A Propeller for Change
When Andrea Chen became a high school English teacher in New Orleans, she found teenagers who read on an elementary school level — and teenagers for whom shootings were part of everyday life.
“I was trying to teach Faulkner when the majority of my students tested at a second or third grade reading level,” she said. “I realized that many of the root causes of persistent issues in education, from low student achievement to chronic absenteeism, spanned different systems including health care, criminal justice, food security and housing and stemmed from racial and economic inequities that exist in our country.”
Chen decided to create a new approach to solving New Orleans’ persistent problems — an organization that addressed social issues by supporting ventures that aimed to solve pressing urban challenges. She called her project “Propeller.”
“Our decentralized school system gives entrepreneurs the flexibility to test new ideas at a small scale and to scale up successful solutions to persistent issues,” Chen said. “Social innovation is important in New Orleans because it has been core to our recovery from Hurricane Katrina, and it continues to be a driving force for people who are inspired to take on our city's biggest problems.”
Since 2011, when it started its first venture accelerator program, Propeller has helped to launch 90 social ventures, 22 of which are focused on issues related to education. The Walton Family Foundation spoke with a few of the entrepreneurs accelerated by Propeller to learn about their impact on students and families in New Orleans.
Aaron Frumin dropped out of college to join the Red Cross after Hurricane Katrina. He worked in construction before returning to college — and graduating.
Later, with the help of Propeller, Aaron created unCommon Construction, which equips high school students with marketable skills through a home construction apprenticeship program.
“Working together on diverse teams and learning practical construction skills, students build a house from start to finish in a single semester,” Frumin explained.
He said Propeller gave him the support he needed to get unCommon Construction off the ground: “Propeller provides entrepreneurs with the space and support they need to fail fast with minimum risk, which, in turn, allows us to build our organizations better, faster and, ultimately, stronger than they would if we were just building them on our own.”
Young Creative Agency
Alberta Wright was an art teacher in a New Orleans public high school. Over and over again, she witnessed students who were passionate about art and design but didn’t know how to apply their creative talents.
Wright founded Young Creative Agency to connect creative students with opportunities in the emerging creative and digital economy. The agency is a non-profit organization that provides the burgeoning artists and designers with resources and training so they are able to get hired to do graphic design projects for paying clients.
“Young Creative Agency is both a youth services and development organization as well as a design agency,” Wright said.
Wright said Propeller makes sure that its ventures are addressing a real problem affecting the people of New Orleans: “Propeller makes very sure that entrepreneurs have the mentorship to know that the solution they’re working on is actually serving the needs of the city and addressing the problem.”
Through her work as operations director at the New Orleans Kids Partnership, Alex Becker saw that a lack of affordable transportation was preventing at-risk youth from taking advantage of rich community services and other resources.
She founded NOLA Go! to save schools money and open up new opportunities to high-needs public school students.
Currently housed as a program within the New Orleans Kids Partnership, NOLA Go! helps New Orleans high school students access public transportation so that they can more easily attend after-school programs and connect with the city’s museums, libraries, and public services.
“NOLA Go! is all about increasing access to public transportation and connecting at-risk youth to resources throughout the city,” Becker said. “Propeller was instrumental to our success.”