Tim Williamson left his native New Orleans in 1987 to pursue a career in finance and then in television/video marketing. When he returned to his hometown in the late 1990s to start a tech company, he found that the city had fallen on hard times.
After the local oil industry went bust in the mid-1980s, the Big Easy slumped. The city struggled with crime and corruption, and its school system took a turn toward the abysmal. New Orleans had no venture capital, no Fortune 500 companies, and little entrepreneurship, he says.
Over beers one night in 2000, Williamson (pictured) and a few of his peers hatched a bold idea: Build a new generation of leaders for the city they loved. The Idea Village was born.
“We decided New Orleans needed a new generation of leaders,” Williamson says. “We felt that entrepreneurship is a catalyst for change. Once [entrepreneurs] start to succeed, we need to retain them in the community to provide jobs, revenue, and wealth.”
Cultivating an “Entrepreneurial Ecosystem”
The entrepreneurs funded the Idea Village themselves and registered the organization as a nonprofit in 2002. Their mission is to bring together business, government, and academia to cultivate an “entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
“It’s a fancy new term for a network,” Williamson explains. People in the network “collaborate to identify entrepreneurial talent, to support that talent, and to ultimately retain that talent in the community.”
Ironically, this exciting emerging network got a major boost as a result of 2005′s devastating Hurricane Katrina. Katrina forced New Orleans to become what Williamson calls a “startup city,” where entrepreneurship became a strategy to build a better city. The storm fractured extant networks, which resulted in new people with new ideas coming in and sharing their perspectives.
“Entrepreneurial talent was attracted to New Orleans because of the opportunities presented by rebuilding and re-imagining a great American metropolis,” says Williamson. “With the influx of entrepreneurial talent post-Katrina, The Idea Village became a hub for entrepreneurs and those who believe in them.”
In line with that purpose, the group supports the launch and growth of small businesses in New Orleans through education, consulting, and capital-access programs. Beyond producing local leaders, it aims to create infrastructure and generate wealth to make the city better.
The organization organizes the annual New Orleans Entrepreneur Week, which comprises seminars and keynotes for the general public and pitch sessions for New Orleans-based startups competing for for venture, angel, and seed funding. More than 5,000 innovative business leaders, financiers, entrepreneurs, and MBA students are expected to attend the 2014 event, which is held from March 22 to 28. The event will give 75 local small business the opportunity to pitch their ideas to potential funders in 16 capital competitions.
Over the past 14 years, the Idea Village has worked with more than 2,500 entrepreneurs, with 131 going on into accelerated programs, Williamson says. A vast majority of the businesses started by those in the latter group are still located in New Orleans.
“There’s a rhythm and ritual to engaging, and I think New Orleans has become a great place to be an entrepreneur,” Williamson says.
Starting a Business Anywhere
As someone who’s steeped in fostering entrepreneurship, Williamson has predictably strong and specific advice for those starting and running their own businesses, wherever they are. The first priority, he says, is to determine the “why.”
“It needs to be a soul-searching about why are you going on this journey,” he says. “Starting a business is a journey, a personal journey. You’ve got to commit to it. No one’s going to cheer for you until they see that you’re resilient and not giving up. You’ve got work at it until people start to believe in you. You have to believe in yourself first.”
Next, figure out what you’re good at — and, more importantly, what you’re really bad at. “Surround yourself with people who are good at what you’re bad at,” he recommends.
Finally, prepare to pivot. Test out various ways of actualizing your idea. “Those who are willing to try, try, try, and test, test, test are those who stick to their idea and succeed,” he says.