As thousands of music fans prepare to convene in New Orleans this week to sing and dance in the company of Prince and the other acts performing at the annual Essence Festival, dozens of entrepreneurs from across the country are planning to make the trek to the city, with arguably more critical goals in mind.
This year’s Essence Festival will bring the launch of PowerMoves.NOLA, an initiative aimed at increasing the number of minority-owned, high-growth-potential firms in New Orleans and elsewhere by connecting entrepreneurs with early-stage financing and mentors.
The program was created by the New Orleans Startup Fund, a nonprofit organization founded by local business and financial leaders to provide early-stage funding, or seed capital, to businesses as they prepare to seek venture capital.
This week, about 40 entrepreneurs of color from across the country will gather in New Orleans to take part in what is expected to become the initiative’s signature annual event. The PowerMoves.NOLA conference will consist of pitch sessions, networking events and a business boot camp. It begins Thursday and ends Sunday, coinciding with Essence Festival, one of the event’s sponsors.
The idea behind the conference is to elevate existing New Orleans minority entrepreneurs and to make the city the home for all minority entrepreneurs looking to solve their problem of lack of access to capital and other resources, said Rod Miller, president and chief executive of the New Orleans Business Alliance.
PowerMoves.NOLA was influenced by the alliance’s ProsperityNOLA, the strategic plan for economic development the organization introduced last year.
“In three to five years, New Orleans will have the kind of reputation that Atlanta has for black corporations,” Miller said. The thinking will go that “if you’re a startup business and you have high-growth potential and you want to grow, then you will need to be in New Orleans because we’ve got this robust ecosystem, and it doesn’t look like the ecosystem anywhere else in the country because minority businesses are really getting access to capital and support in a way that they’re not getting elsewhere.”
That effort will kick off in earnest this week with a series of events designed to introduce minority investors from across the country to investors, mentors and one another.
Twenty startups, including three New Orleans companies, will have a shot at winning $25,000 in pitch competitions to be held over the course of the four-day event.
Such funding could be critical in the process of turning an idea into an enterprise, said Leslie Jacobs, CEO of the Startup Fund and organizer of PowerMoves.NOLA.
Minority entrepreneurs have a “financial runway” problem, Jacobs said. That means they don’t have the cash on hand very early on to take their ideas from the proof-of-concept stage to development.
That first round of funding usually comes from friends and family members, she said.
“It works as long as you have rich friends and rich family, but if you don’t then you have an issue,” Jacobs said. “You can be very talented, but you have to have the financial runway to get your business started.”
According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency, minorities on average make up less than 7 percent of all entrepreneurs seeking funding from “angel” investors.
The New Orleans event’s sponsors include Chevron, Entergy and Liberty Bank, each of which will conduct a pitch competition.
The Entergy-sponsored competition, hosted by journalist and television personality Roland Martin on Friday, will feature companies that already have raised early-stage funding and now are looking to grow. The Chevron pitch on Saturday, hosted by actress and talk-show host Sherri Shepherd, features four women entrepreneurs. No New Orleans companies are competing in those competitions.
Three local entrepreneurs will compete in a field of eight during the Liberty Bank pitch session on Friday. They are Corey Hebert, founder and CEO of Community Health TV; Charles Easterling, founder of Crescent Unmanned; and Lorenzo Castillo, founder and CEO of Education Everytime.
Four early-stage entrepreneurs also will participate in a two-day business boot camp program, designed to help them build viable firms.
The program has attracted investors and advisers from across the country — an asset Jacobs hopes will help to grow the initiative.
“Our goal is to connect each of them with someone they really value,” she said. “This is going to snowball very quickly, because once you establish a relationship with these entrepreneurs and they see a value in what you’re doing, they don’t go away. They keep calling.”
At the conclusion of the week, PowerMoves.NOLA, which recently moved into a renovated warehouse on Religious Street, will continue on with two major activities. It will operate a year-round fellowship program that will invest in five companies through the Startup Fund. It also will manage a Rolodex of potential investors and advisers to be used by minority businesses that have participated in its programs.
“We’re very optimistic that PowerMoves.NOLA is going to rebrand New Orleans as the place for minority entrepreneurship and we’re going to attract talent here,” Jacobs said.