Pritzker also brought a big check with her — money destined to help the entrepreneurs the Idea Village serves.
Entrepreneurs like Scott Wolfe, who has developed software to help construction companies get paid by their clients, a perennial problem in one of the nation’s largest industries.
“Ultimately, we help our customers get paid,” Wolfe told Pritzker. “Getting paid in construction is tough.”
If Wolfe’s company succeeds, he’ll not only create a good business for himself, his employees, and all of the construction companies who use his company’s software, he’ll also strengthen the economy all around. Lots of money flows from construction.
Secretary Pritzker, whose business background is in real estate, hospitality, senior living and financial services, offered advice to Wolfe, and then went next door to meet another entrepreneur: Webster Pierce, from Cut Off, La. Pierce pointed to a picture behind him: a place where he used to hunt deer and rabbit. It was a picture of open water —acres and acres of land taken by erosion.
“It’s like a piranha,” Pierce said. “It’s the he little waves, it’s not the hurricane. It’s the fronts that comes in, the small waves. Because of the texture of the land, it just grabs and pulls away at it, one wave at a time, and it keeps washing away. And, unless we do something for ourselves, shame on us if we can and we don’t.”
Pierce once worked for the levee district, and now he’s invented a device called the Wave Robber, which stops erosion and rebuilds land by trapping sediment. Pierce already has a patent, and on the day he met Secretary Pritzker he was working with a licensing expert at Idea Village. The nonprofit’s mission is to identify, support and retain entrepreneurial talent in New Orleans.
Pritzker says that small businesses like Pierce’s and Wolfe’s are essential to growth in any city, but they can’t make it on their own. They need a business environment that helps them.
“There are so many ideas out there, but you need an ecosystem that can help someone — an individual with an idea,” Pritzker said. “How do I go from that, all the way to actually a business that’s hiring great people and creating good jobs?”
It doesn’t just happen, she said. “It takes more than a lawyer, it takes more than a business plan, it takes more than a funder. It takes a whole effort. And that’s why Idea Village is such a terrific concept.”
So terrific that Pritzker announced a grant of $600,000 to Idea Village from the Economic Development Administration so they can keep doing more of what they’ve been doing: mentoring and consulting new entrepreneurs. Idea Village Co-founder Tim Williamson says his organization helps create a new generation of job creators.
“If you’re an entrepreneur, and you have an idea, you need everything: you need an accountant, you need a lawyer, you need a logo, you need someone to answer phones,” Williamson said. “So, entrepreneurs create jobs.”
Since its founding in 2000, Idea Village says it has helped more than 3,000 New Orleans businesses get off the ground — businesses who have collectively created more than 2,000 jobs.
Secretary Pritzker says small businesses can make a big dent in a city’s overall economic growth.
“We’re seeing it in Atlanta, we see it Nashville, we see it in other places that we’ve been supporting,” she said. “Each one has its own approach and its own leadership goals, but in essence, fundamentally the idea is the same. Which is: an idea to a business doesn’t just happen. It’s something that requires nurturing; it requires an ecosystem.
New Orleans’ ecosystem for business is complicated, though. While Ink Magazine recently dubbed us “America’s Coolest Startup City”, unemployment remains high, for some. According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, 48% of African-American men don’t have jobs, or have given up looking for work.