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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”