WHY NOLA?

We’re proud to introduce the #WhyNOLA Campaign, our new series on why New Orleans is a great place to build a business or a career. At the New Orleans Business Alliance, we believe New Orleans offers the ideal intersection of commerce and culture. A place where it’s possible to build a business from the ground up, take a company to the next level of growth, or pursue your professional goals while leading a full and interesting life.

But the proof is in the stories of those who do it every day. Each week we’ll feature a new member of our business community telling their WhyNOLA story. Check back here or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn. Or, share your own WhyNOLA story – we’d love to hear why you feel New Orleans is the best place in America to live and work.

THE CITY’S ECONOMIC POTENTIAL DELIVERS

mckayVal McKay, Managing Director, Smashing Boxes New Orleans

Val McKay saw her adopted hometown of New Orleans rebound back to its vibrant, artistic identity after Hurricane Katrina, and now the business she helps lead – Smashing Boxes – is helping to shape the city’s technological future.

Smashing Boxes expanded to New Orleans in 2015, opening an office on Gravier Street to complement its headquarters in Durham, N.C., after its initial attraction to the city’s economic potential arose at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week. McKay is the New Orleans Managing Director, and she said it was an ideal city to pursue for many reasons, even though Smashing Boxes wasn’t looking to expand at the time.

“Having lived here both pre- and post-Katrina levee failure, I have experienced firsthand how a community can claw its way back from catastrophic devastation by sheer will, determination and stubbornness,” McKay says. “This city is truly a unicorn – it is like no other.”

Smashing Boxes is a design and technology firm founded in 2010 that specializes in digital product design and development. The company is investing $500,000 in its New Orleans operations and expects to create 85 new jobs over the next five years.

McKay says New Orleans’ authenticity appeals to her company, whose self-described mission is to achieve clients’ business objectives by challenging the status quo – essentially “smashing boxes.”

“New Orleans does not put on airs,” she says. “It is uniquely itself.”

For McKay, New Orleans has become home even though she grew up in Baton Rouge. She moved to New Orleans in 1988 to attend Loyola, went to Chicago in 1993 to earn a master’s degree, and then returned to New Orleans after only a three-year absence.

“I wanted a more relaxed quality of life where I could have a full-time job that paid the bills, but also afforded me time to spend with friends and family,” McKay says. “I wanted a house and a yard for a dog without having to live in a suburb and travel two hours round-trip by train each day to work.

“So, what keeps me here? Yes, it’s the food. Yes, it’s the friendly people. Yes, it’s the music and the history and the architecture and the festivals and the creativity that surrounds us. But why I really stay here is for a very simple reason: It is home.”

IT’S EASY TO REACH THE CENTERS OF INFLUENCE

robert wollfarthRobert L. Wollfarth Jr., Shareholder, Baker Donelson

Robert Wollfarth can’t help but be proud of how New Orleans has grown into a destination city for business.

He immerses himself in that culture every day as a shareholder at the New Orleans law office of Baker Donelson. Wollfarth earned both his J.D. and Master of Laws in taxation at New York University in 1997, but he says he had no intention to practice law anywhere but New Orleans.

“There’s a tremendous startup culture and an invigorating migration of talent to the city, so my decision has paid off,” says Wollfarth, a New Orleans native. “The thing I want people to understand is that you can do business here and succeed. Why wouldn’t you want to have your business, be successful at it, and not have to kill yourself at it? That’s the icing on the cake, and that’s possible in New Orleans.”

Wollfarth says the instant appeal of the city often starts the conversation for businesses to establish in New Orleans.

“People like to marry social interaction with business opportunity a lot more here, and that is attracting businesses from outside Louisiana,” he says. “Being from New Orleans gives you a leg up to start a relationship, and then you can attract them with your expertise. It facilitates relationships in business.”

Wollfarth joined Baker Donelson in 2011 and said the networking opportunities in New Orleans have served him well throughout his career.

“In New Orleans it’s easier to get to the centers of influence,” he says. “Imagine being in New York and trying to make connections. Here, those important connections are much more within your reach, and that’s just generally the benefit of a small city. And here, when you get to that person you need, they’re more welcoming, more willing to help than in many places.”

IT’S A CITY WITH A BURGEONING BIOTECH INDUSTRY

lowry curley axosimJ. Lowry Curley, CEO, AxoSim Technologies

For AxoSim CEO J. Lowry Curley, New Orleans was the perfect place to launch his biotech startup.

Curley and Tulane biomedical engineering professor Michael Moore founded AxoSim in 2014, and Curley, a Slidell native, says he has no trouble explaining to others why he chose New Orleans for his business.

