Photos (except for the selfie) by Trevor Mark Photography
Hi everyone! A couple of weekends ago, The Warehouse’s staff followed a swarm of colorful creatives to OC Haley Boulevard for VenturePop 2016. We met dozens of inspiring local entrepreneurs during this two-day whirlwind and felt compelled to share our experience with you :-)
What is VenturePop? Have you been to a stuffy corporate business conference? If yes, imagine that conference was a coloring book and your demon nephew attacked it with Play-Doh and fluorescent crayons. At a corporate conference, you’ll find grey suits and more grey suits; at VenturePop, we saw orange tops, pink bottoms, and 3” heels covered in gold glitter. Instead of polite laughter and reserved smiles, we witnessed uncontrolled giggling, ear-to-ear smiles, and too many enveloping bear hugs to count. Add what may be the nation’s only “Shoe-Off” and mid-day Hip-Hop workouts and you begin to appreciate the unique nature of this annual two-day (Sept 16-17 this year) creative conference.
After its second year in existence, VenturePop has built a community of loyal members who are working to deepen the fabric of the New Orleans entrepreneurial landscape. Re Howse, co-founder of Sea Gem Studios (based in Thibadoux, LA) credits last year’s conference for helping turbo-charge her business. “The things that jumped out at me as tools to grow my business, I applied, and in a one-year period, our business grew at least 100%, if not more. I didn’t even grasp all of the things that were presented; I took just a few things that really spoke to me and applied them and that’s what happened.”
Re, who moved to Louisiana in 2005 when she married a “pirate,” (who upon further investigation is actually a tug boat engineer) brought her assistant Tyla Deroche to this year’s conference, and was again impressed with the content. “VenturePop basically packed me a whole new suitcase full of tools, ideas, and newfound friendships where I can go off on my own little adventure until I return next year.”
Re’s experience matches up perfectly with the original intent of the three founders: local entrepreneurs Justin Shiels, Ciera Holzenthal, and Kristy Oustalet. After attending creative conferences in other cities, the trio set about developing New Orleans’ own unique version, which would support entrepreneurs and help ignite the local creative business community.
We asked Justin to describe this growing tribe, which this year included visitors from Maine, California, and Seattle. “The VenturePop community is made for the creative entrepreneur. That includes freelancers, curators, makers and artists, but it also includes anybody who owns a business and considers themselves a creative person.”
Sarah Covert is one such entrepreneur who is tackling a traditional lane from a unique & creative angle. Her business, Sarah’s Pet Care Revolution, provides “thoughtful pet care and owner support that intentionally respects the pet, the family, the community, and the planet.” Sarah explained that “Families and pets are so linked that it makes sense to invest in people.” So, the business actively supports charities such as Hagar’s House, the Innocence Project, and Families & Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. She learned about VenturePop from her sister Maggie, who owns Walking Man Studios, and decided to attend because “It’s essential as an entrepreneur to stay connected to inspiration and motivation all the time because you can really get bogged down in day to day challenges and customer service.”
A native New Orleanian, Sarah left the city before the Hurricane Katrina levee failure and did not expect to return. However, she was inspired by the post-storm landscape of entrepreneurship and commitment to social change. “It’s challenging to people who lived here before because we’re not used to change, but having new people here dedicated to building up the community means we as a city will exist for perpetuity.”
Erin Wexstten recently joined the burgeoning landscape of socially conscious creative entrepreneurs when she left her job as a fashion designer and relocated from Brooklyn, NY to New Orleans this past February. She now focuses full-time on her company — Oxalis Apothecary —an outgrowth of her long-time passion for making natural, plant-based skin & body products.
Erin sees New Orleans as an ideal environment for her rapidly growing business, which now sells products through retail locations in nine states, Canada, and Australia. “The New Orleans creative entrepreneurial community is beyond my wildest dreams great. I could never do this in New York. There’s too much noise and I don’t know if I could afford it at the pace I’m growing. You don’t feel that tension of ‘I’m trying to be better than you and I’m not going to let you succeed.’ People here are like, “Let’s fly together!” Erin’s decision to relocate from Brooklyn was largely influenced by her experience at VenturePop 2015, and especially the female creatives she met at the conference. “I’d never experienced people talking and encouraging this kind of dialogue.... They had no fear. They were fearless, bad-ass women.”
Erin and many other entrepreneurs we met at VenturePop are self-proclaimed members of the “Slash Generation,” a term referencing the numerous hats creatives wear while working to bring their dreams into business reality. Example:
Question: What’s your role in your business?
Answer: “I’m the graphic designer/copy editor/sales rep/hostess.”
That’s four roles and three slashes if you’re counting!
Liz Maute Cooke, the host of VenturePop 2016 and founder of Lionheart Prints (Flagship shop @ 8723 Oak St) lovingly referred to Slash Generation members as “Human Swiss Army Knives.” To sharpen all those tools, VenturePop provided a broad array of practical content for attendees. Keynote speaker Tara Gentile explained how in order to grow a business you need to change its design (working harder alone won’t do it!). The Being Boss podcast duo Emily Thompson & Kathleen Shannon described how their unique “chalk board method” helped them set goals and grow their popular podcast & loyal following. David Jones II, who runs Baton Rouge-based Pioneer Collective with business partner Jesse LaBauve, explained the importance of storytelling in building a brand. “If people don’t understand who you are, what you’re doing, and where you’re going, they’re not going to follow you.” Tactical presentations on everything from Instagram to accounting topped off the Saturday/Sunday event.
While most of the presentations focused on practical guidance, one was built to inspire. The New Orleans-based Dear World project brought the whole Jazz Market to tears with videos of their field work with Syrian refugees and Boston Marathon bombing victims. Dear World's intimate message-on-skin portraits of humans ranging from celebrities like Drew Brees and the late Stuart Scott to victims of the South Sudanese Civil War have earned the project world-wide acclaim. Executive Producer Jonah Evans explained how his business partnership with Dear World founder Robert Fogarty originated when they met at Rendon Inn on the night of the Saints 2010 Super Bowl victory, and recounted how the project’s first revenue stream came from tip buckets at bars. Eli Silverman, founder of Caliper Web Design and member of The Warehouse, reflected that Dear World’s origin story was one of many inspiring “reminders that successful people are just people who start out bootstrapping.”
After their presentation, the Dear World team handed out black markers and trained its cameras on us, the conference-goers, stirring up intimate conversations (what message do I write on myself?!) and gifting each of us with an individualized portrait memento for the road.
To break up what little monotony existed, dance instructors from Move Ya Brass, a local business founded by New Orleans’ favorite Songbird/entrepreneur Robin Barnes, led the VenturePop crowd through mid-day hip hop dance routines.
Full Disclosure: The Warehouse staff can be found moving our brass at nearby Crescent Park (it’s free!) on Tuesdays at 5:45pm with these no-nonsense dance fitness gurus! Bring ya’ brass down there and join us next week!
Friends, the New Orleans creative entrepreneurial community is alive and well!
The Warehouse is a shared office / coworking community in New Orleans’ Bywater neighborhood.