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When I started Propeller, our focus was on harnessing the momentum of social and environmental progress in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The storm and its aftereffects laid bare issues that had existed long before the levees broke: failing schools and generational poverty, astonishing health disparities between the rich and the poor, simultaneous obesity and food insecurity, all in a city so vulnerable to extreme weather events.
Since then, it has been our mission to support entrepreneurs solving those pressing challenges. We’ve graduated over 100 social ventures from our programs, and through their hard work, we are starting to see positive change.
What we also acknowledge, is that at the core of each one of those “pressing challenges” is race and structural racism.
Too often, the systems designed to address social and environmental issues are the same ones that fail and oppress New Orleans’ poor and communities of color. The achievement gap is widening between black and white students. Communities of color are still the most likely to live in the lowest-lying areas most vulnerable to flooding. The life expectancy is 25 years lower in New Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods compared to our most affluent. These disparities aren’t accidental, they are the result of generational cycles of racial oppression and privilege.
Success also divides along color lines in our city’s business and entrepreneurship communities. New Orleans’ post-Katrina entrepreneurial renaissance has been far more exclusive than inclusive. Though 60% of New Orleanians are minorities, only 27% of the city’s firms are owned by minorities, and even more concerning, minority businesses receive less than 2% of receipts.
This reality exists on a national scale as well. Nationwide studies have found that 1% of venture capital-funded founders are black (12% are Asian and 87% are white). Only 8% are women. Women and minorities also participate in business incubators and accelerators at far lower rates compared to their white, male counterparts.
With the support of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Propeller is hosting trainings and workshops by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond and the Racial Equity Institute with entrepreneurs and partners to begin to understand and share systemic racism’s effects on equitable access to food, water, health, education, and economic development in our city .
There are other organizations also focused on this work. Good Work Network’s ConnectWorks program connects low-income and disadvantaged micro-entrepreneurs to market opportunities by helping them identify and acquire contracts with socially responsible businesses. RisingFoundations’ small business incubator program provides formerly incarcerated young adults with the education and resources to foster financial security through self-employment.
Together, we can lift up a powerful community of diverse entrepreneurs, who will be demographically reflective of the city where they live.
It won’t happen overnight, and it won’t happen without intentional work and tough conversations. We hope to work alongside our neighbors to dismantle discriminatory social and economic systems through entrepreneurship, while also addressing the persistent challenges that have emerged as their symptoms.
Andrea Chen is the Founder and Executive Director at Propeller, a New Orleans-based non-profit that grows and support entrepreneurs tackling social and environmental disparities. Since 2009, Propeller has launched over 100 entrepreneurs working to ensure all New Orleanians can live healthy, fulfilling lives free of racism, poverty, and other systems of oppression. Andrea was named “40 Under 40” by Gambit Magazine, 2014 Aspen Institute Scholar, 2014 BALLE Fellow, 2014 Norman C. Francis Institute Fellow, and 2010 City Business Women of the Year. She completed her B.A. at Stanford University and M.Ed. at UNO and Harvard Graduate School of Education.