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Propeller helps the New Orleans entrepreneurial ecosystem take off
Propeller is a New Orleans-based non-profit organization with a big mission: positive social impact. They're passionate about supporting Black native New Orleanian entrepreneurs who want to make an impact in community economic development, education, food, health, and water.
A major component of their work includes an annual Impact Accelerator. Each accelerator cohort goes through a five-month intensive to grow and scale their businesses through increase increased contract opportunities, markets, and customers through expertise, networks, mentorship and resources
Propeller calls a 10,000 square-foot building home and uses Coworks software to manage its space. It’s where the team hangs their hats, but it's so much more than that. It's also a bustling hub where over 50 different groups and 100 small businesses, including nonprofits and community members, can come together, share ideas, and work on making New Orleans an even better place.
We sat down with Propeller’s Co-Founder and CEO, Andrea Chen. Andrea’s passion and leadership propelled the organization from an idea to 300+ accelerated ventures that have generated $290+ million in revenue and financing and a 10,000 s.f. Coworking Space in the heart of New Orleans.
Why does a physical space matter when so much can be done remotely?
Especially after COVID — there are not a lot of places where you can walk into a building to get help and meet with someone right away. And that is something that we want to be for our community. We want to be an open door to our entrepreneurship ecosystem.
And yes, you can go online and book an appointment. But especially in New Orleans, it matters to meet face to face, it matters to establish that relationship. So if you're coming in as an entrepreneur and you want to get help from a business mentor or counselor, it matters that you have established that rapport, and that trust is easier to build in person.
Prior to COVID, Propeller was known as the place to be if you needed to talk to people. And so a physical space is a big part of it — our magic happens here.
What makes effective programming for an accelerator/incubator?
The most important thing is to meet people where they're at.
For us, we work with social entrepreneurs. That means people have a financial growth goal and also have a social impact goal. Racial equity and inclusion are at the core of our values, so they have a DEI goal as well. But how to get there is going to be very different per company. And so we need to make sure that we have the expertise to serve whatever it is that people need.
And that's why we have industry focus areas. Because in order to get to the revenue goals, for a food consumer packaged goods company, for example, you need to know all the buyers at all the retail outlets. There's very specific PR and branding for this kind of product. Supply chain, co-packing, that's also very specific to the industry. In order to meet people where they're at and provide value, we needed to get specialized in certain areas.
What is special about the Propeller community and how do you cultivate it?
Everyone who goes through one of our cohorts is considered a part of our family. And we cultivate a feeling of family in a lot of different ways.
It starts when the entrepreneurs go through our accelerator program together as a cohort. Collaboration is a core value, and for that to happen, you have to have build trust. We set the expectation that you're here at Propeller not just to further your business, but to further these larger goals we have around economic equity. Supporting each other is also part of our strategy.
As a result, these founders naturally and organically find ways to partner with each other and launch things together. They do pop-ups together, or co-brand new things together. It's very cool. And so that is part of what gives us that community and family feeling.
And then we tell people that, once you've gone through Propeller’s accelerator, we don't really let you go — and we don't. We have a lot of our alumni that are active with us after 10 plus years. They come back as lead mentors, and we pay them to coach the next set of emerging entrepreneurs. We’ve launched new programming for alumni. And we're about to launch a $3 million equity fund for our food alumni.
That also goes for the broader community in New Orleans.
Between the hurricane [Ida] and COVID, we haven't had a fully functional and usable physical space in nearly three years. So we've been physically open to the New Orleans community in the last year, and we could not be more excited about this.
How does the practice of diversity and equity show up in your programming?
It shows up in so many different ways. We have published a regular DEI report every year. And it's not just reflected in our programming, but at every single level of the organization. From our board, staffing, HR, finance, programming, partnerships, operations, our facility, everything. Everything from how do we spend our money (i.e. what percentage of our business is going to Black and Native New Orleanian entrepreneurs, and BIPOC entrepreneurs) and same with who is on our team and how we hire.
It starts with recruitment. Who are we reaching out to? Are we getting a diverse candidate pool for our programming? That is across the board from our Access to Capital Workshops, our loan fund, and soon to be equity fund, our accelerator program, even who comes into the building at Propeller.
The second piece of it is we want all of our businesses to also have equitable business practices as part of their businesses. That's incorporated into the curriculum of the accelerator. We have people who specialize in this and one of our modules is on how to incorporate DEI into your business. And if you're someone who's already doing it, but hasn't codified it, codifying it is also important.