Ashleigh Gardere | New Orleans Business Alliance

Economic equity is the mission in the Crescent City

Working Toward a Prosperous New Orleans

Tackling deep-seated economic inequity in New Orleans requires a thorough understanding of local business dynamics.

It also demands strong leadership that can unite nonprofits, workforce developers and the public sector behind a common economic development strategy.

“It’s very exciting that the Business Alliance is focused on talent development and workforce as critical components of economic development.” —Amy Liu, Brookings Institution

“Our goal is to take the best of who New Orleans is and really use that as an ingredient to get to a thriving economy,” says Ashleigh Gardere, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the New Orleans Business Alliance. “We believe the very things that make New Orleans so special provide the solutions for getting to a thriving economy.”

Gardere’s fresh perspective has been instrumental in shaping local efforts to reverse the tide of income inequity. She’s channeling her strengths to better connect workforce training programs, underemployed workers and the businesses that can hire them. Recent increases in the hiring of such workers shows that the strategy is beginning to work.

The tragedies that grew from Hurricane Katrina also sparked new ways of thinking about how to create opportunities for residents.

“It helped us understand that while we were rebuilding every system, we could reimagine what New Orleans could be for everybody,” Gardere says, “not just the lucky ones.”

Shifting Culture, Changing Behaviors

Gardere’s experience includes spearheading revitalization efforts in New Orleans neighborhoods, first as an executive with Chase Bank Louisiana and later as a member of the city administration under then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu. In those endeavors, Gardere developed her understanding of what many workers, particularly individuals of color, are up against as they seek to share in local economic growth. While local two- and four-year colleges and accelerated workforce training programs could help individuals acquire technical skills, the training didn’t offer insights into succeeding in team-based work environments. These discoveries sparked creative thinking about how to give workers and small businesses a leg up.

Ashleigh Gardere — New Orleans Business Alliance (Photo by Jeff Strout)

While employed with the city, Gardere helped shape the Network for Economic Opportunity, which marshaled the strengths of local organizations behind the revitalization of impoverished neighborhoods. She also urged adoption of a city policy that mandates higher participation by local workers in city contracts. Three years in, local worker representation in city projects rose from 15 percent to 40 percent, with a goal of 50 percent by 2020.

“My experience with the city taught me that government alone cannot deliver a strong economy,” Gardere says. That realization led her to join the New Orleans Business Alliance, the Crescent City’s lead economic development agency. “After having maximized what policy reform could deliver, we realized the next big move had to be to shift culture and behaviors within the private sector,” she says.

A Fresh Model for Economic Development

Gardere enlisted the support of other nonprofits, including the Greater New Orleans Foundation, one of the city’s largest philanthropic institutions. Foundation Vice President for Programs Carmen James Randolph says she and Gardere “are of a similar mind” about how to increase minority participation in the economy.

Ashleigh Gardere participates in activities launching the BuildNOLA Mobilization Fund, which provides access to financing for businesses that don’t have access to mainstream lending sources. (Photos by Jeff Strout)

A key resource was the BuildNOLA Mobilization Fund, which provides financing to businesses that typically have difficulty accessing mainstream lending sources. Loans from the fund help small companies staff up and equip themselves to work on large private and municipal contracts. A $1 million contribution from The Kresge Foundation helped grow this pool to $5 million during the past year.

Nathanael Scales, president and CEO of the Garden Doctors landscaping firm, was among the first local business owners to tap the mobilization fund. It helped him hire 16 more workers and qualify to win a contract not available to him previously.

Gardere and the Business Alliance also focused on lifting local workers by urging key agencies that provide workforce services to adopt a training curriculum called STRIVE, which prepares workers for the job-seeking process and helps ensure success. It could prove to be a game-changer.

Nathanael Scales was one of the first local business owners to tap the BuildNOLA Mobilization Fund.

“Ashleigh was able to see all these organizations as a whole economic piece,” says Thelma French, president and CEO of Total Community Action, which provides workforce services in New Orleans.

Gardere and the Business Alliance also have garnered national attention. Amy Liu, vice president and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution, says the Business Alliance is giving traditional economic development work a much-needed update.

At the conclusion of each STRIVE program, participants are honored during a graduation ceremony. STRIVE is designed to help prepare workers for the job-seeking process and help them be successful in the long term. (Photo courtesy of New Orleans Business Alliance)

“Rather than just give away tax incentives to attract companies to a city, the future model for economic development focuses on how to grow local talent in support of business needs,” Liu says.

And helping to ensure the availability of a ready workforce to support growing businesses is vital to erasing economic disparities among neighborhoods.

“This new economic development model is about us delivering for all the people who live in the city,” Gardere says. “I love New Orleans. That’s why I do what I do.”

Ashleigh Gardere

An Interview with Ashleigh Gardere

How do you like to show up as a leader?

I am certainly a passionate manager, who is really committed to the work I do every day on behalf of the City of New Orleans. But I’d say most importantly, I love encouraging the leadership in others… One of the most powerful things about my leadership style is allowing people to really see the value of their individual contributions.

Why does your community or sector need strong leadership now?

In New Orleans, our history has been very dependent on the public sector and the business community. And I think there’s been a huge gap between those two sectors. Post-Katrina, I think we’ve really seen an activation of the nonprofit sector and a nonprofit sector that’s strong and thriving and effective. It’s not new – the world knows New Orleans is a creative city. But now, in this moment in New Orleans history, we have to prove our ability to execute on those visions.

What’s the leadership challenge you’re trying to solve?

I think the biggest challenge for us as a city – and one not uncommon to cities around the country – is that so often our traditional leaders, our legacy leaders, are not in the same room with community leaders and people who really have clear vision on the ground. They often say the people closest to the problem are the ones closest to the solution, and we are designing the Business Alliance to make sure those traditional and nontraditional leaders see each other, see each other as assets and solution makers together.

Kresge's Take

Supporting Innovation in the Crescent City

While Kresge maintains a deep commitment to New Orleans, it began investing more intensively after Hurricane Katrina. Chantel Rush, senior program officer with Kresge’s American Cities Program, notes that the foundation put some $28 million into recovery efforts and non-Katrina-related initiatives, the goal being to improve economic mobility for New Orleans residents.

Today, the foundation partners with leaders committed to expanding opportunity for local residents. For example, Kresge has contributed $1 million to the BuildNOLA Mobilization fund that provides access to capital for city-based, minority-owned and minimally capitalized businesses. The fund helps companies staff up and equip themselves to take on city and private-sector projects.

Kresge is more active in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. (iStock photo)

The New Orleans Business Alliance approach aligns closely with Kresge’s commitment to expanding economic opportunity for people and in areas that often do not share equally in economic growth.

Rush says Ashleigh Gardere’s approach is visionary. The Alliance emphasizes enticing those that will employ New Orleanians, supporting local companies and better preparing workers for employment.

“Aligning the workforce development systems with traditional business attraction and retention efforts and doing so with a focus on equity in local neighborhoods is a cutting-edge model for enhancing economic development,” she says.

Making economic development local in New Orleans. (Photo by Jeff Strout)

With its many nonprofits, strong local foundations and rich cultural history, New Orleans is primed for partnership with Kresge.

“We wanted to support efforts that are laser-focused on dramatically improving quality of life for New Orleanians with low incomes,” Rush says. “Ashleigh and the Business Alliance are showing how high-level economic development activities can improve lives in the neighborhoods.”

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