“I get asked this question a lot from other entrepreneurs,” he says. “The burgeoning biotech community has many people who are very willing to help and provide advice. Experienced entrepreneurs, advisers and experts work closely with young companies in a way that does not happen elsewhere. We have some great up-and-coming success stories, and as more startups succeed, the critical mass necessary for sustainability grows.”

AxoSim became one of those stories when it won $25,000 at the 2014 Innovation Louisiana BioChallenge. The company enables pharmaceutical researchers to develop cheaper and more effective drug treatments for neurological diseases such as ALS and multiple sclerosis using its patent-pending Nerve-On-A-Chip technology.

“The New Orleans BioInnovation Center and the Idea Village, among many other business incubators, provide an opportunity to establish a company and get the help a young bootstrapping company needs to succeed,” Curley says. “The high density of universities and major hospitals also provides access to a large number of trained biotech professionals, which not everyone realizes.”

Curley lived in Antwerp, Belgium, for a year before returning to New Orleans for good in 2013. He says the things that keep him in New Orleans are exactly what brought him home.

“In particular, New Orleans’ sense of community extends to the startup culture,” Curley says. “There is a definite feeling that everyone is in this together.”

IT’S A BOOMING CITY FOR YOUNG ENTREPRENEURS

charles rice entergyCharles Rice, CEO, Entergy New Orleans

Entergy CEO Charles Rice has a message for young entrepreneurs: New Orleans is open for business.

“If you are looking to be an entrepreneur, I would encourage you to move here,” says Rice, the president and CEO of Entergy New Orleans since 2010.

“If you’re a business person, we have four great universities here, seven universities total. There’s a lot of talent in this town, and there’s a true entrepreneurial spirit. I really like the current vibe of all these young people moving in. You can get whatever talent you need, right here.”

The Algiers native went to college at Howard University in Washington, D.C., before serving in the U.S. Army as a Military Intelligence Officer with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) at Fort Campbell, Ky. He returned home in 1992 and earned a Juris Doctorate from Loyola in 1995. He also holds a Master’s of Business Administration from Tulane’s A.B. Freeman School of Business.

After practicing law in Birmingham, Ala., for several years, Rice’s life journey redirected him home for good. Rice says he loves the palpable atmosphere of “transplants” relocating to New Orleans, a much different phenomenon from when he first returned 24 years ago.

“This is a community where if you take the time, it can be very welcoming,” Rice says. “Once people get to know you and you develop a reputation, it’s small enough that your reputation helps you in the long run.”

Rice’s reputation is partly built on the way he and his wife Vonda serve organizations like Boys Hope Girls Hope, giving back to the city that opened so many doors for him. It’s a commitment first imbued by his parents and family, but that continues today.

“Family is very important to me, and it’s very important to the people who live here,” Rice says, explaining that it’s part of what keeps him in the city. “It’s a pretty affordable place to live and it’s a pretty good place to raise a family. I like that it’s a family-oriented place.”

IT’S A CITY THAT EMBRACES CREATIVITY

angela o'byrneAngela O’Byrne, FAIA, LEED AP, Architect/President, Perez APC

When Angela O’Byrne saw New Orleans’ resiliency after Hurricane Katrina, she reaffirmed her lifelong commitment to the city. Born in Cali, Colombia, O’Byrne came to New Orleans at age 5 when her father accepted a teaching and research position at Tulane University School of Medicine, but she studied, lived and worked across the country before firmly establishing herself in New Orleans in 1998 at Perez APC. She took over as President of Perez just two years later.

“Hurricane Katrina cemented my desire to stay permanently. I realized how great our community truly was, and that we nearly lost it,” she says. “It really made me value what we have in New Orleans, so much more than I ever had before in my entire life put together. I like a lot of the cities I visit, and I’ve met many cool people in them, but I love New Orleans. You can’t always explain it, put your finger on it or articulate it — NOLA has a soul.”

O’Byrne has opened nine Perez APC offices throughout the U.S., and has won federal contracts in Germany, Afghanistan, Iraq and West Africa, but she has committed to making the firm’s headquarters in New Orleans.

“It gives us a certain cachet, which is especially important in my industry – design,” she says. “We have great design, and New Orleans nurtures that, with four great architecture schools and many more community college architectural drafting programs in the state of Louisiana. And my clients and staff love to visit.”

O’Byrne describes her passion for New Orleans as “profound,” with opportunities for all people if they look.

“I love the spirit of inclusiveness and diversity,” she says. “Eccentricity is welcome. The creative people who make up my industry feel at home here – that’s important when my company is recruiting. It’s the spirit of the people, their ‘joie de vivre’ and desire to help one another through the tough times.”

