In the months following Hurricane Katrina, a group of about 15 social entrepreneurs began gathering in New Orleans at the Bridge Lounge back room. Their highly charged discussions focused on threats to the city: runaway crime, social injustice, failed educational institutions and a neglected urban environment. In addition to devastation, loss and heartache, the storm offered something else: an opportunity for meaningful change.
The then new and entirely volunteer-run group Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans was inspired by the grassroots work, social entrepreneurship, and DIY grit they saw taking hold across the city as entrenched hierarchies and social structure were upended by chaos. This was their window of opportunity to build on the momentum driving the rebuilding of the city around them.
Those early efforts to support entrepreneurship grew into an accelerator program working with entrepreneurs creating social and environmental impact. Within a few short years, Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans had grown into a socially-minded business incubator called Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation
Located in Central City in the Broadmoor neighborhood, the 10,000-square-foot collaborative co-working and conference space opened its doors in 2013, transforming a former rim shop to a vibrant community of more than 80 socially-conscious organizations and 150 individual social entrepreneurs with missions that range from a tech copyright company to an education data technology startup.
“Our goal was to harness the surge in civic involvement. There was a lot of energy from people who wanted to take action and see meaningful change. We wanted to make sure that energy continued to thrive,” said Andrea Chen, co-founder and current Executive Director of Propeller.
The space serves as a cross-section of Fellows in Propeller’s 10-month Social Venture Accelerator, members of its network of pro-bono professionals, consultants, potential funders, and Executive Mentors like John Elstrott, Chairman of Whole Foods, and Senator Karen Carter Peterson. The Propeller Incubator offers resources for its entrepreneurs like project management tools, financial models, sample business documents, tools and systems to support data collection. Propeller also works to build competencies through training, enterprise building, capacity building to record and analyze metrics, Lean Start-Up methodology, connections to revenue opportunities, access to networks, project management, and entrepreneurial leadership development.
By facilitating interaction between players from all levels of the entrepreneurial ecosystem and providing them with the tools to build their individual and collective capacities, the Propeller Incubator enables New Orleans social entrepreneurs to better connect, collaborate, and grow together.
Propeller’s expansion is a part of a four building redevelopment initiative located at the intersection of Washington and Broad that aims to breathe life back into an area that stagnated long before Katrina. In addition to the Propeller Incubator, the renovations include a community health clinic, Laurel Street Bakery, and the headquarters for Global Green and the Broadmoor Development Corporation.
Since 2009, Propeller has launched 50 ventures, from the Healthy School Food Collaborative, an initiative bringing healthy school lunches to 48% of New Orleans public schools to the Justice and Accountability Center of Louisiana, a group that has provided expungements for non-violent offenses to over 1,500 clients to help disrupt the prison pipeline.
Propeller is just one of thousands of rebuilding initiatives funded in whole or in part by federal Community Development Block Grant dollars administered through the Louisiana Office of Community Development-Disaster Recovery Unit. The NOBIC BioFund was seeded from this same source, and funding has also helped develop programming for the Idea Village, Good Work Network, New Orleans Startup Fund, and the majority of New Orleans Forward Cities Council members.
The state agency has invested more than $14.5 billion in CDBG funding appropriated to Louisiana from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for recovery from hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav and Ike. The agency’s disaster recovery investments are impressive: $11,621,228,377 in housing; $1,554,817,050 in infrastructure; and $498,082,830 in economic development.
“As we approach the tenth anniversaries of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it’s important to look back at all of the recovery investments made throughout the state and assess the socioeconomic impacts they have had on storm-impacted regions,” OCD-DRU Executive Director Pat Forbes said.
Every rebuilding category represents thousands and hundreds of projects, each with its own success story to tell. Propeller’s story has been recorded in Time, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes
and other publications.