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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Entrepreneurial Spirit of the City

I'm proud to be a New Orleans native. Our town exerts an emotional tug not just on me but on people around the world, including some who know it only by reputation. Wherever I go, people pepper me with questions when they find out I'm from New Orleans. In the past, they mainly asked about the music, food or our predilection for larger than life politicians. But nowadays, it's mainly about how New Orleans, against all odds and most expectations, rebounded from Katrina.
Not only did the city rebuild, it came back better than it was before. It created an innovative model for schools, which took one of the worst systems in the nation and made it a template for reform and student success. And it embraced an entrepreneurial spirit that has spawned startups and attracted creative young minds. New Orleans has become a brain magnet.
As I prepare to head back to my hometown this week for New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, I am struck by how a city's unique trajectory and revived entrepreneurial spirit can serve as a model for the rest of our nation as we struggle to regain our footing.
Upon its founding in 1718 and for more than two centuries afterwards, New Orleans provided a portal to the rest of America and an entryway to the American dream built on entrepreneurship. From the French and Spanish to the Irish and Africans, it was a melting pot of opportunity in every sense of the word, creating an entrepreneurial culture and laying a foundation for a city that would become so dear to the rest of the world.
But, like many places, New Orleans became complacent. After decades of neglect and massive brain drain, New Orleans became known as the land of beads, booze and Mardi Gras.
But in August 2005, the failure of the federal levees after Katrina left New Orleans devastated. Despite being presumed dead by many, New Orleans rose up and reawakened its long-dormant entrepreneurial spirit. Like the original pioneers, a diverse group of people came together to rebuild -- a group of eager, inventive natives and newcomers.
Everyone in New Orleans became an entrepreneur -- they once again embraced risk and uncertainty, and they created innovative solutions to persistent problems. They asked the question, "What if?" What if I could make a difference? New Orleans not only got back on its feet but began to re-establish itself as a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship.
The fact that New Orleans has grown to one of the country's most thriving start-up hubs is what I speak of with pride now when I talk of my hometown. And as our country struggles to rise from the current economic climate, we need to look to New Orleans for inspiration.
Cultivating innovation and strengthening new ventures are critical to the revitalization of the U.S. economy. The entrepreneurial culture of New Orleans is outpacing the nation in the growth of start-ups and is attracting businesses, investors and a global network of talent who are providing the resources for these ventures to prosper. New Orleans Entrepreneur Week is the embodiment of this entrepreneurial culture -- national investors, business leaders, policy experts and even top MBA students from around the country all choose to come to New Orleans every March to participate in the city's economic resurgence.
Entrepreneurship has always been a critical part of American culture. It needs to be encouraged and sustained across the nation. Fortunately, few communities will have a "Katrina" moment, but any community can start an entrepreneurial movement. It requires a willingness to imagine and ask, "What if?" New Orleans did, and we are now witnessing the rebirth of a great American city.
Walter Isaacson is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan educational and policy studies institute based in Washington, DC.

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