IT’S A PLACE TO BROADEN YOUR HORIZONS

RickTallantRick Tallant, Asset Manager, Shell Exploration and Production Company

Rick Tallant wanted to move to a city with tradition, culture and professional opportunities when he returned to the U.S. after 3 ½ years working at Shell’s central headquarters in the Netherlands.

Tallant got his wish when Shell transferred him to New Orleans in March 2010. He and his family live in the Garden District, and he enjoys working at Shell’s New Orleans branch.

“No matter where else we get moved with Shell, we’ll always return here … and our children will all be New Orleanians from birth,” Tallant says. “When we moved, we thought we’d be here 2-3 years. We never expected to fall in love with the city as we have. We were pleasantly surprised by all that it means to be a local, and we’ve fully embraced it.”

Tallant’s roles at Shell have ranged from global strategy to offshore operations in Houston, the Netherlands and New Orleans. He is now asset manager for the Gulf of Mexico East.

He says it is both easy and fulfilling to build a career in the growing, dynamic business community that is New Orleans.

“I don’t think people realize there are good opportunities to broaden yourself if you’re willing to look outside your primary industry,” Tallant said. “There are new things to offer, plentiful opportunities, and lots of career choices if you can look at it broadly.”

Tallant says living and working in such a non-traditional city is “fantastic” for him and his family – from observing the architecture, to walking down iconic streets, to riding in legendary Mardi Gras parades. And a commute to work shorter than 10 minutes isn’t too bad either.

“What we’ve found is that when people get (to New Orleans), they often realize how much the city has to offer, and concerns recede,” Tallant says. “New Orleans has a cycle, a rhythm by which things happen. Everything has a season, and you don’t really understand the scope of that until you really experience it. It’s like no place else.”

IT’S A PLACE WHERE ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE

GregFeirnGreg Feirn, CEO, LCMC Health

Greg Feirn excitedly moved to New Orleans for a new job at Children’s Hospital nearly 20 years ago. Since then, his network of friends and family has grown into a rich, interwoven web. The city’s close-knit community is part of what keeps him here. Another part is the professional opportunity.

“There has never been a more exciting time to work in healthcare,” he says. “It is a dynamic industry, one that continues to evolve to meet the needs of our patients. Since I joined Children’s in 1998, we have grown from a single hospital into a five-hospital system with over 8,200 employees and an annual volume of over 1 million outpatient visits per year. LCMC Health is an employer of choice and a strong economic driver for our region. The unprecedented opportunities and challenges that go alongside managing a health system are what keep my family and me committed to New Orleans.”

As head of a system that includes the primary training hospital for Tulane and LSU Medical Schools, Greg knows the perspective of students coming to New Orleans for graduate medical education, and, medical professionals considering career opportunities.

“New Orleans has undergone a dramatic transformation in the past decade, one that will define us for the next generation. Those in healthcare often refer to post-Katrina New Orleans as ‘opportunity from tragedy.’ We had the opportunity to start a new chapter, particularly in healthcare. The latest chapter, under the leadership of Governor John Bel Edwards, is also very exciting to us,” he explains, referring to the expansion of the state’s Medicaid program which will afford more New Orleanians access to better health.

He also cites New Orleans as a positive anchor location for LCMC Health. “We serve a statewide and regional population, but are proud to be anchored in New Orleans. I would say to anyone considering a career in New Orleans that this is a very resilient place – one in which, in just the example of the healthcare industry, landscapes change and anything is possible. New Orleans is unlike any other place in the world. We have an extremely strong community here….our community and our love of festivals, food and family is unrivaled. We support New Orleans and New Orleans supports us.”

IT’S A GREAT PLACE TO START A BUSINESS

Crystal D. McDonald, Founder and CEO, Acrew

Entrepreneur Crystal D. McDonald first came to New Orleans as a college student, but she left after graduation for her first job. Several years and a graduate degree later, the Houston native returned to work in a local nonprofit. “Technically, I ended up back here because my husband is from New Orleans and is here to stay,” she says. “But it worked out well for me because I married the man of my dreams and live in a city that I absolutely love.”

Her personal love affair with the city turned into a professional one. Three years ago, Crystal set down her business roots with a startup that offers a resume-less employment marketplace. Acrew aims to minimize the distance between job seekers and employers using brief first-impression videos. It’s particularly suited for high turnover industries and for assessing those ‘cultural fit’ aspects a resume can’t communicate.

