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Fertile Crescent

With the growing success of the Idea Village, a group of big thinkers is turning the Big Easy into an entrepreneurial mecca

Author PAUL KIX

ILLUSTRATION BY TIM TOMKINSON

THE FIVE GUYS MET AT A VOODOO BAR. They remember it as being in the late 1990s, maybe ’97, a time when the promise of dollars trailing all that computer code enticed them to return home, to provincial New Orleans, and establish their new lives. They worked in tech, at digital advertising startups or websites. And they met that night at Loa, with its swirling voodoo spirits, in the International House hotel, to think up a way to bring even more like-minded friends back to the Crescent City.

One of the five, a guy named Tim Williamson, pulled out a pen, took a napkin from the bar and began scribbling notes. What the tourist-jammed but otherwise commercially starved city needed, he said, was something like an entrepreneurial incubator, a place where new ideas could develop and the people behind them would know who to contact for funding at which VC firm or which bank; which academic to tap for useful case histories; which lawyer to call. In short, New Orleans needed a village to support good ideas. So Williamson wrote at the top of the napkin, “Idea Village.”

And so it went. The Idea Village launched as a nonprofit in 2000, and 12 years later it’s the reason why New Orleans is the new U.S. business mecca. Despite the city’s troubles, including the fact that entire neighborhoods have yet to recover from Hurricane Katrina, Forbes recently dubbed the Big Easy the nation’s “biggest brain magnet.” Biotech firms, education startups, pizza joints that rely on the Twitterati — they’ve all flocked to New Orleans for the chance to root themselves in the Idea Village’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The big brands have started to take notice. In March, the Idea Village held its most recent Entrepreneur Week, a recurring showcase of its best new businesses that culminates in an “American Idol”-style pitch-off, with a panel of judges and bold-name audience members deciding which business plan should win. Google and Goldman Sachs were among the week’s chief sponsors. Professors from Harvard Business School were ready to offer advice. Walter Isaacson, he of the Steve Jobs biography, gave the keynote address, comparing the Idea Village to Benjamin Franklin’s Leather Apron Club, a Philadelphia group that aimed for the mutual improvement of its members on matters moral, political and commercial.

To date, the Idea Village has handed $3.1 million in seed capital to 1,600-plus entrepreneurs, who’ve generated more than $83 million in annual revenues and brought over 1,000 jobs to New Orleans. Williamson expects these figures to jump considerably, and soon. “In our first 11 years, we had 2,700 people apply to be part of our annual ‘classes,'” he says, by which he means the six-month periods during which the Idea Village develops business plans with the entrepreneurs themselves. “This year, we had 2,100 applicants.”

The Idea Village’s success stories have helped spread the word. Take Naked Pizza, co-founded by Robbie Vitrano, one of the five original Loa conspirators. Naked Pizza makes healthy pizzas: no added sugar, no preservatives, 10 seeds and grains kneaded into the dough. During an incubation in the Idea Village, the co-founders partnered with business professors who liked the company’s concept of a social-media firm that just happened to deliver pizzas. So when Naked Pizza opened its doors in 2008, it didn’t carry a traditional sign above the awning. Instead, it just had its Twitter handle, @NakedPizza. People took to the site to say what they wanted in a healthy pizza joint, and the co-founders incorporated that feedback into the menu. “We literally built our business around what people were saying on Twitter,” Vitrano says.

That Web-first approach got the attention of Mark Cuban, who in 2009 invested in Naked Pizza and introduced the owners to the Kraft Group, which owns the New England Patriots and other enterprises. Kraft decided to invest too, and today Naked Pizza has nearly 500 shops worldwide. “We’re about to open a place in Nairobi,” Vitrano says with a laugh that suggests even he can’t quite believe it.

Success sometimes leads business owners in midsize markets like New Orleans to relocate to larger, more moneyed cities. But part of the genius of the Idea Village, Vitrano says, is its location. It took Vitrano 10 years living in L.A. to understand that no place was as fun and freaky as New Orleans. “I realize now how special a place this is,” he says. He’s not alone.

PAUL KIX, an editor at ESPN the Magazine, wishes his Connecticut neighborhood had a good voodoo bar.


THIS MONTH’S AMAZING FACT

BUZZ WORDS
Caffeine gives readers a lift

Does the sentence “Did the marketing department sent the memo?” look OK to you? If so, a team of Tufts University researchers recommends that you get yourself to a Starbucks, stat. In a recent study, the team asked groups of people to consume different amounts of caffeine, then compared how often they caught common writing errors, from the simple (misspellings) to the complex (subject-verb disagreements, incorrect tenses). While no amount of caffeine helped the subjects spell better, drinking a few cups of coffee did help them find the more complicated subject and verb errors. What’s more, the effect depended on how much caffeine the subjects normally drank: People who regularly consumed low levels of the stimulant required only 200 mg to see a difference; those who drank more needed 400 mg. Data on how long it will take that laptop-saddled “writer” to vacate your favorite café window seat, however, remains inconclusive. —JACQUELINE DETWILER

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