March 23, 2016

My 3 Top Takeaways from New Orleans Entrepreneur Week


New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Inaugural Civic Innovation Summit Keynote Speaker

Last week was a busy one in the world of start-ups, entrepreneurs, and social innovators with SXSW in Austin and New Orleans Entrepreneur Week ( NOEW ). This year I was invited to attend NOEW as a panelist at the inaugural New Orleans Civic Innovation Summit with New Orleans Mayor, Mitch Landrieu, and inspiring local and national civic innovators.

According to USA Today, NOEW has become the “Mardi Gras of entrepreneurship.” In its 7 th year, NOEW is a staple cultural event in New Orleans and is much less a traditional conference, but rather an 8-day festival that celebrates “innovation, entrepreneurship, and new thinking.”

The New Orleans Civic Innovation Summit was a great way to bring together city departments, corporate and nonprofit partners, and local innovators to discuss and share best practices for building an entrepreneurial ecosystem in the city of New Orleans.

Here are my top 3 takeaways from the summit:

  1. We can’t wait for disasters to begin solving social and environmental problems. Mayor Landrieu kicked-off the summit by talking about the importance of rethinking many areas – from education, to healthcare and economic development – and addressing long-standing issues, such as economic inequality, that were amplified by the impact of Hurricane Katrina, the BP Oil Spill, the recession, and so many challenges over the past several years. It was clear from our discussion, that cities that embrace and adapt to change will thrive, and therefore, innovation is the key to a dynamic and prepared city. New Orleans is a good model with their plan and invitations to entrepreneurs to team with government departments to solve their most urgent issues. With the help of civic tech entrepreneurs and innovators in areas ranging from public safety to big data to housing, the time is now to reimagine how to solve these long-standing challenges.
  1. Cities alone can’t fix their own problems. We have to engage citizens. During the National Leaders discussion, I joined panelists from Enigma, Citymart, and JP Morgan Chase to explore how national solutions can complement and help accelerate local efforts. I shared that while our work at the Civic Accelerator is not specifically focused on cities, many of our civic ventures are working to solve multi-faceted social issues that are facing cities and that require partnering with local government agencies. In addition, I talked about our belief at the Points of Light Civic Accelerator that solutions that engage people are more scalable and have deeper impact. Examples of these solutions include: Neighborly , Opportunity Space , and – all Civic Accelerator alumni who effectively engage people at the core of what they do to make cities healthier, more vibrant and resilient.

In order for similar civic ventures to succeed, we need local environments that welcome diverse thought, encourage innovation, and invite engagement from individuals, communities, and the public and private sectors. The Mayor and city government can set the tone. For example, during the Summit, New Orleans city officials shared a case study where skills-based volunteers helped to recruit  and interview police officers to build community trust and extend the capacity and knowledge base of the police department as a great example of using people’s talents and desire to help to achieve an outcome.

  1. We have to quickly move solutions from “on paper” to “on the ground.” The capstone of the summit were small group interactive workshops where we were able to explore solutions to issues regarding the digital divide, big data/analytics, expanding city recycling, and reducing barriers for disadvantaged job seekers and employers. It was energizing and insightful as we listened to the issues the city identified as priorities and contributed to ideating around possible solutions.

It was clear that partnering with innovators is the key to executing solutions in new ways. Some cities have begun immersing entrepreneurs in departments and the Mayors’ office.  For example, has an Entrepreneurs in Residence program, and is embedding senior innovative executives in a 1-year fellowship to lead on-the-ground change initiatives within city departments working on the Mayor’s strategic priorities. FUSE is a great example of leveraging skills-based services, the strength of public-private partnerships and bringing new thinking to cities.

There are other models that can change the way governments design and execute solutions to local problems. Design thinking and lean startup up methodologies can transform approaches to program design and execution to make them more effective and customer-focused. The Civic Accelerator experimented with this approach this fall and led in partnership with in three southern cities, including New Orleans, bringing these capabilities and tools directly to civic leaders in the form of a 2-day workshop.

As a national program, the Civic Accelerator has the unique opportunity to bring talent, tools, and networks from across the country to focus on specific themes and issues such as Opportunity Youth (CivicX Fall ’16 cohort spoiler alert!). And, this summer we are designing an Innovation Lab as a way to clearly define the issues faced by Opportunity Youth and ideate around possible solutions with cross-sector national and local players.

We value our position in the ecosystem, and we know to have the greatest impact it takes many people who are invested in solving these issues — entrepreneurs, non-profit and business leaders, government officials, innovators, and everyone in between — including you and me.

Ayesha Khanna is the president of the Points of Light Civic Incubator, which puts people at the center of change by supporting social entrepreneurs and early stage civic ventures around the world. As part of this role, she founded the Civic Accelerator and oversees the organization’s global efforts.