To Crystal, New Orleans is the ideal place to start a business. And she gets asked why often, particularly by peers in Silicon Valley. “My response is that New Orleans is the greatest example of entrepreneurial spirit and resilience this country has ever seen. So much of the lessons learned and the skills developed as an entrepreneur come from the fundamental heartbeat of this city,” she explains.

She has learned those lessons well. During a 2015 pitch competition in New Orleans, Crystal received a $100,000 investment from AOL co-founder Steve Case during his “Rise of the Rest” bus tour.

“New Orleans is a great place for a technology startup, because the city is centered on the premise of community. It really takes a village to move a business idea to reality. New Orleans is a smaller town that gets that – we all work together because when businesses thrive, the city thrives, and that’s what’s most important. I love New Orleans because it always has and continues to march to the beat of its own drum.”

IT’S A SMALL TOWN WITH BIG CITY OPPORTUNITIES

Coleman_Ridley-352Coleman Ridley, Managing Director, Business Council of New Orleans & the River Region

Coleman Ridley ended up in New Orleans almost on a whim, drawn by a unique program at Tulane Law School. That was 21 years ago. Today, after several years of practicing law, he heads a group of business leaders working to ensure clear, predictable laws that foster honest, efficient, transparent and accountable government. The goal: a highly competitive business environment that attracts productive businesses and families to the New Orleans area.He says working in New Orleans has been an education in a specific way of doing business. “New Orleans is a very relationship-driven community. It’s a small town disguised as a city. . There’s really only one degree of separation between people here.”

That relationship-driven mentality has its advantages. “You can accomplish a lot by picking up the phone and asking someone to get together. And when you do, you’re bound to run into someone else who can help you achieve your goal. Developing and forging and nurturing relationships is how you prosper in this city.”

Despite the small town feel, he believes the city has enormous promise, particularly due to the growth of new businesses that has fueled the city’s emerging reputation as a startup hub.

“I’m very encouraged by the entrepreneurial spirit and the influx of talent into the city. It has slowed and potentially eliminated the brain drain that the city once experienced. And the barriers to entry are relatively low for entrepreneurs in New Orleans, unlike Austin or Portland, where they’re so incredibly high. ”

IT’S A COMMUNITY THAT NURTURES SUCCESS

BrandyChristian1FrankChristian-hiresBrandy Christian, COO, Port of New Orleans
Francisco Christian, CEO, NOLA Motorsports Park

With their work-life balance tipped more toward work than life in Southern California, Brandy Christian and her husband Frank knew it was time to think about a change. They wanted a family-friendly environment and a better cost of living without sacrificing career advancement.

“We were primarily looking in the Southwest to be closer to our families,” says Brandy, who then worked for the Port of San Diego. “New Orleans was not on our radar at all, never had been.” Then she came here for business in 2014. “I was intrigued by the friendly people who were so proud to live here and share their passion for the city with others. Of course, the culture and history were a draw. Southern California has a transient population. We found it difficult to form a community there, even though we are both native Californians.”

A few months later, Brandy applied for the Port of New Orleans COO position. “The Port of New Orleans is highly respected in the industry and one of the biggest container and cruise ports in the world. It is also growing quickly. It was a great chance for me to advance professionally.” They also felt that opportunities would open for Frank in New Orleans, a hospitality industry executive.

Some months after Brandy accepted the Port of New Orleans post, Frank and their daughter joined her, followed shortly afterward by Frank’s parents and Brandy’s 20-year-old nephew. “One characteristic of New Orleans that sets it apart from California is the community involvement. We were quickly accepted into our daughter’s new school and school groups. After her first year at a new school, our daughter has been asked to join the honors program. This type of success in transition is a testament to the openness in the community that we joined,” says Frank.

After a thorough and careful search, Frank became CEO of NOLA Motorsports Park, which he has transformed into a thriving entertainment and event venue. His new post came about as the result of connections made once they were ensconced in the city.

“New Orleans is a very network-driven place,” says Brandy. “The executive positions are not obvious online, but once you find the right networking mechanism, it’s much easier, much faster to find doors opening than in Southern California. I instantly got connections through the Port. People wanted to see my family succeed here and were willing to help.”

Of the business climate, Brandy and Frank agree on its openness to growth. “In New Orleans, people are more open to experience, creativity and leadership skills, and less interested in boxing people by industry,” Brandy says. “You have an opportunity to make your mark, create something new. There’s an appreciation for new ideas and taking risks. We’re really happy to be here.”

