events to observe, learn and make new connections. The second track was the more spontaneous, which consisted of exploring the city and its neighborhoods firsthand in between meetings with leaders doing incredible work revitalizing neighborhoods and commercial corridors.
The folks at Idea Village who organized NOEW – a week long, citywide event that celebrates entrepreneurship – assembled a diverse cast of entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and innovators from the local and national scene. The panels covered a wide range of topics and engaged those from the local ecosystem who are doing the work. Among the highlights for me was: the Civic Innovation Summit introduced by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the session with featured speaker and co-founder of Next Door, Prakash Janakiraman, and a keynote address by AOL’s Steve Case. The underlying theme that ran throughout the event is the importance of innovative civic leadership and partnerships that are inclusive of people with broad perspectives. NOEW ended with a celebratory bang on Friday the 18th with The Blackstone Big Idea, which featured 10 of NOLA’s most promising entrepreneurs with innovative ideas for goods or services competing for $25 thousand in prizes.
Outside of the NOEW campus, I was able to spend time exploring various neighborhoods and visiting with leaders and organizations leading the revitalization work in some of those neighborhoods. I encountered a few NOLA transplants originally from Detroit. Some of whom facilitated for me introductions from NOLA to folks back in the Detroit area. I had the opportunity to spend time with my Forward Cities counterparts Ed Boyd from Durham and Michael Fleming from Cleveland and learned first hand from them about the amazing efforts underway in Cleveland and Durham.
I met with a number of entrepreneurs and leaders from New Orleans, among them members of the NOLA Forward Cities team including: Phyllis Cassidy of Good Work Network, Andrea Chen from Propeller, Emily Madero from Idea Village and Allen Square from Square Button. All of them shared ideas, insight and the interventions utilized for their focus neighborhoods and corridors. Chief Shaka Zulu, an Indian Chief, and his wife Naimah Zulu welcomed us into Golden Feather Showroom and shared the process of making their one-of-a-kind Mardi Gras Indian Suits and spoke about the history of their movement.
The specific areas and neighborhoods I visited included: Treme, Mid-City, Garden District, Central City, the Irish Channel, and of course the French Quarter. I found myself drawn to and connected with the Garden District, Central City, and Mezzanine St. and its eclectic one-of-a-kind shops. Each had distinct identities yet shared commonality in that their driving force is the balance of art, food, music, culture, and the involvement of the people who live in the neighborhood.
A 25-minute drive from these neighborhoods is Mary Queen of Vietnam Community Development, which was established after Hurricane Katrina to assist Vietnamese Americans with rebuilding. There I toured the farm and learned about the operational aspects of its co-op model and how the Vietnamese community found a way to rebuild after Katrina and establish a farm that its members and the community share in. St. Roch in Mid-City and Roux Carre in Central City are both examples of innovative markets for food entrepreneurs – each with its own unique model. I visited Public Market in Central City, a formerly burned down school that was being reimagined as a mixed-use space with a market on the first level, offices and co-working space on the next level and a community space on another level. Liberty’s Kitchen and Café Reconcile’s provide a model of food service training and opportunities for at-risk African-American youth. Some of the takeaways from these meetings are: reimagining building and spaces and creating mixed-use spaces with a focus on functionality, utilizing art to activate public space and vacant land, and the importance of worker-owned co-ops.
So, now back to my lost bags…after the initial frustration and anguish over the loss of my material possessions, I was able to look beyond my immediate situation to see the lesson and parallels between losing my bags and the Forward Cities collaborative. Sometimes a new beginning requires losing your metaphoric baggage in order to get lean again and discover the value and resources in what you do have and what you truly need to start anew. In the case of cities, their value and resources can be found in the people, place, and things that have always been there, even when their inclusion did not seem to be an option. Each of the four cities in the Forward Cities collaborative has gone through its own unique transition, and as a result of these unique situations, by choice or circumstance, reached a point where it had to lose its baggage. Through this loss, each city has found its way into the future not only through the people, place and things that were there all along, but also by including and welcoming new people and ideas from other places around the country and around the world. Cities don’t lose their identity by including people; instead people come to cities because of the promise of these cities, and thus they enrich, renew, and make them vibrant again.
Upon returning to Detroit, I found myself energized and motivated about our purpose. The sights, sounds, food, places, conversations, people and connections have a deeper meaning. To remain relevant, vibrant and competitive, cities must embrace and develop an ecosystem that supports innovative people and ideas from all communities, and must facilitate the connectivity and conversations necessary to learn from one another and grow. We cannot ignore our history, but instead we should accept it and use it as a place to start conversations and heal. I believe one of our next challenges in Detroit is to make sure we’re creating a place that people not only want to come to, but one they will not want to leave.
My pledge is to take my the experiences and knowledge gained from NOEW and share them with my fellow Forward Cities innovation team and council members to use as reference point from which we continue to drive forward our efforts to make an impact in Detroit and beyond. To not do so is a wasted opportunity. I want to thank Forward Cities, and in particular Denise Byrne and Christopher Gergen for this amazing opportunity.
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