Wednesday, March 18, 2009

DePaul Gets Naked

Shortly after arriving in NOLA to perfect weather, the Idea Village hosted all of the teams at their office for a Louisiana-style crawfish boil. This introduced us to both the people that we would be working with through the week, as well as to the concept behind the event. We learned that this program was much more than a competition. The business community of New Orleans sees rebuilding as a unique opportunity, and they consider their city to be an innovation and entrepreneurship “laboratory” – a place where new ideas can be developed, which can serve as models for solving many of the systemic industry issues our nation currently faces. The organizers and supporters of IDEAcorps also saw this as a recruiting trip, and told us directly that they want all of us (and our friends) to move to New Orleans and help realize their vision for the city. This set the tone for the rest of the week’s events. As the sun set, we all left the Idea Village and headed to Bourbon Street, where we joined in with a traditional “second line”. Following this procession, students split up and took in a bit of the New Orleans nightlife. The DePaul team headed to Frenchmen Street along with a few students from other schools, and got a taste of the locals’ music scene.

The next morning we slept in a bit, then took a bus to the home of a serial restaurant entrepreneur and current Dean of a culinary academy. He hosted us for a late morning brunch, complete with live jazz band in his yard. The sky was clear and the sun was warm – something the Chicago teams truly appreciated. Numerous local business and community leaders joined us to talk up their town and the opportunities that exist, and express their support for us over the coming week. After brunch we all took a bus tour of New Orleans. The driver provided an impressively knowledgeable and charismatic narrative, pointing out the city’s significant historical role in American commerce, numerous cultural facts, and the ubiquitous flood damage and rebuilding efforts. I believe that all of us were moved by the mix of factual accounts and personal impact he described, and this broadened our perspective on important past and current issues. The teams took a break in the afternoon to catch their breath (and in some cases prepare for the next day’s client meetings). In the evening we visited Jax brewery for some team-building exercises and friendly competition between schools, in a “cooking Olympics” A local news station covered the event, and a very successful New Orleans entrepreneur spoke to us about the importance of teamwork, integrity, and taking chances – and gave us suggestions about the role might play in best serving our entrepreneur clients.

Early Monday morning we all headed to Tulane University, which would serve as our worksite over the coming week. Throughout the day, a series of people spoke to us about entrepreneurship in New Orleans. The entrepreneurship program director, the leader of the local business community, a local entrepreneur, a university chancellor, and Louisiana’s Lt. Governor all offered their diverse but unified perspectives on the opportunities, support, and need that exists for driven and innovative people to help rebuild New Orleans better than it was before. They laid out general and specific opportunities they saw across the entire spectrum of the economy, including food, energy, education, technology, healthcare and biotech, and arts and culture.

That afternoon, the DePaul team had our first working meeting with our clients, founders of Naked Pizza. The delirious passion these people expressed was impressive. Just as the Idea Village saw this program as more than a competition, these entrepreneurs saw their business as much more than food. They viewed their healthy and tasty pizza as a way of starting a conversation, educating consumers, and creating a revolution that would ultimately change our nation’s relationship with food. They fed us a flood of information about their mission, explosive growth plans, potential high profile partnerships – all starting with an anthropological analysis of how Americans have come to eat such an unhealthy and unnatural diet. Our team had set a goal of delineating the scope and deliverables for this engagement during this session, which we accomplished in cooperation with these very dynamic individuals just before the workday closed.

Monday night, six local leaders each welcomed a team to their homes for dinner – a very personal and authentic gesture which I believe all of us greatly appreciated. DePaul visited with the Idea Village board chairman, who also invited a spectrum of other business leaders and entrepreneurship supporters to join us. The red beans and rice and roasted chicken dinner, followed by decadent homemade cupcakes, was delicious, and the famous southern hospitality was evident in all of our conversations. The night ended with a raffle that gave one DePaul student two tickets to next year’s Sugar Bowl, followed by cigars and some creative work discussions on the patio.

A long and intense day of work began at Tulane Tuesday morning. For DePaul this was broken up by a visit to the Naked Pizza, where we made some pies and participated in a story by USA Today reporters. The pizza was delicious, and we brought some back for each of the other teams to enjoy. While we made some progress with our project, the day ended with perhaps more questions than answers. Jeff gave us another extensive rundown of his vision, with much more detail even than on the previous day. With the last twenty minutes before the buses arrived, we quickly recapped and identified our focus for the remaining workdays.

Evening brought us to an upscale hotel bar for cocktails, followed by a very social dinner of tapas in the adjoining restaurant. The editor of Entrepreneur Magazine toasted us, and the students, entrepreneurs, and program organizers all exchanged ideas throughout the night. Back at our hotel, the DePaul team squeezed in a last round of work before heading to our rooms for some needed sleep. We all knew that the next two days would be a full pace stretch run, leading to our final presentations on Friday.

Wednesday morning we got straight to work in our “war room”. Together we laid out a comprehensive plan for our project, and split into teams to work on respective components. This included seeking advertising opportunities for Naked Pizza, developing a financial analysis model, and conducting market research. Six 4x8 whiteboards were soon covered in diagrams, lists, and action plans, as the sub-teams illustrated their ideas for each other. After eight hours of focused efforts, we recapped our progress that day as one team, then headed over to Naked Pizza to visit with the founders. In thirty furious minutes, we helped shoot a commercial, spoke with a consultant, and ran some final ideas by the founders. By this point, our team started coming together well, and developed a very positive collective attitude. We universally enjoyed spending time working with our entrepreneur clients, and felt lucky to have received this assignment.

The IDEAcorps spent the evening at a Hornets NBA game, where the team leaders and entrepreneurs were greeted at center court. DePaul received some highly anticipated data around halftime, and retired back to the hotel. Some members had one last meeting, where they planned a schedule for our last full day of work. Then sleep.

Justin Henderson
DePaul University

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