Last night I went to my first 504ward event, a networking dinner at Crescent City Steakhouse. 504ward was started in 2008 with the goal of keeping young talent in New Orleans. In addition to a email newsletter that features events around the city and job listings, 504ward plans activities (both fun and functional) to help people meet, connect and grow–such as the one I went to last night!
One of the reasons I left New Orleans in 2005 was because there wasn’t a lot of opportunity for young people professionals. It was June 2005, and the fellowship that brought me to New Orleans had ended. It seemed that the only jobs in the city were at small organizations with little support for growth or opportunities for advancement. My friends, recent college graduates like myself, had jobs like this. Six years later, none of them live here. Two of them are kickass entrepreneurs in Savannah. One is a go-getting architect in NY. Another lives nearby, in Mandeville, and works as a public defender in St. Tammany Parish. (Despite valiant attempts, she has not been able to get a job in Orelans Parish.) Two left to go to school and become a doctor and urban planner. They vow to return.
When they return, they will find a professional landscape that has shifted dramatically since the storm. There is a palpable excitement about the new energy, new ideas and entrepreneurial spirit in the city. (It is also controversial, in some cases, but that’s for another post.) In her welcome speech, Jessica Shahien White, executive director of 504ward, spoke of the organization’s commitment to preventing amazing people like my friends from leaving the city. “We’re not shy about that,” Jessica said. She also talked about a conversation she just had with her friend, who lives in D.C. Jessica’s friend got stuck in the metro for two hours during last week’s earthquake, and all she could think of was “I need to get out of here so I can work on a project that’s on deadline.” Jessica noted the stark contrast between that line of thinking and the way New Orleanians think about working. It’s cliche, but here people don’t live to work. They work to live.
I’ve thought a lot about the differences between working here and working in D.C. And a lot of those differences showed themselves last night. I don’t think I met two people with the same profession. No one worked in politics. Everyone was nice. Everyone was helpful. And most people weren’t awkward. And whether or not people wanted to talk about what they did in the city, they wanted to talk to you. Even if you couldn’t help them professionally. I met someone who works for Exxon and loves running; a comedian who is opening a comedy club in NOLA; a loan officer that works with small businesses and non-profits who made great pizza recommendations; someone who started their own e-bay business that donates profits to various good causes; and this guy.
I’m not here to dump on D.C. I love Washington. But it was rare that I left a networking event in D.C. with warm and fuzzy feelings.