IT’S ABOUT BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS

thumbnail_David_A_Kerstein-346

David Kerstein, President, Helis Oil & Gas Co., LLC
Chairman, Business Council of Greater New Orleans & the River Region

The relationship between the more established business community and the younger generation is emerging. I myself am making a very real effort to reach out to a younger community to make them feel more fully integrated into the community, so that as their businesses grow, they have a larger stake here. There’s a substantial group of emerging young entrepreneurs and business people who are interested in or becoming engaged in philanthropic and civic matters. It’s very encouraging and energizing. Among the members of the business community, there’s a much more civic approach than we may have had in years past and that encourages me as well.

IT’S A VIBRANT & WELCOMING COMMUNITY

thumbnail_Lesli HarrisLesli Harris, Attorney, Stone Pigman Law Firm

Lesli Harris’ life was checkered with visits to New Orleans before she arrived at Tulane Law School in 1999. Since then, she’s moved away again and returned, this time for keeps. She is now co-lead of the emerging companies practice group at Stone Pigman and has found a new vibrancy in the city’s business community.

“What really excites me about New Orleans today is the number of mid-size and startup companies run by people who really care about the work they’re doing and the city they’re doing it in,” she says.

She might not have had the same opportunities in New York, despite a positive experience. “I had a great time in New York – it’s a fantastic market,” Lesli explains. “But in New Orleans, I had a firm that welcomed me back, made a place for me. I would still be doing document review in some firm in New York, rather than being a partner and having a full practice of my own.”

She finds the city’s entrepreneurs energizing to more seasoned professionals as well, noting that her co-lead in the emerging business group is one of the firm’s most senior partners. “I know he’s very excited about making connections between his peers, who have the resources to fund these new companies, and young entrepreneurs. It’s wonderful to see a generation with so much knowledge and experience engage with these startups. It’s very energizing.”

She encourages anyone unfamiliar with New Orleans today to take a closer look. “A lot has changed in a very positive way. We’re still building those places that were heavily damaged, but the city is really vibrant and there are very exciting things happening.”

IT’S A CITY THAT VALUES WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Josh-KellyCoxJoshua Cox, Attorney, Barrasso Usdin Kupperman Freeman & Sarver
Kelly Cox, School Social Worker, Carver Collegiate Academy

Josh and Kelly Cox each came to New Orleans to teach at a local charter school because they saw education as a way to make a difference. After teaching for a short period, both decided the classroom was not the best fit and went back to school. Josh went to the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Kelly got a Master’s of Social Work at Bryn Mawr College.

The city’s unique combination of career opportunity and quality of life drew them back.

“I wanted to pursue social work particularly to bring it back to New Orleans,” says Kelly, a native of Kentucky. “For Josh, it took two weeks out of the city to say ‘what did we do?’ He didn’t know I had a plan to come back to New Orleans all along. Here, we work hard. Achievement really motivates us and we want to be the best at what we do, but we want to enjoy our lives, the people we’re around, and our city’s traditions. In New Orleans, you don’t have to make a choice between these two important things. It’s a city that values work-life balance.”

Josh, a Gainesville, Florida native whose career path also includes a year spent playing baseball professionally, along with time in New York and Washington, D.C., agrees wholeheartedly.

“New York is full of people with excellent school credentials, who are extremely smart and hardworking. That intense competition means that folks distinguish themselves by working longer hours and sacrificing nights and weekends. However, quality of life matters to me, and it’s clear that quality of life matters to people in New Orleans as much as professional opportunity does. I’ve lived in several cities and I can see it in the way people approach their jobs and their lives. People here prioritize things that add meaning to life.”

The city’s vibrancy, resilience, culture, opportunities and its people provide a base for a whole life and afford them the chance to enjoy themselves while building both professional and personal relationships.

“It comes down to value and values,” says Josh. “Many of my law school classmates value working for prestigious firms in big cities. I’ve chosen to chase happiness over prestige. Every dollar I earn is worth more to me not only because of our city’s manageable cost of living, but also because I’m just happier here.”

Kelly recalls time spent elsewhere as merely a hiatus. “I loved the city and wanted to be part of the community so badly that looking elsewhere was never part of the equation.”

The New Orleans Business Alliance (NOLABA) is a partnership between the city’s business community and city government. NOLABA is dedicated to cultivating, developing and nurturing a thriving Orleans Parish business community and economy in which all of the city’s residents can participate.

WhyNOLA Toolkit

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BioInnovation and Health Tech

WhyNOLA Spotlight: Brandy Christian

WhyNOLA Spotlight: Joshua Cox

WhyNOLA Spotlight: Kenny Rubenstein

Retail Revitalization

WhyNOLA Spotlight: Elizabeth York

An Interconnected City

WHYNOLA SPOTLIGHT – JUSTIN T. AUGUSTINE III

Thriving Tech Community

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