Andrea Chen spurs social enterprise.
As the executive director of Propeller: A Force for Social Innovation, Andrea Chen has a bird’s-eye view of social entrepreneurship in New Orleans — and she’s seeing everyone’s efforts come together. “All of it is connected,” she says. “That’s why I love the work that we do at Propeller. Every time I sit down with someone, I hear more about that collaboration.”
Propeller grew out of Social Entrepreneurs of New Orleans, an organization that Chen and Morgan Williams co-founded in 2006 to stimulate New Orleans’ post-Hurricane Katrina progress. That group became Propeller, an accelerator and incubator that eventually renovated a 10,000-square-foot space to make room for New Orleans’ growing class of social entrepreneurs. “When we first got started, [the question was], ‘How do we get people to understand what social entrepreneurship is and why it’s important?’” Chen says. “I think it’s a lot easier now. Word is getting out.”
Chen, a Stanford University graduate, came to New Orleans in 2004 as a Teach For America recruit. She taught English at John McDonogh Senior High School. “The first year was a very dramatic experience for me,” she says. “One of my students was shot. It was a turning point for me, because people in my life don’t usually get shot.” She felt pulled to take an even more active role in improving New Orleans. “‘I want to be part of the solution,’” she remembers thinking. “‘I cannot turn my back on the kids in this city.’”
When Hurricane Katrina forced her to evacuate the following year — and when the Orleans Parish School Board laid off many of its public school teachers shortly thereafter — Chen went to Harvard University to earn her graduate degree in education policy and management. She came back to New Orleans as soon as possible, accepting a position at the newly opened Lusher Charter School in January 2006.
At Propeller, Chen puts her teaching experience to work in new ways. “In the job that I have now, I’m teaching every day,” she says. Along with her staff, she coaches entrepreneurs who want to improve New Orleans in the areas of food access and cultivation, justice, healthcare, land use and environment — and, of course, education. “Everybody wants all the kids in the city to be fulfilled and flourishing, and there are so many things connected with that: nutrition; housing; the environment around us,” Chen says. “So we see our work as all interrelated.”
Propeller’s PitchNOLA competitions are one way that the organization fosters not just community discussion, but action. “The pitch events are really all about building momentum and energy around problems,” Chen says. “It’s about sourcing a lot of ideas from people all over the city.” The January PitchNOLA: Community Solutions event drew more than 230 attendees; the three top ventures won a total of more than $10,000.
In April, Propeller will host PitchNOLA: Living Well, which focuses on solving issues in food and healthcare. Chen estimates that the competition will host ideas from 40 to 50 locals vying for the first-place prize of $5,000.
Chen can talk at length about Propeller’s initiatives and goals; but, asked to reflect on her accomplishments, she pauses. “We’re so focused on what needs to be done,” she laughs. “Let me think for a moment.” She names Propeller’s measurable impact as one of the things she’s most proud of. “Our big vision is to have this critical mass of entrepreneurs, and I really believe we’re getting there,” she says.
She also points out that doing good doesn’t mean constant financial struggle. “Sometimes people think that businesses and initiatives that are solving important societal and environmental issues can’t make money,” she says. Since Propeller has started, four accelerator classes have graduated; the organization’s 50-plus social ventures have obtained more than $20 million in revenue and financing, and created 100 full-time jobs. “I love the energy and all the entrepreneurial, passionate people that are working out of here,” Chen says. “We’re showing people that a double bottom line really can be sustainable.”
On May 20, the organization will host Propeller Pop, its annual fundraiser. Tickets are available online. gopropeller.org