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Ten years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, New Orleans has not simply rebuilt the city, but reversed decades of poverty and unemployment. Unified by a pioneering spirit and resilient innovation, small businesses and growing brands have played a major role in fueling the post-Katrina comeback.
New Orleans now boasts entrepreneurial activity 56% greater per capita above the national average. Among the more than 30 industry leaders who have expanded to New Orleans — including GE, Chiquita and Gameloft, to name a few — each has helped diversify the economy and create jobs.
However, it was small businesses that kickstarted this economic revival in the darkest days following Katrina. Today, small businesses employ 79% of New Orleans’ workforce, contributing to a total count of 14,000 jobs created over the past five years.
Among this group of small businesses is online retailer Fleur de Light Candles, which founder Sondra Berger calls a love letter to her hometown. The business was launched out of Berger’s garage in 2006, just one year after Katrina.
After witnessing the destruction and the pain of her neighbors, Berger believed a locally-made candle would bring hope and unity to the mourning community. And from the beginning of her planning, she knew the fleur de lis should be the center of her new company’s marketing.
“With so many people losing everything during the storm, people gravitated toward certain symbols that made them feel they had something to draw them together,” Berger said. “The fleur de lis flourished. It became a symbol of rebirth and unity, of our love for the city.”
Reaching the Nation with a Message
Today, Berger continues to see Fleur de Light Candles as a way to love her city and share New Orleans with a greater audience. Each candle is nostalgic of southern Louisiana’s iconic scents, reminding buyers of a slice of Mardi Gras king cake, the French Market stalls and the Garden District’s cotton blossoms. And, thanks to wide opportunities within online business, Fleur de Light has been able to supply a national market with more than just candles.
“The storm brought the city to the nation’s attention in a heartbreaking way,” Berger said. “I want to keep New Orleans in the nation’s consciousness, but in a positive way by growing the business outside of the local market in order to bring the unique traditions (and scents) of New Orleans to the rest of the country.”
For small business owners in New Orleans, this hopeful outlook is as contagious as the city’s culture. According to Berger, New Orleans is a big city with a small-town heart. So when the most devastating of disasters strike, neighborly aid is no business move — it’s instinct.
Although many big box brands and investment-backed startups have expanded into the region during the last five years, this proved too risky during the early years after the storm. Instead, the economic growth had to begin at the grassroots level. Small businesses grew out of garages to serve the surrounding community.
“Many small businesses were born in New Orleans after the storm and were somewhat responsible for the rebirth of the city,” Berger said. “It opened the door for locals to start small businesses because they saw the need in the community for products and services that had gone away, been wiped out or been destroyed during and after Katrina.”
Giving Back to Help Local Needs
As Fleur de Light Candles has journeyed through nearly a decade of online selling, it has grown alongside the restoration efforts of the city. Therefore, it was impossible for Berger to separate the evolving needs of the city from the experience of building her online business.
Fleur de Light Candles has used this unique timing as a way to give back to the city with their own sales. With their See the Light, Feed the Hungry candle collection, Fleur de Light gives a percentage of their sales to the Second Harvest local food bank. The purchase of one candle translates to three meals for the hungry — a major need considering the city’s 30% poverty rate prior to Katrina.
“I’d recommend local businesses find a cause they are passionate about and pursue a partnership or give whatever they can to support it, even if it seems like very little at first,” Berger said. “It will add up, and it can always turn into more as the business continues to grow and thrive.”
Indeed, businesses who respond to the needs of the community around them and help buyers feel good about a purchase will see that the benefits are worth the additional cost. Nearly 90% of consumers say they would switch to a charitable brand given similar price and quality.
Despite the undeniable tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, the success stories of Fleur de Light Candles and the entire New Orleans small business ecosystem serve as evidence for how entrepreneurship can multiply into a movement much larger than itself. Thanks to the early efforts of small business owners, what started as necessary reconstruction has reversed decades of economic instability and fortified the city for a better future.
“We are finally out of the panic survival mode that initially drew people together, but we still love our city and we’re going to support it,” Berger said. “We rebuilt stronger.”
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