Jennifer Larino, | The Times-Picayune
Jan 26, 2016 Updated Jul 19, 2019

Meet 10 entrepreneurs tackling New Orleans’ toughest problems

Propeller, the social enterprise incubator, and Tulane University will host the annual PitchNOLA: Community Solutions event Thursday (Jan. 28), showcasing local entrepreneurs with ideas to help solve some of New Orleans’ toughest challenges.

The winners of the pitch will get a combined $10,000 in seed money to pursue their ideas, with $5,000 going to the first place startup, $3,000 to second place and $2,000 to third place.

Read about the 10 semifinalists and watch them pitch live Thursday at Tulane’s Woldenberg Art Center from 6-8 p.m.

Startup: Fund 17

Founder: Haley Burns

Year founded: 2012

Mission: Burns started Fund 17 as a micro-lender while studying at Tulane University. The venture now offers full range of services to help people turn informal side jobs into organized and profitable small businesses.

Startup goal: Burns would use a $10,000 prize to restart the Fund 17 microloan fund.

Greatest challenge: Fundraising.

Burns’ inspiration: “The entrepreneurs we work with. Their drive keeps me going even when we don’t have any money or we’re banging our heads against the wall with a legal issue.”

Startup: Project 18

Founders: Sonya Brown and Bonnie DeSalle

Year founded: 2015

Problem: There are few services available to help youth transition out of foster care at age 18.

Mission: Project 18 provides life skills training, mentoring and other services for youth transitioning out of foster care.

Startup goal: Open the Project 18 house where youth can seek resources, socialize and establish a mailing address. DeSalle would eventually like to provide housing as well. “We want to be their informal family network,” she said.

Startup advice: “I met with a lot of nonprofit leaders who saw this was problem but because of a lack of funding weren’t able to take it on,” DeSalle said. “Once you see no one is picking up the ball, you’ve just got to do it yourself.”

Startup: Roots of Renewal

Founders: Lilith Winkler-Schor and Amy Fottrell

Year founded: 2013

Problem: About 52 percent of the working-age black men in New Orleans are out of work, and more than half of black men in the city will be a part of the criminal justice system at some point their adult lives.

Mission: Roots of Renewal trains and employs previously incarcerated young adults to renovate blighted homes in Central City.

Challenge: Earning the trust and support of neighborhoods. “You’re always going to have your authenticity challenged,” said Brendan Lyman, public policy and communications director for Roots of Renewal.

Startup advice: “Take your time in planning your passion project. It can be part-time for a long time and that’s OK. Talk to everyone you can about your idea,” Fottrell said.

Startup: Dishroom Heroes

Founder: Jeff Gulotta

Year founded: 2015

Problem: Restaurants struggle to hire skilled dish room workers, while thousands of disadvantaged men and women in New Orleans remain underemployed and trapped in a cycle of poverty.

Mission: Connect disadvantaged adults with jobs as skilled custodial and dish room workers, while providing life skills and on-the-job training to help them advance in the food industry.

Startup goal: Gulotta, general manager of MoPho Restaurant in Mid-City, eventually wants to train specialized restaurant deep cleaning and event scullery teams.

Gulotta’s toughest restaurant job: Maitre d’ at Restaurant August. “It was like being a Navy SEAL of fine dining,” Gulotta said. “Crawling through air vents and elevator shafts because the A/C went out at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. Stressful, but also fun.”

Startup: Blessing Micro Shelter

Founder: Haiyan Khan

Year founded: 2015

Problem: Homeless shelters are overwhelmed and underfunded.

Mission: Design and build mobile, zero-waste micro shelters for New Orleans homeless. The 10-foot by 5-foot shelters are self-sustaining with electricity, a toilet and a hand-turn washing machine.

Startup milestone: One micro shelter demo was built for $1,500 and is in use.

Khan’s inspiration: “I feel really blessed. I have so much. I think others can have the same regardless of their situation.”

His favorite NOLA pastime: Taking long walks from his Central City home through the French Quarter and Marigny neighborhoods.

Startup: Food Justice Collective

Founders: Arieanna McKnight (pictured) and Ron Triggs

Year founded: 2014

Problem: Marginalized communities in New Orleans do not have access to fresh, healthy food.

Mission: Rethink, a youth leadership development organization, and VEGGI Farmers Cooperative partner to teach black, Vietnamese and Spanish-speaking youth more about food deserts, locally sourced produce and other food justice topics. Students also spend time tending produce on a plot at the VEGGI Co-op in eastern New Orleans.

Inspiration: “We believe every community in New Orleans should have access to fresh, healthy, locally-sourced and culturally-reflective food in their communities,” said Karen “K.G.” Marshall, executive director of Rethink.

Startup: Groundwork New Orleans: Green Grounds Krewe

Founder: Alicia Neal

Year founded: 2015

Problem: There are a growing number of jobs in green and sustainable landscaping, but New Orleans youth lack access to training.

Mission: Groundwork New Orleans already teaches students ages 14-18 about green building, storm water management and other green infrastructure topics through its Green Team program. The Green Grounds Krewe program would tailor training for 19- to 25-year-olds entering the workforce, including hands-on work designing and building rain gardens, native plant landscaping and elevation projects.

Neal’s inspiration: “Seeing that light coming off of people when they really understand a concept. I really want people to know the possibilities are endless,” Neal said.

Neal’s coolest project: Building wood duck boxes for the Louisiana coast. “We built the boxes and did the plans and then went out by airboat and planted them,” Neal said. “Everybody really got to poke their chest out after finishing them. And we got to see alligators.”

Startup: Upturn Arts

Founder: Dana Reed

Year founded: June 2014

Problem: New Orleans youth have limited access to arts education in school.

Mission: Provide children a space to be creative through after-school and vacation programs that incorporate music, dance, theater, art and writing.

Startup milestone: Served 250 students in 2015. Reed seeks to double that this year.

Reed’s inspiration: “What I call the upturn moments a child’s life. Those are the moments where they go “aha,” where you can see a child light up,” Reed said.

Past life: Reed traded currency on Wall Street by day and worked as a dance instructor at night while living in New York City. “Most people don’t know that about me,” Reed said.

Startup: IDIYA Labs

Founders: Domenic Giunta and Andrew Winstead

Year founded: 2014

Problem: Most people have creative ideas but no place to work on them.

Mission: The Idiya Labs “makerspace” on Broad Street gives members access to saws, drill presses, 3D printers, sewing machines and other equipment for a wide range of projects. Memberships start at $99 a month.

Startup goal: Bring hands-on, project-based learning programs to New Orleans schools. “Traditional education is absolutely important, but what are students going to remember more? The paper they wrote in English class or the hovercraft they built in a makerspace classroom?” Winstead said.

Winstead’s coolest maker projects: A water balloon launcher he built and a two-person hovercraft built by a student-led team.

Startup: Young Creative Agency

Founder: Alberta Wright

Year founded: 2014

Problem: Creative young people in New Orleans do not have access to training needed to kickstart creative careers.

Mission: Wright, a former art teacher at Sci High, started YCA to provide training for young people in New Orleans in graphic design, branding, videography and other creative professions. Students are paid hourly wages to work with and receive feedback from real clients.

Startup milestone: Connecting 35 kids to training as of the fall 2015 program cycle.

Her inspiration: “The young people I meet and teach who I see as incredibly smart and creative, whose ideas just blow me away.”

Recent read: “How to” by Michael Beirut. “Beirut is a great graphic designer and you get to see inside his notebooks and his thinking process.”