NOLABound Project Offers Lessons in Turning “Brain Drain” to “Brain Gain”
Story and photos by Hugh Daschbach
Earlier this month, I checked in with The Rivard Report before participating in the first annual NOLAbound project in New Orleans, LA. I joined 26 professionals from four business sectors – sustainable industries, biosciences, digital media, and arts-based businesses – for five days of behind-the-scenes access to the city’s civic, business, and community leaders. In return, my fellow participants and I were asked to help New Orleans brainstorm about what the city can do to create a more attractive environment for businesses and entrepreneurs. We were urged to share those perspectives with friends and colleagues through our social media and peer networks. I left San Antonio curious to discover what the new New Orleans had to offer, and excited to learn valuable lessons to apply in the Alamo City when I returned home.
After growing up in southeastern Louisiana, I’ve spent most of my adult life living in central Texas. I have deep connections to both New Orleans and San Antonio and I believe that both places are unique American cities. Both locales are blessed with similar strengths (a vibrant history, rich local culture and flourishing convention/tourism industries) and they each struggle with similar challenges (glaring socioeconomic disparities, underperforming public schools, and significant
challenges with public health). Recently, NOLA and SA have gained national attention for topping lists with names like “Best Cities for Jobs”, “Best Performing Cities” and “Coolest Startup Cities in America.” San Antonio and New Orleans are diversifying their economies and creating attractive environments for the entrepreneurs and business leaders of the 21st century. After years of struggling to combat “Brain Drain”, efforts to create a “Brain Gain” appear to be working. Programs like NOLAbound are helping to spread the message that the city of New Orleans is open for business.
NOLAbound was a collaboration between three primary partners: GNO, Inc., the Downtown Development District of New Orleans, and Idea Village. All three organizations share the goal of catalyzing economic development in New Orleans and the surrounding region. The NOLAbound message was best summed up by Michael Hecht, President and CEO of GNO, Inc., who highlighted four pillars that serve as vital accelerants for business growth in the Crescent City: cost, cash, culture and leadership. Fortunately for San Antonio, we can claim similar reasons for companies to do business here.
Cost – The cost of business in NOLA is 30% lower than in most major U.S. cities.
- San Antonio enjoys a similar competitive cost advantage compared to most other major cities, and enjoys cheaper real estate prices than New Orleans.
Cash – New Orleans (and Louisiana in general) has the most aggressive economic incentive program in the country. Highlights at: http://gnoinc.org/incentives/incentive-finder
- San Antonio, and Texas in general, have some work to do in this area when compared to our neighbors to the east.
Culture – If you’ve been to New Orleans, you know what I’m talking about. Beth Galante, a speaker in NOLAbound’s “Growth Industry Panel” session, describes it like this; “I chose to be rich, not wealthy”. City leaders preach that it’s possible to do both.
- San Antonio shares a similarly rich cultural history and enjoys a balance between work and play that permeates the city and its people.
Leadership – City leaders are described as “aligned, energized, and able”. Interested parties from all business sectors are working together to stimulate long term job creation and economic development in the region.
- Mayor Julián Castro and City Manager Sheryl Sculley lead a talented team that I would argue can stack up against any in the country. Progressive business leaders in San Antonio are beginning to step up to do their part too.
With my entire immediate family living in or near New Orleans, my emotional connection to the city is a constant. I visit frequently and often consider the benefits of moving closer to ‘home.’ NOLAbound, however, opened my eyes to a whole new side of the city. Not only did I feel energized seeing the city through the eyes of the newcomers who joined me in the program, I was also pleasantly surprised to learn about exciting advances in the world of business and economic development. The NOLAbound experience bolstered my sentimental link to New Orleans with practical reasons to move there and to do business.
With over 2.5 million people reading a Tweet from NOLAbound participants during the five-day project, I obviously wasn’t the only person crowing that the new New Orleans is an exciting place to live and work. San Antonio should find similarly creative ways to show the world what we have to offer. TRR founder Robert Rivard had some good ideas in his recent article on ways to promote the new San Antonio using a more modern, inspired voice. A NOLAbound-style program highlighting the opportunities that exist in San Antonio would be another great way to generate a buzz around the great things happening in the Alamo City.
To find an example of the kind of showcase event we might strive for in San Antonio, one need to look no further than to New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. The nationally recognized festival brings together investors, business leaders, policy makers and leading MBA students for a 7-day experience aimed at supporting local entrepreneurs and the growing entrepreneurial spirit of New Orleans. This year’s event coincided with NOLAbound and culminated in “The Big Idea” pitch contest. In its inaugural year, The Big Idea provided an exciting public showcase for 19 of New Orleans’ most promising startup ventures and awarded a $50,000 cash prize to the winning company to support their fledgling business. In 2011, New Orleans boasted more startup ventures per resident than any other city in the United States. In a town that still has not reached pre-Katrina levels of population this number can be deceptively attractive, but the fact remains that there is significant growth in the city and that a palpable energy and an enthusiasm surrounds the region’s startup business environment. San Antonio should find similar ways to bring talented people to city and to broadcast the message that our city is one of the best places to live and work in the country.
Particular potential exists for San Antonio to empower entrepreneurs through the support and incubation of startups. With the arrival of the TechStars Cloud program, top technology startups already have their eyes on our city. TechStars, one of the world’s top startup accelerators, provides young companies with intensive mentorship from industry experts, seed funding from over 75 different venture investors, and the chance to pitch to other investors and venture capitalists at the end of the program. My good friend, Jason Seats, leads the TechStars Cloud program and is a transplant to San Antonio himself, moving here several years ago when his own startup tech company was acquired by Rackspace. Jason was recently mentioned by Mayor Castro in his State of the City address and he is a perfect example of the type of creative mind we want to attract to our community. If we are lucky, some of the companies participating in TechStars will find a home in San Antonio when the 3 month program is done. The first teams to graduate from TechStars Cloud will stage their own pitch contest on April 11 and it would be great to see the event get strong support from the local community.
As a lover of both New Orleans and San Antonio, I see enormous potential for collaboration between two great American cities. Let’s look to New Orleans to see what is working for them, and while we’re at it let’s share our own stories of success in return. Both communities are writing new chapters in their vibrant histories; both places are experiencing job growth and are poised to become prominent players in the new world economy. And whether it’s called ‘laissez faire’ in New Orleans or ‘mañana’ in San Antonio, these two gems will always know how to enjoy life and maintain a healthy balance between work and play. That appreciation for what it really means to live “the good life” is what will always link me to both of the cities I’ve come to call home. If current growth trends continue and we learn to creatively tell our story, San Antonio will join New Orleans as a center of smart, sustainable development for generations to come. I’m excited to be a part of it.Hugh Daschbach is a southern Louisiana native and a 1995 graduate of Trinity University. He works as the National Sales Manager for locally based Cinco Solar. To continue this conversation, email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HughDaschbach.