EdTech Capital of Tomorrow: New Orleans?
To all those in the EdTech community who descended on Austin for SXSW last week, I humbly offer a piece of advice: you may want to set your sights slightly further east next year. Last week was New Orleans Entrepreneur Week (NOEW), an annual gathering of top tech talent, VC and corporate leaders, top MBA teams, civic leaders, and the city’s most promising entrepreneurs, for a celebration of New Orleans’ startup ecosystem that would have been unthinkable just 7 years ago. One of the week’s highlights was Jennifer Medbery, Founder & CEO of classroom CRM platform Kickboard, state her goal to establish New Orleans at the epicenter of the EdTech industry after winning the $50,000 Big Idea pitch competition. As I listened to her declare her vision—that this city, which had historically ranked dead last in so many education, entrepreneurship, and technology measures—would become the leader of the EdTech revolution—I found myself wondering, could that really happen? Let me briefly make the case that it can and will.
New Orleans today is ground zero for education innovation at the practitioner level. The city has the densest concentration of charter schools in the country, with 70% of students attending one of the city’s 60+ charter school. While charter schools can evoke controversy, there is little question that they provide an environment that fosters experimentation in education. The conventional wisdom holds that New York has a natural EdTech advantage because it is home to textbook publishers and other incumbent players. However, I would argue that the real edge belongs to the city that is empowering entrepreneurship at the school and classroom level. VC luminaries like Fred Wilson are fond of shying away from companies that offer services to existing industry players and instead investing in companies that seek to uproot the existing power structure. Those kind of companies are likely to get their start in a city that is dense with practitioners testing out new ground level solutions. It doesn’t hurt that New Orleans is also home to one of the largest concentrations of Teach For America corps members (360 active teachers and 620 alumni) in the country, adding to the youthful, innovative education climate. Perhaps nobody exemplifies the potency of this combination better than Ms. Medbery herself, who founded Kickboard when she was a Teach For America corps member in a New Orleans charter school.
Additionally, while New Orleans has emerged as a true startup hub it lacks a uniting sector focus. This is a product of the city’s recent history. Once the home of America’s oil industry, that central piece of the city’s economic identity began to flee to Houston in the 1970s. By the time Katrina struck, New Orleans was home to only one Fortune 500 company, relying on only hospitality and shipping to support its economy. After the storm, every New Orleanian who returned became an entrepreneur out of necessity, fighting against the odds to reestablish their lives and businesses. The startup boom that the city is currently experiencing is an outgrowth of that scrappy spirit. Moreover, this city, which had suffered for decades from a severe brain drain, is now a magnet for talent, attracting droves of young, well-educated, purposeful doers. Further, as the startup community has grown since the storm, a dynamic local ecosystem has sprouted up to support it. Organizations like The Idea Village, Launchpad, and the $47 million New Orleans Bioinnovation Center provide mentorship, space, and resources to aspiring local entrepreneurs, local law firms offer pro bono services to early stage companies, early stage capital has begun to flow in, Mayor Landrieu is a champion for local startups, and the local university system has reoriented itself to promote entrepreneurial studies. As the ecosystem continues to grow and develop its identity, it is only natural that it will begin to organize around certain industrial sectors. Biotechnology may be one, but education is another natural fit. This trend is already beginning to emerge, with several local EdTech startups on display during NOEW and a dedicated Education Entrepreneur Challenge event during the Week with a $10,000 prize pool.
Lastly, New Orleans has the winds of timing at its back. The city’s improbable emergence as a rising startup powerhouse and education pioneer coincides with EdTech innovation’s widespread disruption of the education industry. Both the city of New Orleans and the EdTech revolution will continue to define their identities over the next few years. Don’t be surprised if these two movements become evermore associated with one another.
So, if you’re interested in EdTech, take notice, big things are brewing in the Big Easy.