$200,000 for the business plan that keeps young talent in New Orleans

A New Orleans nonprofit is offering $200,000 to the business idea that can retain the networks of talented young people who came to help rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina. The Idea Village, a nonprofit devoted to supporting NOLA entrepreneurs, launched the initiative last week with a party at the landmark Tipitina’s. The winning entrepreneur will get $100,000 in funding and as much in business services donated from local vendors. Entries for the first round are due Dec. 4.

The competition is part of a larger project called 504ward (after the city’s 504 area code), designed to be a hub for young, talented professionals in New Orleans. (They also have a YouTube channel here.) The competition is open-ended, I believe deliberately. There’s no criteria for what kind of businesses qualify or how they would retain young people in the area. Idea Village had some pro-bono help from Google employees in crafting the competition, and it sounds like it’s designed to spur creative thinking.

The city faced tough economic problems before Katrina, among them a brain drain that sent young graduates of the city’s colleges to Atlanta, Houston or farther afield looking for jobs. After the hurricane, some of the people who came to help rebuild decided to stay, and some locals started new businesses to help revive the economy. I wrote about some of the new ventures seeding New Orleans’ economy last year. Even from a distance, the energy of the business owners I spoke with was infectious.

As we watch the financial crisis unfold, it’s worth remembering that New Orleans was underwater three years ago, in a crisis that wiped out very real assets in a tangible way, not just paper value created during a housing bubble. (That’s not meant to diminish the losses that people have already suffered and will feel ahead from the current fallout, just to put it in perspective.) The 504ward competition is designed to capture some of the energy people brought to the recovery and transform it into long-term economic growth and innovation. So what business idea can do it? Tell them.

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